As Midwinter’s Day approaches, it’s not exactly a propitious time for owners of sporty little convertibles. It is, on the other hand, an ideally objective, if also a bit cruel, season for evaluating them. Like a spouse perhaps, living with a convertible means enduring the thick and the thin, the warm and the cool, the good times and the bad ones. Will a honeymoon of balmy breezes and slanting sunshine give way to winter snugging or to biting hoarfrost? Driving a convertible in December is one way to find out—about the car, at any rate.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a convertible renaissance currently under way. Sporty pop-tops are fun; they can also be affordable to buy and to operate—as long as passenger or trunk space are not paramount considerations. Particularly exciting is the debut—during the very run-up to winter’s shortest day, mind you—of the 2006 Pontiac Solstice roadster. Earlier in the year, MINI took the wraps off of the Cooper Convertible. Both are undeniably attractive in their separate ways; and both are loads of laughs, particularly with the tops furled and tucked away. There will be, however, a distinct difference between the types and the expectations of the owners that each of these ragtops manage to seduce.
2006 Pontiac Solstice
The mere appearance of Pontiac’s Solstice roadster under General Motors’ aegis represents nothing short of a turn-around moral victory for the beleaguered Pontiac Division. To imagine that the same auto brand responsible for the Aztec sport/utility cretin is also capable of the gorgeous Solstice roadster speaks volumes about the human capacity for walking away from disaster towards salvation. Not that the limited production run of Solstice convertibles will single-handedly save Pontiac’s bacon. But if ever an auto brand needed a halo car, Pontiac certainly qualifies—and the Solstice’s halo is bright and broad.
Peripatetic car czar Bob Lutz is given the lion’s share of credit for green-lighting the Solstice project, and the acclaim seems well deserved. Solstice is a rear-drive, front-engined roadster bearing all the hallmarks of hot-rodding’s glory days: the long hood, the bobtail rear end, the aero-nacelles behind both headrests. Keep in mind that Mr. Lutz’s after-hours pastime is to go Mach-speeding behind the joysticks of his personal ex-military jet fighters. Solstice is his concession to us mere mortals of what that might feel like down here on terra firma.
There is more to this comparison than meets the eye. It’s not that Solstice is jet-fighter fast. Its 2.4-liter twin-cam four is sporty enough, thanks to 166 horsepower and a 2,860-pound curb weight. And torque is ample at 177 foot-pounds. But revs build slowly and torque-peak is high (at 6,600 rpm). The five-speed manual shifts flawlessly, but pedal placement defeats accurate heel-and-toe downshifting. Steering is quick and crisp, and the four-wheel independent suspension is equal to some very spirited cornering. So if not exactly wicked fast, Solstice is at least very naughty fun.
The car is also a bit of a war horse, insofar as it’s designed with more of an eye toward cavorting than comfort. Of creature comforts, there are few. Seating is for two alone; and since the 3.8-foot trunk is so misshapen for accepting any other packages than the folded roof itself, there’s scarcely any room for as much as a large handbag. Indeed, a child’s school backpack did not fit after multiple repositionings. Solstice, with the canvas top up, is deafeningly loud, and rear visibility is impaired by winglet extensions of the roof flanking the rear window.
As for those winglets, they must be pressed into place each time the roof is re-deployed; so that instead of a driver opening and closing the roof with one arm while sitting in the driver’s seat—à la Miata—the Solstice requires not only getting out of the car but also walking around it to hammer each winglet home over each rear fender.
Still, to say there’s a certain rawness about the Solstice is, in fact, to praise it. Seat-of-the-pants thrill-seeking behind the wheel of a competent roadster is all about stimulating visceral responses. Solstice invites a driver to joust with the elements, even as Pontiac itself is fighting for its continued corporate existence.
2005 MINI Cooper Convertible
If Solstice is Bob Lutz’s baby, the entire MINI Cooper phenomenon must be laid at the feet of Monty Python. Despite its Teutonic parentage, the born-again MINI is hilarity on wheels in the best British tradition of pantomime pratfalls and non sequitur absurdity. And so the arrival of a MINI Cooper Convertible mid-2005 has something positively foreordained about it.
In truth, I don’t think the pop-top MINI is quite as attractive as the hardtop coupe. MINI might even agree but certainly doesn’t care, since it’s not the job of a class clown to win beauty contests. A tiny little label above the windshield is sufficient to prove my point. It appears atop a little, half-inch lucite box protecting the activating switch for the power convertible top; and (if memory serves) it reads, in yellow on black, “WARNING: Are you really sure you want to raise this top?”
That’s a fair question, because breezing about in a MINI convertible makes any errand fun. So what if the 1.6-liter four makes only 115 hp? That’s plenty for hop-skip-jumping around town in a 2,700-pound four-seater; and there’s another, 168-hp Cooper S version if others don’t agree. Besides, getting 27 mpg/city, 35 mpg/highway is its own reward.
Safety and reliability are MINI’s best hidden secrets: It’s loaded with six airbags, standard; and full maintenance is free for the first three years or 36,000 miles. The MINI Cooper Convertible may not thrust and parry with the likes of Solstice, but it still knows how to defend itself with skewering wit.