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2006 Pontiac Solstice vs. Mazda MX-5

Maybe We Could Have Picked A Warmer Weekend?

    The plan drawn up at AT headquarters was deceptively simply: Gather the hot new Mazda MX-5 and the sexy Pontiac Solstice, drop their respective tops, and chase the horizon for a day of fantastic fall fun. It’s the stuff dreams are made of—or at least our tire smoking, fuel-injected dreams. This plan, however, would require two things. First, that we could get our anxious little paws on the keys to the two hottest cars for 2006 during the same week. And second, that the weather in Michigan in late fall wouldn’t resemble something from The Day After Tomorrow.
      The former was difficult, but after enough late night exchanges of small unmarked bills the date was set. The latter proved less receptive to cheap bribes. Even after we sweetened the offer by including Editor Muxlow’s prized collection of John Denver records, Mother Nature looked ready to stick it to us at anytime. This proved to be an accurate observation. After a postcard sunrise, the weather deteriorated faster than a Ben Affleck movie. But we had two roadsters that we weren’t intent on wasting, so we pressed on to our secret test route in Northern Michigan. As anything involving your humble editors tends to do, the deceptively simple plan to ring out autodom’s latest and greatest roadsters turned into quite an adventure.

2006 Pontiac Solstice
     Driving at 5 a.m. makes you appreciate two things: good headlights and a strong stereo. The good headlights are useful in identifying suicidal mammals, of which Michigan has plenty, and the strong stereo is helpful in keeping lower Michigan’s comatose-inducing roads from, well, inducing a coma. Fortunately, the Solstice has both, so the pre-dawn hours passed uneventfully. Then a ways up the road Photog Mux started making stern demands over the radio for an ideal photo location for the impending sunrise. It was during this search that I got to stretch the legs of the newest Pontiac and confirm my initial impression: the Solstice is as stable at 105mph as it is at 55mph. This composure is due to the wonderful new Kappa architecture that makes this roadster feel as solid as a coupe. Hit a pothole or frost heave and there’s no unsettling sideways hop or shudder, just instant absorption of the impact energy. It takes intensely nasty roads to entice noticeable cowl shake. It’s this kind of on-road poise that makes the Solstice seem more expensive than it really is.
     The same could be said for the Solstice’s sexy shape, which is probably General Motors finest production work in, well, longer than I—or they—care to remember. This newest Pontiac wears curves that would look at home on cars costing well into six figures (The BMW Z8 comes to mind) but people are pleasantly surprised when you tell them this two seat roadster can be theirs for around $20k. After all, where else can you get an affordable, low slung, wide track roadster for twenty-something? The only direct competitor is starring in the other half of this comparo, and next to the Solstice the MX-5 looks like the shy cheerleader in high school: she’s certainly pretty, but she’s reserved—unlike the busty blonde team captain that knows she’s beautiful and loves to show it off. The Solstice is the busty blonde. It doesn’t matter if the top is up or down, from every angle the car looks superb.
     Killer looks are nice, but as we exited the Interstate and the country road started to wind up, our attention turned toward speed. It’s here among the fast, smooth, sweepers that the Solstice shines. So sure is its footing that most curves are taken at 30mph over the recommended limit, and the Solstice begs to go faster. We have no doubt it easily could. Only our realization that public roads aren’t race courses, and the fact that there’s a lot of paperwork for damaged press cars, kept us from further exploring the car’s limits. The suspension gets a lot of its impressive road holding capability from the substantial rubber at all four corners. All-season Goodyears measuring 245/45R18 are more than up to the task of holding the Solstice’s 2,860-pound curb weight to the road. Nevertheless, we wish Pontiac would offer a high-performance tire option for the Solstice, as that would surely push the already considerable road holding limits even higher. The rest of the credit goes to the engineers who tuned the independent short/long arm suspension so perfectly. Bilstein coil-over monotube shocks play their part in providing the buttoned-down ride character I’ve already mentioned and cancel out excess body roll. In fact, body roll is much more noticeable in the MX-5 than in the Solstice and we wish Mazda would tune some more of that out, as Pontiac has done.
