So, among the hopefuls were the Scion xA, the Subaru WRX, the MINI Cooper S (both hardtop and convertible), and the Pontiac Solstice.
If you know me, you know I love cars. I've had nine cars in the fourteen years I've been driving, and have averaged less than 18 months of ownership on my last three vehicles. One of my favorite hobbies is advising my friends on what cars to by, and keeping up on upcoming models.
Out of the cars I investigated for my daily driver, only the Solstice and Scion xA were completely new. I'd owned a hardtop Cooper S and a WRX before, and liked them for different reasons. I traded my WRX in for my Cooper S because I was driving an absurd amount and the hard, WRC-style seats were taking a toll on my ass and circulation. I loved my Cooper S mechanically, but electrically it was a piece of shit and the dealer in the DC area was horrible. Plus I had a baby on the way -- Porter -- and there was no way Genghis was going to do proper duty as a family car. Enter the Element, which until I traded it in was a very good vehicle. Now that Monty is in the picture I could return to my favorite place in the world: Funcar Land.
So, to keep this short, I busted these vehicles off of my "buy list" for the following reasons:
- Subaru WRX:
Definitely the top performer out of the cars I was interested in, but I couldn't bring myself to spend $26,000+ on a car I'd already owned. I bought my original WRX when it was first released in the USA. I'd been following the Japanese version for a long time and had even considered getting the lesser strength version until the US WRX was announced. At the time, you had to either be a gearhead or a World Rally Championship follower to know about the car, so owning one in the US was a big deal. Until now, when they are so widespread and coveted by the 21 and under crowd it's no longer a unique vehicle.
- Cooper S:
A real fun car, especially now that I live in Richmond again, home to the best MINI dealership in the state. For a twist on the original 2004 model I owned, I test drove the convertible. As my friend Bond (also a Cooper owner) aptly put it, "it's like driving a coffin." The car has such an enormous blind spot on the right hand side I was afraid to drive it in the relatively light Richmond traffic. Despite being released in the US for 4 years, there's still a waiting list to order a car from the factory. If I wanted the Element out of my driveway right away, I couldn't wait until April for a custom-made S.
- Scion xA:
The "badboy" arm of Toyota, Scion made a name for itself for two things: 1) offering no-haggle pricing on extremely customizable cars for the young adult/tuner crowd 2) introducing the unsightly xA and xB. You'll remember the xB as the boxy, Element-esque people mover; the xA is like an escape shuttle for something off of Star Trek. Good news on the xA: configured as I wanted it, the car was only $14,000. Bad news: an extremely anemic 98 HP engine and less-than-inspiring handling, according to reviewers and current owners on the Scion forums. There's an aftermarket supercharger available that boosts the car to around 140 HP, but that's another $3000 + install and voids the warranty. Pass.
- Pontiac Solstice:
Photo courtesy of a_sleepy_panda
I've been following this car for the last two years. I tracked it on edmunds.com, the Ars Technica forum, and every car Web site I could find. The initial concept of the Solstice was this: a Pontiac exec wanted to make a roadster for around $20,000 stock. Pushing 177 HP out of a 2.4L Ecotec engine, rear-wheel drive, and a limited slip differential, the Solstice is an obvious rival to the Mazda MX (previously known as the Miata) and side-rival to the Honda S2000 and MINI Cooper Convertible. The Solstice had exactly what I was looking for: an inexpensive, fun, streetfighter of a car. And unlike my WRX, the Solstice is exclusive. There were only 20,000 made this year, and while the car had a paper launch in August of 2005, one of the Richmond-area dealers has a waiting list going as far back as this May -- if you put down a deposit last month.
On a whim, I pulled up our local Pontiac dealer's Web site and checked their inventory. After coming up with jack shit since last August, I was amazed to see not one Solstice but three on their lot. I called them up to make sure it wasn't a mistake. Similar to my Cooper S, the three models on-lot were orders gone bad. They were also almost fully loaded, which pushed the car up into the MINI S and WRX price range. However, I'd never seen the car up close, let alone driven it, so Lady Jaye and I hustled off.
