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Two-Seat Roadsters For $20k

You don't have to spend a lot to have fun. The Pontiac Solstice vs. the Mazda Miata MX-5.

Whewwww, that is one sweet bird.”

It’s the parking attendant wowing over the new Pontiac Solstice I had just pulled into the lot. He’s right-it’s a beautiful car. And he’s not the only one whistling at it. While waiting at stoplights, driving on the open road, and in highway passing lanes, everyone is all stares and thumbs up at this hot roadster. Everybody wants to know what it is. A BMW? (An understandable guess due to its twin honeycomb front grille.) A Porsche? (Another good guess, due to its slinky, sexy curves.) Given General Motors’ track record of the past decade, it’s almost embarrassing to mumble the admission, “Believe it or not, it’s a Pontiac.”

The Solstice is part of Bob Lutz’s attempts to turn the tide at GM, and it was brought out just 27 months after debuting in 2002 as a concept car. Given its cool styling, it’s hard to believe the price, starting at $19,995. To keep the costs down, GM is borrowing most of the parts from other GM cars. The air conditioning vents, for example, come from the Hummer. It has a 2.4-liter, 4-cyl., 177-hp. engine, and a 5-speed manual is the only transmission offered so far (an automatic is planned soon). But for such a hot-looking vehicle, it feels a little bit lacking in pick-up when there are all those onlookers awaiting its rev up at stoplights. In the words of a car enthusiast friend of mine, “It’s a fantastic car. Too bad it is seriously underpowered.”

But maybe it’s just a case of high expectations caused by all that sexy styling: It does do 0 to 60 in just under eight seconds, and the handling is smooth as silk. The folks at Pontiac promise a turbocharged version with more than 200 hp. later this year, but they might have considered offering that option right away in order to increase enthusiasm for a car that’s so hot it has already popped up on prime time TV a couple of times (“The Apprentice” and “Las Vegas”) and only gets thumbs down for its lack of peppiness.

Actually, it has trouble in the storage department as well, with a tiny clamshell trunk that’s big enough to hold a couple of gym bags and not much else-especially with the top down and tucked into that space. And it’s not the greatest on fuel efficiency either: 20 miles per gallon in the city, 28 mpg on the highway.

But the top is easy enough to take down: Even a wimpy girl like me can do it with one hand. You just press a button on the key fob to unlatch the trunk, turn a crank on the interior roof, tuck her in, and off you go collecting ogles and stares.

The Mazda Miata MX-5

The Miata is a record-setting classic. It’s in the Guinness World Records for being the world’s top-selling roadster since its debut in 1989. This 2006 version, its third incarnation dubbed just “MX-5,” is redesigned to make it slightly bigger and roomier as well as more unisex-more masculinely sporty and less femininely cute. In addition to the redesign, Mazda also dropped the price to $1,600 less than last year’s model, offering a stripped-down, vinyltopped, non-air-conditioned version for $20,435.  (Higher levels of trim and comfort can raise the price to $27,000.)

While the engine is technically 2.0 liter, 4 cyl. and 170 hp. (an increase from the 1.8-liter, 142 horsies of last year’s model), the 6- speed paddle-shift transmission of the Sport version ($22,935) gives the car a feeling of power that no ordinary stick shift on a low-powered sports car can provide. It does 0 to 60 in seven seconds- not much better than the Solstice- but feels pretty speedy while doing it.

It’s fun, lively to drive, and is extremely responsive to slight movements of the steering wheel.(The MX-5 design team reportedly was following the principle of Jinba Ittai, or “rider and horse as one.”) Drivers can shift with a flick of the hand without removing it from the steering wheel. In a kind of compromise between manual and automatic that even the stick shift-averse can master, there’s no clutch, and the car downshifts by itself, making for far less work in stop-and-go city traffic. It does take a little practice to learn when to shift, however, or you risk a spinout from redlining in first gear. The car also comes in a full automatic version, which lowers horsepower to 166.

The soft top is latched front and center and requires only the flip of a single handle to release before it nicely tucks behind the seats.

Mazda also added safety features in the 2006 redesign, which is a reassurance when riding so low to the ground. They include side air bags and antilock brakes, making the classic car safer than ever without accumulating much extra weight-something Miata designers have been fanatical about in order to keep the car light and high performance. On fuel efficiency, the MX-5 gets about 25 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. All in all, the MX-5 is a real improvement on a classic.

The Comparison

POWER AND HANDLING Both cars are about equally powered- there’s only about a half-a-second difference in their 0-to-60 tests. But the MX-5 just feels zippier due to the paddle shifting. The MX-5 has a more nimble, racy responsiveness to the steering wheel, but the Solstice’s steering feels far smoother, providing more seamless handling rather than jerking between lanes. The choice depends on whether you prefer to dart or to glide.

ROOMINESS The redesigned MX-5 has a larger interior than previous Miatas, but the Solstice is still bigger. It has more headroom (by one inch) and shoulder room (three inches per person) than the MX-5. Neither car is big enough to fit golf clubs, unless the top is down and they’re in the front passenger seat, making the cars somewhat less than ideal as weekend recreation vehicles. The trunk of the Solstice is wide but shallow, and not big enough to fit a roll-aboard suitcase. With the top down, there’s almost no trunk space (1.4 cubic feet), because the soft top takes up most of the compartment. The MX-5’s trunk is deeper, allowing for an upright bag of groceries or a small suitcase-even with the top down, because it folds into itself behind the seats rather than into the trunk space.

STYLING The MX-5 looks like it’s going to growl; the Solstice looks like it might purr. The MX-5 is more unisex, with a wide grille, aggressive chrome exhaust pipes, and more classic overall look. The Solstice is cute and sexy, with a raised rear and a curvy front end. On the dashboard gauges, the MX-5’s are “racer-style” and almost aeronautically crowded; on the Solstice, they’re recessed, and sleeker, neater and more aesthetically pleasing.

FUEL EFFICIENCY The MX-5 wins, but not by much.

SAFETY The MX-5 also takes this category. Side airbags aren’t offered and antilock brakes aren’t standard on the Solstice.

COOLNESS FACTOR The Solstice wins, hands down. Hey, if you’re going to buy a hot car, why not get the head-turner?


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