2004 Detroit Auto Show Coverage (1/4/2004
There was a time when a concept car like the Pontiac Solstice would have been, in the words of one top designer, little more than a “fantasy in chrome,” a sexy and exciting little roadster with one little problem: it would never be built.
That was, in fact, the predicament faced by General Motors’ new “car czar” when the Solstice debuted at the Detroit auto show in January 2002. The low-slung two-seater was the star of the show, and a favorite of GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the man hired to turn around the automaker’s long-struggling North American automotive operations.
Lutz made a top priority out of finding a way to rush the Solstice into the GM lineup. But with his reputation riding on the results, he also insisted on a credible sports car sticking tight to the concept’s proposed $20,000 price tag.
Defying the odds, and moving at speeds unheard of in Detroit, a truly buildable version of the little roadster has the green light for production. The Solstice will hit the streets in 2005 as a 2006 model. It also could spawn a series of small car spin-offs for other GM divisions, as several sporty variants will demonstrate during this year’s Detroit show.
Setting a new trend at GM
The 2002 Solstice show car was low, sleek and sexy, aimed at signaling GM is rebuilding its once-trendsetting design operations. The problem was, the show car was just a little too low and sleek to squeeze in all the mechanic bits and pieces you’d need to make a good sports car. And the Solstice had to be nothing less than the GM equivalent of the Mazda Miata, with solid handling, yet reasonably priced.
It also maintains the original mandate that basic is better. “It is meant to appear simple, but exciting, inviting the driver to just get in and go,” says design manager Franz Von Holzhausen.
The key to bringing the Solstice to production proved to be the development of an all-new, rear-drive platform. The Kappa “architecture” features full-length hydroformed frame rails and a stamped steel structural tunnel, adding up to a tight ride and taut suspension.
The show car borrowed critical components from GM’s Asian alliance partners, including Subaru’s low-profile boxer engine. In production, the Solstice adopts a 2.4 liter Ecotec DOHC four-cylinder engine producing 170 horsepower and mated to a close-ratio, short-throw Aisin five-speed manual transmission. An automatic transmission follows. To further the sporty feel, the Solstice will come with 18-inch wheels and standard four-wheel disc brakes. Like the Miata, it features a simple, manually-operated ragtop, here folding into a clamshell trunk opening.
Parts bin done right
While the Subaru boxer engine was dropped, GM is still dipping into the parts bin. The 2005 Solstice will borrow its taillamps from the GMC Envoy, while door handles, fog lamps, seats, as well as transmission and engine are all shared with other GM vehicles.
Such steps are critical in keeping costs down. Lutz made it absolutely clear the project would be killed if the price tag crept up, says Mark Hogan, a senior product development executive. Sharing components that matter little to consumers helped keep the Solstice team in Lutz’s good graces.
Consumers, meanwhile, will find an unusually detailed passenger compartment, notably upscale from other entry-priced GM products, and a signal from the automaker that it is serious about upgrading its interiors.
Anyone who follows the auto industry these days knows manufacturers like GM look for ways to eliminate, rather than add, new platforms. (GM’s flexible “architecture” strategy makes it easier to stretch — or shrink — a chassis to cover a wide range of product offerings.) So the decision to approve Kappa didn’t come easily.
“To make a new architecture, it is very important to use if for a larger range of vehicles,” explains Anne Asensio, executive director of Advanced Vehicles.
Two examples of what might come will appear in Detroit: the Saturn Curve and the Chevrolet Nomad.
The latter concept captures what designers would call the “DNA” of the original Nomad show car, which debuted exactly a half-century ago. There are chrome strips accenting the tailgate, and styling ribs on the roof, reminiscent of the ’54.
As with the original, it’s impossible to easily categorize the new design, which is part wagon, part sports car. “It’s a personal vehicle that carries the expressions and emotions of the driver,” is how designer Simon Cox explains it. Asensio puts it more simply, suggesting it “has attitude.”
There are clear, “heritage” touches everywhere, such as the Chevy bowties etched into the interior aluminum. But this is more than a retro-mobile. The new Nomad concept features cutting-edge LED headlamps and taillamps, for example. In a nod to golden age Chevy design, the instrument cluster is fan-shaped, but anodized blue aluminum gauges with blue neon lights create what might be called an “urban” atmosphere. The effect of the lighting is carried over to the Ice Blue Metallic exterior paint.
The Kappa platform has been stretched two inches, giving it a 107-inch wheelbase, enough for a reasonably usable 2+2 configuration. It’s also been tweaked to make room for truly massive, 24-inch wheels.
The tailgate folds down to reveal a pull-out cargo bed. The rear roof panel can be manually removed, meanwhile, to create a sort of convertible effect.
Under the fiberglass skin, Nomad features a turbocharged Ecotec 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual. It can be shifted by a wheel-mounted tap shifter. Such features as variable valve timing, valve lift and duration help improve both mileage and performance, the engine turning out 210 horsepower.
Think of this as a vehicle for the hip-hop generation, a theme carried over in the high-performance sound system. There are speakers everywhere, including a huge subwoofer in the trunk. You’re meant to feel motion, even when the Nomad is parked.
Saturn throws a Curve
GM’s Saturn division definitely could use a little momentum. While it’s scored a modest success with the new VUE crossover, the once-hip Saturn has had serious problems lately. Lackluster design clearly hasn’t helped. But that’s definitely not an adjective one would apply to Curve.
“We wanted to do something for Saturn that’s both expressive and attractive,” Asensio suggests. “It’s the first signal we’re getting serious about Saturn.”
The division’s new concept is clearly a coupe, but it’s got a hot rod’s chopped roofline, so low it’s difficult for some adults to actually slip inside the four-seater.
While Saturn’s traditional design theme has been bland and understated, the Curve is bold, with a healthy dose of machismo. There are muscular, flaring front fenders wrapped around huge tires. “We wanted the wheels to almost overwhelm the car,” says Asensio.
The roof makes extensive use of glass to create an impression of almost floating atop the car’s body.
Classic-car aficionados will spend lots of time debating the design influences: a bit of the Porsche 928 in its rear, GM EV1 in the roofline, maybe some Mako Shark and even a classic '30s Talbot Lago in its curvaceous fenders.
Like Nomad, the Saturn 2+2 uses lighting both functionally and to create a mood. Hidden lamps glow red to provide a warning when the doors are open, then turn yellow when they close.
The interior consists of sweeping shapes that flow together, with massive elements of maple wood and leather. Inside and out, Saturn designers have integrated contrasting bright chrome and subtle satin metal accents.
Like the Nomad, the Curve features a 2.2-liter Ecotec engine under its reverse-opening clamshell hood. In this case, the powertrain is surpercharged, making 200 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. The transmission is a five-speed manual from Getrag. The combination is similar to the one in use in the new Saturn ION Red Line.
Ask Asensio about plans to build either of the two new show cars and she says “we have no commitment for production.” Clearly, there’d be a number of basic design changes needed to make the Curve feasible, and some of the fancy tech on the Nomad would be dropped for cost reasons, but Chevy’s crossover seems to have real potential, according to company insiders. Asensio believes its size, styling and functionality would have particular appeal abroad. “Put this in Europe,” she says, “and it works.”
As with the Solstice concept, GM will be listening closely to see if either of the new prototypes generates the strong buzz that suggests they should be built.