     Just as Mazda could benefit from copying Pontiac’s marvelous suspension tuning, no one would complain if GM “borrowed” a few essential elements of the MX-5’s motor—or better yet, GM should just buy engines from Mazda. Yes, the MX-5’s silky smooth I4 is that good. I don’t mean to imply that the 2.4-liter Ecotech four-cylinder under the Solstice’s forward opening hood is John Deere grade, but drive the two cars back-to-back and the difference is night and day. The MX-5’s engine is sewing machine smooth, the Solstice’s I4 is closer to that Briggs & Stratton on your power washer. Nevertheless, it does produce 177 hp at 6,600rpm and 166 lb-ft of torque at 4,800rpm. And luckily, the Ecotech’s unwillingness to rev isn’t a huge issue since 90-percent of peak torque is available from 2,400rpm. That means the Solstice pulls well enough out of tight corners and isn’t so high strung that you feel spent after completing an hour’s worth of aggressive driving.
     Of course, strong brakes with excellent pedal feel and linear steering with sharp but natural turn-in help too. The Solstice uses an Aisin 5-speed manual as opposed to the MX-5’s 6-speed unit. Apparently, this transmission is derived from the one used in GM’s midsize trucks, but you’d never know it thanks to the short throws and nicely mechanical feel. We felt there was too big of a ratio step between 2nd and 3rd gears, and there’s the fact that the MX-5’s transmission is among the very best in the world, but overall, the Solstice’s unit is just fine. On its own, the Solstice’s powertrain might appear praiseworthy, but after two minutes at the MX-5’s helm you’ll understand that it’s clearly the less responsive and less willing of the two.
     The Solstice offers fresh design inside, and for the most part, good ergonomics. The exception is hard to reach cupholders between the seats and a pretty fragile one that pops out of the center tunnel. The materials are a step or three below the excellent MX-5 cabin, but GM was aiming for a pretty demanding bottom line and for the $20k starting price, the Solstice’s cockpit is a fine place for two. The seats in our tester were finished in a sporty fabric, were well bolstered, and offered more lumbar support than the MX-5’s flat backed leather chairs. The standard CD player stereo in our car produced clean, crisp sound and we love the easy to use operation of GM’s new stereo family.
     Our Solstice was a preproduction car so we hope that’s why our top did not seal properly around the driver’s window. We had to put up with some pretty noticeable wind noise for our 16-hour drive. Actually, the top was only up for about 15 hours because we risked personal safety and the strong possibility of severe frostbite to drive these roadsters as they were meant to be driven: top down. The top itself is no where near the simplicity of the MX-5’s but it looks better when it’s up thanks to the vertical glass window and the flying buttresses. When it’s down it eats up nearly all of the Solstice’s very limited cargo space.
     By now you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that we love the latest Pontiac. The Solstice is an amazing effort from GM and proves that truly desirable cars don’t have to be unattainable. Our Solstice would sticker around $22,700 making it a lot of car for the money and nothing in this price range turns heads like the Solstice. Hopefully, the Solstice points toward a future where the company places the same emphasis on design and performance in every new vehicle it builds. If they do GM’s headed for a comeback, if they don’t you’d better get your Solstice before it’s too late. ~ BD

