Test Drives: 2007 Pontiac Solstice, 2015 Mazda Miata
The longest I’ve held on to a car is five years, my much-adored 1991 Saab 900 turbo convertible which now rests in the hands of a collector/restorer/friend. Otherwise, I tend to swap rides every 6-18 months.
The same goes for my 1993 Miata, a car I’ve thoroughly enjoyed on every single day of my commute, rain or shine, snow or sleet. Even on basic all-season tires with several inches of snow on the ground, I’ve dug my way through city streets and highways, using gravity, opposite lock, my eyes, my ears, and a whole lot of momentum to my advantage.
The time has come, however, for me to upgrade. Some would argue, rightfully so, that there is no such thing as upgrading over a first-generation Miata, that the original, with its classic curves, light weight, and pop-up headlights, was the pinnacle of the British-inspired roadster format.
That may be true, but time marches on and banks tend to offer lower interest rates on newer cars, plus I could use the cash from the sale of the Miata for other purposes.
That brings us to four cars available for 8 to 20 grand with under 75,000 miles:
-Used 2006+ Mazda Miata
-Used 2006+ Pontiac Solstice
-Used 2007+ Saturn Sky
-New Mazda Miata
-2006+ Cadillac DTS — a wildcard in case a well-optioned, sparkling clean example appears in front of me. If you read this blog regularly, you know my affection for Cadillacs.
First, I took a look at a Solstice GXP, the high-output version of GM’s Miata challenger with 260hp, powered by a turbocharged version of the ubiquitous Ecotec 2.4. In “don’t stare at the sun” yellow with black stripes and chrome wheels it came across as an adult-sized Hot Wheels.
We drove around to the back of the lot where recent trades and acquisitions are parked and came across a filthy but in tact trade-in with a well-kept leather interior, a decent fabric top, and clear headlights.
I wasn’t keen on the stripes though the salesman said he’d have them removed. Additionally, the left front tire needed to be inflated. It wasn’t ready for the road but it piqued my interest enough to look for another copy.
I woke up early that morning arrogantly thinking I’d pull up Autotrader, spend an hour narrowing down my favorites, and sample a dozen local cars with competitive pricing.
I could not be more wrong. Maybe that’s how it works when you buy a Cobalt or a Camry, as ubuquitous as 2% milk.
This was one of the first genuinely beautiful days in St Louis and when the snow melts, finding a local deal on a convertible is like buying bread and milk when the weather calls for a blizzard.
What you’re left with are weird colors, weird options, or high miles.
Half the ads for cars that seemed favorably priced with low mileage turned out to have automatic transmissions. It’s like convincing a beautiful woman to sleep with you but finding out she had her wet parts replaced by a clock radio. What’s the point?
I meandered over to Weiss Toyota after seeing a black Solstice listed for sale. Compared to the NC Miata, the Solstice felt firmly planted to the road, like it was slithering over the pavement rather than being jostled around. A firmer structure is credited to its hydroformed frame and body panels, resulting in greater stiffness.
Here’s a crude demonstration of hydroforming:
Fast Tube by Casper
Inside, there was the impression of a much larger and more substantial car, confirmed by its 200lb+ weight disadvantage — that’s a lot of sacks of potatoes. As a baby Corvette, the Solstice excels. As a light and frisky roadster, the Miata has an advantage.
And although steering was pleasingly weighted and nicely responsive, it lacked the detailed communication of the Miata.
Additionally, the clutch in the base Solstice had an unusually high grab point which seemed more truck-like than roadster-like, a problem caused by its Chevy Colorado-derived transmission.
Thankfully, smooth and reassuring shifts with reasonably short throws enhanced the sensation of performance… until you got to fourth gear. There’s a disconcerting gap between fourth and fifth where acceleration feels lifeless and the Ecotec I-4 goes limp.
A lot of early reviews pissed and moaned about the top mechanism, sacrificing simplicity for the look of flying buttresses in the back. I figured it out in less than a minute.
