For 15 years the Mazda MX-5 has reigned supreme as America’s favorite roadster. No other drop-top has been able to match the MX-5’s pure sports car bang for the buck. But for 2006 there’s a new kid on the block, the Pontiac Solstice. So let’s hit the road and the track to see if the new Solstice will complement the MX-5, or crush it.

The Mazda MX-5 has never had any real competition. But with the arrival of the new Pontiac Solstice, a head to head roadster battle is a certainty. But which one of these slick 2-seat drop-tops is the best? And more importantly, which two-seater is right for you?

As the reigning champ among affordable sports cars, the 3rd Generation MX-5 is the standard. All new for 2006, the MX-5 is longer and wider, with a wheelbase stretched 2 1/2 inches to 91.7. That overall growth means an expanded cabin, with 3.5-inches more shoulder room. But minimal increases in head and leg room mean that this is still not a space for the truly tall, at least with the top up. That’s a manual top that continues to be the lightest, easiest to use on the market. Just flip a latch and throw it back without ever leaving your seat. Putting it back up is just as easy.

Power comes from a 2.0-liter dual-overhead-cam 4-cylinder engine that jumps up 28 horsepower for a total of 170. Torque is 140 pound-feet, 15 more than before. Both 5- and 6-speed manual transmissions, and a new 6-speed automatic are available. We naturally favor the 6-speed manual for pure sports car fun.

Fun loving, too, is its tight, lively chassis which rides on a double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, and a choice of 16- or 17-inch alloy wheels. The whole package is wrapped in beefier, yet evolved styling, that is starting to look a little too familiar.

In contrast, the Pontiac Solstice is totally fresh, looking like no other car on the road. Its curved, muscular lines, straight from an auto show concept, roll out at you from every angle. It looks bigger than the MX-5, but is actually 1/10 of an inch shorter. It is 3.6-inches wider, however, and rides on a 3.4-inch longer wheelbase.
Having the wheels pushed right to the corners makes for a larger cabin, with room enough for drivers 6-foot plus, even with the top up. That’s a manual top that’s more stylish, but also one that you have to get out of the car to operate. It stows under a clam shell cover which also doubles as the trunk lid.

Raise the hood and you’ll find a 2.4-liter twin-cam 4-cylinder. Output is 177 horsepower, 7 more than the MX-5, and 166 pound-feet of torque, which beats the Mazda by a healthy 26 pound-feet.

Transmissions, both manual and automatic, boast five gears each. The chassis, GM’s rear-drive Kappa platform, rides on an independent short/long arm suspension at each end, and big 18-inch alloy wheels. Put those wheels on the track, and the 2,860 pound Solstice will hit 60 in 7.2 seconds. The 2.4 Ecotec is strong right off the line, revving nicely. But then power is added more slowly until well up in the rpms.

By contrast, the Mazda’s 2.0-liter requires more revs at launch, but then spins up quicker for a more linear and predictable power band. This allowed the less powerful, but 400 pound lighter, MX-5 to a barely slower 0 to 60 effort of 7.3 seconds.

But while the race may be a photo finish on the straights, things are less even in the curves. The MX5 is still the clear champ in turns, feeling pure sports car. Its near-neutral handling chassis, ultra-precise steering, and standard ABS disc brakes, give it an almost motorcycle agility. Ratios in the slick 6-speed manual gearbox are perfectly matched to the engine’s output, allowing the driver to accelerate early in the corners and get a strong drive onto the straights.

Contender Solstice is slower to react in corners, its heavier front end producing more understeer, while the steering delivers less but still adequate feedback. A mismatch between the engine’s power curve and gearing also left little drive down low for tight corners. But a good performance from its all-disc brakes, with optional ABS, did help keep it in track contention.

Still, it is on the street where Solstice hits its stride. The heavier Solstice soaks up rough pavement far better than the MX-5. It’s also quieter than the MX-5, top up or down. The Pontiac’s softer suspension produces less bump hop and stutter. Its smoother, cruiser-like ride being ideal for a weekend jaunt to paradise.

By comparison, on the street the MX-5 has always been a bit of a buzz bomb, and that hasn’t changed. You also feel every crack in the pavement more than once.

Still, few cars deliver more value than these two terrific roadsters. MX-5 prices start at $20,995 for the basic Club Spec model, but can climb to over $27,000 for the Limited grade. Solstice prices start a grand lower than MX-5 at $19,995, and even with options will top out at about $25,000.

So the Mazda MX-5 and Pontiac Solstice emerge as not so much direct rivals, but as contenders for two different sides to the roadster coin. The 2006 Mazda MX-5 is for those that value purist sports car performance above all else. But the 2006 Pontiac Solstice has a cool cruiser character and head-turning styling that makes it a more enjoyable car to live with day in and day out.

Now there are two knockout roadsters with more bang for your driving buck than a freeway full of firecrackers. And with either Solstice or MX-5, you’re guaranteed a top-notch, top-down drive.



  • Engine: 2.4-Liter Twin-cam 4-cyl
  • Horsepower: 177
  • Torque: 166 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 7.2 Seconds
  • Starting Price: $19,995