Nostradamus must have been reincarnated to covertly infiltrate GM's ailing marketing department. How else--in a drought of creativity that's produced vapid vehicles like Vue, Ion, and Lucerne--could the company come up with something as brilliant and portentous as Solstice? In astronomical terms, daylight hours progressively decrease after the Summer Solstice, and increase after the Winter Solstice. The true genius here, whether intentional or not, is failing to specify which particular Solstice the car itself represents. Its reception by the public may just answer the question: Are there darker or brighter days ahead for GM in the midst of its current pandemonium?
Granted, a low-volume, two-seat roadster can't realistically put an appreciable dent in a multi-billion-dollar corporation's profits, but its very existence reveals vestiges of hope for a company hopelessly infatuated with peddling trucks and SUVs. Thanks to volatile gasoline prices, that party's about to end. Fortunately, the Pontiac Solstice and its fraternal twin, the Saturn Sky, shows that the General can still build cars that whet the appetites of enthusiasts at a price most working stiffs can afford. In short, GM is in dire need of diversifying its portfolio for both shareholders and consumers, and the Solstice is a critical step in successfully achieving a change of image.
Although cutesy sports cars like the Solstice naturally elude the tastes of musclecar aficionados, it is a dandy little package in its own right. The Kappa platform on which it's based features robust hydroformed steel rails that anchor twin A-arms into place at each corner. Its balanced chassis delivers .90g of grip on the skidpad, and its 11.7-inch front discs briskly halt it down from 60 mph in 113 feet (Thanks to our friends at Motor Trend for the test data). All this goodness can be had for under $20,000, and Stainless Steel Brakes Corporation owner Michael Jonas liked enough of what he saw during the car's development stages to put one on order. "After having built coupes for so many years, I got the urge to build a roadster," he says. When one of his friends chuckled, pointing out the car's testosterone deficiency, Michael took it as a challenge. "I told him, 'It's not a girly car. It just has to be built right.'" Aside from styling that disturbs those insecure in their manhood, the biggest knock against the Solstice is its underwhelming Ecotec four-banger. While it works just fine for its intended purpose--where overwhelming the chassis corrupts the very essence of a proper sports car--its 177 horsepower just isn't up to snuff for the traditionalists among us. "When I found out it was only going to be offered with a four-cylinder, I started getting disappointed," Michael admits. Worse yet, no speed parts were only available for the 2.4L, an enlarged version of the 2.2L Ecotec. To top it all off, despite the Soltice's tidy proportions, it weighs in at a surprisingly hefty 2,900 pounds, a good 400 ticks heavier than the Mazda MX-5 (the car formerly known as Miata). Something drastic was in order, and that something was a 400hp LS2 V-8 from GM Performance Parts. Late-model tuner Chuck Mallett had just started offering V-8 conversions for the Solstice, and after hearing that news from one of his employees, Michael gave him a call. "As it turned out, Chuck was looking for a brake program for his Solstice package, and I needed an engine program for my Solstice, so we struck up a deal."
The swap itself is surprisingly straightforward, with the LS2 dropping right in without any physical alterations necessary to the engine bay. Mallett fabs up custom motor mounts, and a custom bellhousing adapts the engine to the stock five-speed transmission. Since the Aisin gearbox is shared with the Chevy Colorado pickup, it's plenty strong enough to cope with the extra power. The same goes for the stock rear differential, which if out of a Cadillac CTS. To ensure 50-state smog legal status, the Mallett conversion retains the stock C6 Corvette exhaust manifolds and cats. A custom two-core radiator and a LUK Pro Gold clutch handles the added clamping and cooling demands of the larger motor. Mallett worked overtime to get the LS2's computer to play nice in the Solstice, which required making a custom wiring harness. "The way Mallett did the swap, it looks like the car came with a V-8 from the factory," comments Michael. If you like what you see, the same conversion can be yours for $19,995. The LS2 can also be had with a blower, and for the truly deranged, Mallett can drop in a 402-cid stroker, or even an LS7.
As expected, the LS2 adds roughly 200 pounds of mass to the Solstice. Fortunately, the all-aluminum mill doesn't alter weight distribution much at all, marginally increasing forward weight bias from 53 to 54 percent. Compensating for that extra mass is a set of Penske coilovers with adjustable nitrogen-filled shocks, and a polyurethane differential mount bushing to better cope with the increased driveline loads. To keep his end of the bargain, Michael fitted the Solstice with 14-inch rotors all around, squeezed by his company's three-piston, Tri-Power calipers. Grip comes courtesy of 245/35 Bridgestone Potenza tires wrapping custom 20x8.5-inch Budnik wheels.
So you want some numbers? Although we weren't able to strap on our test equipment, Mallett claims 0-60 times of 4.4 seconds, and quarter-mile ETs of 12.80 at 113 mph. That's right on par with a C6 convertible, and a full three seconds quicker through the quarter than a stock Solstice. When we spotted the Solstice at Road Atlanta, Michael was busy pounding on it for 30 laps. Considering that his daily driver is a C5 Corvette, it's safe to say he's a qualified judge of the car's cornering ability. "Out of box, the suspension is excellent, and its handling is equivalent to that of a base Corvette," Michael reports. "It's a real handful to drive with all this power on such a short wheelbase. This car definitely isn't for the faint of heart."
Once Michael's Solstice became a bona fide performer, the last step in proving his friends wrong was toughening up the car's aesthetics. Inspired by the color scheme of his buddy's '69 Trans Am, Michael laid blue stripes down the center of the car. The most noticeable visual tweaks are the custom hoodscoops and the rear wing. Aero Collision (Lancaster, N.Y.) took the scoops off of an RK Sport hood for a GTO, and grafted them onto the stock piece. Likewise, a Razzi rear spoiler for a Dodge Intrepid was shortened to fit. More subtle touches include front and rear bumpers that were tweaked to remove the enormous factory fog lights and reverse lights. They're replaced with a set of PIAA beams up front, and the car's posterior now houses stylish center-outlet Corsa exhaust tips. Inside, Katzkin suede tan and blue hides cover the seats and doors.
Ultimately, the finished product we have before us is one hell of an accomplishment for all parties involved. GM has seemingly taken medication for its tunnel vision, Chuck Mallett has pulled a modern-day Carroll Shelby, and Michael Jonas has rounded the girly edges off of the Solstice. Most importantly, the Solstice is flat-out mean. "This thing has no mufflers, just cats and resonators, so when you get on it, the sound is reminiscent of a '60s musclecar," says Michael. "It gets out of its own way with the stock motor, but it's just a blast to drive with the LS2. It lights the tires up at will, and gets sideways on the 2-3 shift." Too bad Mallett's only building 100 of them.