Top open the top you unlatch the “wings,” open the trunk lid from the front, and slip the top inside.
To close it, you unlatch the trunk, pull out the top, latch it to the header panel, and snap down the wings.
That’s it. Yes, in a sudden downpour it is far less convenient than the Miata’s, but the Z-shaped fold of the NC Miata means you have to slide down in your seat, undo the release latch with your right hand over your head, and grab the left edge of the top at the same time with your left hand.
It was far simpler in the NB Miata (1999-2005) which folded open in one move like a traditional carriage.
The real disadvantage to the Solstice’s stylish top, unfortunately, is the complete lack of storage with the top open. If you want to take a trip with a passenger and two suitcases, you can’t unless you close the top and shove a couple of loosely packed gym bags in the gap between the gas tank (that’s the large hump pictured below) and the rear bumper.
Granted, most of these cars are used as single-occupant commuter vehicles where top-down storage is less of a concern but for road trippers like myself, it’s a big problem.
Fast Tube by Casper
It’s also a consequence of the Pontiac’s hasty development cycle, an impressive but imperfect feat influenced by Bob Lutz’s experience with the Dodge Viper. Unfortunately, while the Viper was a weekend toy for rich guys who didn’t mind the lack of a roof, storage, or AC, entry-level roadsters are often used as primary transportation.
Someone who needs one car to serve all purposes, the type of person who normally spends under $30,000 for daily transportation, requires every ounce of utility available, of which the Solstice has none.
Complaints aside, the Solstice drives like a more substantial and expensive car (how often do you say THAT about a Pontiac) despite its crummy interior plastics and lack of overall polish. [Spoiler Alert!] If the black one I saw for sale was equipped with power windows, I’d likely own one today.
Unable to find any reasonably priced 2006+ NC Miatas for sale locally, I headed to Bommarito Mazda to look at brand new examples. I grabbed the keys to a 2015 Sport with an automatic, not a natural choice for sampling a roadster but I was curious about the power retracting hardtop.
Steering and handling were crisp like bacon, enhanced by a solid structure that made my ’93 Miata feel like a soggy pancake. Unlike the Solstice’s firm and planted feeling, however, the Miata felt like a toy car jumping around on top of the road surface with a ride that was somewhat brittle. But no worries — no one buys a topless two-seater for total refinement.
With the Miata’s unattractively tall, sedan-like ride height, you’d think it would offer a wonderfully compliant ride compared to the low-slung Solstice, but that isn’t the case. All you get is a heck of a lot of body roll without the cushiness to go with it.
Strangely enough, noise levels with the hard top were only slightly improved. The major advantage to the PRHT (power retractable hard top) is added security, a huge bonus for today’s urban-centric millenials, and enhanced style from the raised rear deck and painted roof. Trunk space is unchanged.
Fast Tube by Casper
Surprisingly, the 6-speed automatic churned through its cogs briskly and efficiently, making zero compromises in acceleration while paddle controls allowed gears to be held through corners. I have no intention of paying hard-earned money for an automatic roadster, especially one with a clutch and shifter as light and crisp as the Miata’s, but anyone with bad knees or a missing left foot could finally have his cake and eat most of it too.
Inside, the cabin wasn’t quite as wide as the Pontiac’s but managed to feel just as spacious thanks to lower bodysides and significantly better sightlines all around. In the Pontiac, you feel like you’re sitting in a bathtub with your head sticking out over the water. With the Miata, you’re looking out at the world around you, fully exposed to the world around.
Though plastics and controls feel more substantial than those in the Solstice, the NC Miata’s lack of design flair makes for a spartan looking operating environment that looks cheaper even though it feels more expensive. That said, compared to my 1993 Miata with its nicely padded doors, dashboard, and thicker upholstery, the 2015 Miata and the Pontiac feel slightly disposable.
After more than a month of hard searching through Autotrader, Craigslist, and Cars.com, I did end up buying a 2006 Miata, traveling all the way to Nashville to bring it home.
More on that disaster later…