2006 Mazda MX-5
     First impressions count for a lot, especially in cars where our time with each model can span from an hour to 10 days. To have an editor rant about a car after that first hour is good, it means marketing did their job. To have an editor rant about a car after a full day of pounding various grades of asphalt into one’s spine, twisting rotational forces into forward motion, and permanently imprinting one’s jean size into the fine grain leather seats means that engineering did their job. Fortunately for us, the teams of both cars featured here did their homework.
     The Mazda MX-5 begs to be driven even while sitting completely docile. But from the moment the Singer-like motor turns over, each cylinder firing in silky precision, the MX-5 whispers enticing pleas to push the handling envelope just a little farther. Matching revs to the 2.0-liter 170 hp engine is an absolute dream. The tach needle would climb and fall as if following your very thoughts. Clutch take up was light and communicative, and gearshifts were slick and smile inducing. Rowing through gears took little more than the tips of your fingers or the palm of your hand, yet the feedback was astounding. Third and fourth gears proved the most amusing during our jaunt through country 2-lane twisties. A quick downshift to third provided ample control for entering a corner, and plenty of power for zipping out again.
     From the moment we exited the interstate it was no longer mere driving, it was the automotive equivalent of the Tango, with a touch of ballet. Curves, switchbacks, sweepers, rises, hills, and hairpins swept by at a brisk tempo. Albeit, the MX-5 did not feel as firmly planted as the Solstice, it took every corner equally as fast thanks to our car’s sole option, the sport suspension package. The sport-tuned suspension, limited-slip differential, and Bilstein shocks came into play to offset the fewer pounds, narrower tires, and lighter spring rates that differed it from the Solstice. Yet, while it was this liveliness in the MX-5’s nature that demanded more attention it was the same that made it more fun to drive. The Solstice could be driven faster easier, but in the MX-5 you had to work for it and you were duly rewarded with feedback at every level. The steering wheel, pedals, and shifter become extensions of your body, blending the distinction between man and machine. Fingertip feedback through the wheel was insightful whereas the Solstice felt numb and heavy. It is these driver-perceptions that make two cars equal on spec sheets, poles apart on asphalt.
     Under the hood, of course, is the wonderful aforementioned MZR-series 2.0-liter Inline four-cylinder. For better balance and nimble handling, it is mounted in a front mid-ship fashion, with the engine’s center positioned behind the front wheels. The 170 hp churns out at 6700rpm while peak torque of 140 lb-ft arrives at 5000rpm. Three transmissions are available on the MX-5. Standard fare is a 5-speed manual transmission available only on the Club Spec, MX-5, and Touring models, while a 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters is available on Touring, Sport or Grand Touring. A 6-speed close-ratio manual is also available on Sport and Grand Touring editions, such as ours. It was this transmission that entertained us for our little excursion sending all of that sweet power to the rear axle. Rolling stock for our MX-5 was 205/45R-17 tires mounted on 17-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels.
     The biggest difference between these two cars is not in their powertrain, their handling characteristics, their interior accommodations, or even the overall content. Both cars pretty much equate to the same basic answer when it comes to these. Yet it is the equations by which they were constructed that make them different: the Solstice is ostentatious, the MX-5 gracefully reserved. The Solstice reveals its engine bay by opening a clamshell hood tipped forward Corvette like; the MX-5 features a conventional design. Wheel arches are exaggerated into the hood lines on the Solstice, while the MX-5 merely accentuates the fact that they are there. The headlights for the Pontiac are large teardrops while the Mazda features subtle, yet more powerful, projector lamps behind small ovals. Where this convention of engineering is most present is in the convertible top design, whereas the Solstice is a multi-step operation, the MX-5 is a one handed job. Simply pull the release latch, throw the top back over your shoulder, lock it into place, and tip the wind-deflector up to bask in the sunlight. The top can be completely raised or lowered from your seat without so much as undoing your seat belt. This causes quite a stir at stoplights, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, beautiful and ready to take flight. And with the top completely self-contained, there is no cargo space sacrifice due to having the top down, whereas the Solstice top eats so many cubic inches that a camera case was about all that fit.
     Inside, quibbles are few, as the Mazda team puts up another big score. The layout looks busy at first, but is quite eye catching. One easily adapts to the interior once the simplicity of the arrangement is realized. Saddle Tan leather covers the seats with this color flowing throughout the interior to the center console, instrument panel and doors. Metallic trim gives depth to the gauges and accents the steering wheel, shifter and door handles. Piano black trim lends just the right finishing touches to a very elegant interior. The seats were sculpted deep and provided plenty of lateral support, a little more lumbar wouldn’t hurt a thing, though it was noted after our 16-hour trek that our backs and bums were still in good shape. Mazda must expect some thirsty drivers because four cupholders reside where only two will sit. Save but one gripe with the switchgear everything was laid out perfectly and clever to use. That one gripe is the placement of the window switches, which have been located on the center console because there’s no good place for them on the doors. There’s not much Mazda can do here but resting my hand near the shifter resulted in my window going down sporadically.
     My vote, if not incredibly obvious by now, is for the MX-5. Simple elegance is the ticket. Don’t get me wrong, the Solstice definitely pulls at many of the right heartstrings to quicken my pulse, but true love does not rest on the surface. Where the Solstice feels numb, the MX-5 is alive and needs far less time to do her hair. ~ JM

The Verdict
    So when it comes down to a decision between these two cars what does one choose. With both cars carrying pretty even stickers: an estimated $23,000 for the Solstice and $25,495 for the Miata, it is reasonable to assume that the differences in price are negligible had both cars come with slightly more equal content (cloth seats, and lack of a rear limited-slip diff on our Solstice gave it the lower sticker). With this in mind, we decided that were it our money on the line, our check gets made out to Mazda. The General has put up one valiant effort, for this, their first venture into this class of sports roadster. And we look for good things ahead, with the Mazdaspeed and GXP editions on their way. Busty and blonde the Solstice may be, but Mama always said to watch out for the quiet ones, cause they have black belts in karate, and the MX-5 Miata has just delivered one impressive blow.

Brought to you by the editors of Automotive Trends.


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