The dealer had three colors: red, light silver, and dark metallic silver. Who could resist adding yet ANOTHER dark silver vehicle to our driveway? The unique thing about the Solstice (for now) is that the car's curvy shape is made by hydroformed steel. This allows the car to have its beautiful curves and still retain the rigidity of metal. The car could have been done in fiberglass at the expense of body strength, or in traditional steel/alloy, at the expense of weight. The companion "kappa" platform car, the Saturn Sky, will be of traditional metal construction. The Sky is much more angular in comparison to the Solstice.
The interior is spartan but utilitarian. Storage space is extremely minimal, it makes the Cooper look like a station wagon. Then again, the Cooper had 4 seats and a hatch. The Solstice only two seats and a tiny ass trunk, half of which is eaten when the top is down. The rear window in the convertible top is glass and has a defroster -- this is an expected feature for you hardtoppers, but it's a rare feature on convertibles less than $50,000. The Solstice has a five-speed manual transmission. The stereo is a plain-jane single disc CD player, but at least it has an auxillary jack for an iPod/whatever. Everything else on the car was a factory installed extra, from the black leather seats to the mundane power windows, locks, and air conditioning. The wheels were stock 18" rims; chrome wheels were available on the red Solstice but I didn't care for them.
With nothing but a copy of my driver's license, Lady Jaye and I were off on our test drive. I eased out of the dealership, made a right hand turn, and immediately punched it when we were out of sight. The car felt about as snappy as my old Cooper S, but definitely didn't have the visceral punch-in-the-chest as the turbocharged WRX. The Solstice was written up as having a near-perfect weight balance and as such was highly maneuverable. While not as go-kart as the MINI Cooper, the Solstice slips through corners like they were nothing and performs U-turns with ease. The MINI Cooper drives on razor blades, the Solstice drives on roller blades. The transmission is more notchy than any car I've ever driven. I guess this will change with after a break-in, but I had to blip the throttle in order to perform a hard downshift as I exited hard turns. It was in the low 40s, but Lady Jaye and I put the top down anyway. With the windows up and the heater on, we were more than comfortable. That is, except for my right hand, which was so cold I could have kept a hamburger patty in good shape for a week.
We zipped around on our test drive circuit for five miles and brought the car back. Did I like the car? Of course I did. I told the salesman Nat that I had been following the car since it was in development and all I was waiting for was a chance to drive it. The problem wasn't with the Solstice. It was with my Element. I was upside on my loan -- I could have easily covered my outstanding balance on the Element if I sold it private party, but if you've been reading Gibberish you know what a pain in the ass that's been. By the time the negative equity of my car was figured in, the Solstice was very close in price to a kitted out Cooper S convertible or the Special Edition WRX. The dealer offered to come down on the price of the car by $2000 and give me an extra $1000 on my Honda, but I was still looking at an Element-sized payment for a tiny roadster. In the back of my mind was the super cheap xA.
Fiscal responsibility or fun? Lady Jaye and I talked it over. She said something very apt: that if wasn't the Solstice, I would be spending my money on an equally expensive car at some point. The only difference was that I would buy one of the 20,000 Solstices built this year or one of the more mass-produced alternatives like the WRX or Cooper S. I turned back to Nat and smiled. We started the paperwork, and a few hours later, Lady Jaye and I drove home in my new car.
She doesn't have a name yet, but I figured that'll come when it's ready. I was all stoked to drive it up to DC tomorrow, but with the impending snowstorm I'm forced to make my "unveiling" here on Gibberish instead. I've kept my purchase under wraps from all my buddies except Alexa who was a credit reference and Lady Jaye's friend Strawberry Shortcake and her husband Hawk. We had big plans to surprise Bond with a visit Thursday but his dental surgery and my teleconference kinda got in the way.
Without further ado, my new 2006 Pontiac Solstice:
I'll do a full write-up later (with more pictures) but for now I have to hit the road -- in my Montero, thanks to this winter front >:(