Panther Solo giant road test. The Solo offers an unparalleled driving experience for those prepared to look past its poor performance and awful engine.
Top Speed 144mph
For Stunning handling and grip, fine cabin, ride, design
Against Engine, performance, stowage space, brakes
There can be no more excuses. For Panther, the moment of truth has arrived. After six years of broken promises and missed deadlines, the Solo is on sale for £39,850 (UK 1990).
Panther knows there is no margin for error. It’s not just that the Kallista has been killed off so that maximum effort can be put into the Solo. Basic credibility is also in question thanks to the endless delays and teething troubles that have beset the car’s development. If, after all this, the Solo fails to hit the bullseye, no one will take it seriously. And that would be bad news indeed for Panther.
That the Solo is the only mid-engined, four-wheel-drive production car in the world is just one of its more obvious claims to fame. More impressive is the use of composite materials in the monocoque. The Solo’s construction is unique among production cars and, claims Panther, gives the car ‘the strongest, safest passenger compartment of any production car in the world’.
Designed by Ken Greenley with the help of March Engineering’s wind tunnel, the Solo is also claimed to be the first production car to achieve positive downforce, front and rear at all speeds, despite having a class-competitive Cd of 0.32.
With all this innovative effort being channel-led into the car’s construction, it is disappointing but, perhaps, understandable to see such comparatively homespun mechanicals providing the go. For availability and ease of tuning Panther had no choice but to opt for Ford Cosworth power, moreover in original 204bhp guise and thus significantly different from the latest version Ford uses. With this came the Ferguson four-wheel-drive system which uses a central viscous coupling and a rear limited-slip differential to split power in the ratio 34 per cent to the front wheels, 66 per cent to the rear.
For £40,000 on the road, the Solo has some mighty competition. Panther singles out both the £36,950 Lotus Esprit Turbo and the £52,587 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 964 as the Solo’s principal targets but it should forget neither the £33,819 Audi Quattro nor the underrated Renault GTA Turbo at £29,995. And the Lancia Delta Integrate 16v provides 200bhp and four-wheel drive for just £20,995.
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY
Panther may have its eye on the Porsche and Lotus but it will need a lot more power before it can keep up with them. Its stock twin-cam 16-valve Cosworth engine develops 204bhp at 6000rpm and 200lb ft of torque at 4500rpm. In a car that tips the scales at 2948lb this gives a power to weight ratio of 155bhp per ton, worse than all the selected rivals. Never mind the Carrera 4’s 174bhp per ton, nor the Esprit’s whopping 190bhp per ton, even the lowly Lancia manages 158bhp per ton despite having five doors and four seats.
Off the line, inevitably, this disadvantage shows. With insufficient power to spin the wheels, it manages 60mph in 6.8secs and passes the quarter-mile post in 15.3secs. The Quattro, by comparison, can sprint past 60mph in 6.3secs and on to the quarter mile in 14.5secs. The Lotus and Porsche are streets ahead, requiring respectively 5.4 and 5.2secs to reach 60mph and 13.7 and 13.9secs for the quarter mile.
Slogging it out in fourth gear shows the Solo in an even less favourable light. Off boost it takes 8secs from 30-50mph. That may be close to the Lancia’s 7.7secs, but the rest all manage.
At least the Solo’s 144mph top speed shades the Audi’s 141mph and shames the bluff-fronted Lancia’s 129mph. But the Renault, Lotus or Porsche would be long gone recording 149,150 and 156mph apiece.
So the Solo is quick, but it’s not ferocious— and far from what you’d expect of a £40,000 no-compromise two seater.
What’s more, the engine is guilty of more heinous crimes than just being comparatively underpowered. We had to send the test car back to Panther for a new engine, so coarse and lame was the original. The new unit provided improved performance but hardly appropriate manners. At high revs the Solo sounds like it’s in agony: hardly the stuff to send the driver into ecstasy. Off boost it merely feels gutless. If that wasn’t enough it suffers from tiresome turbo lag, too. Only in the narrow 3000-5000rpm bracket does the Solo give respectable performance with acceptable refinement.
Solo’s greatest strength Is superb chassis. Lacks promise at low speeds, but faster you go better it becomes. Soft sprung front and hard rear suspension offers excellent ride, as well as phenomenal grip and friendly handling. Narrow tyres hang on well.
It’s just as well the gearbox’s closely-stacked ratios usually allow you to work within those limits. Like the rest of the Solo’s controls, its action is heavy. You punch the changes through from the shoulder, even though the lever has no more than a couple of inches of travel. But with one of the closest five-speed gates we have encountered, you can slam into the next ratio as fast as your biceps will allow. The clutch, which will make your left thigh throb in a traffic jam, can be a useful ally at other times. It transmits power cleanly through the taut driveline and helps make gearchanges imperceptible.
The test car’s overall fuel consumption of 19.4mpg is a creditable result, placing it plumb in the middle of its competitors. But with only a 12-gallon tank, fuel stops are frequent. Even at the Government’s realistic touring consumption of 26.4mpg you would be rash to drive more than 300 miles between fills. The Solo will run on either four-star or 98-octane ‘super unleaded’ petrol.
HANDLING AND RIDE
The Solo’s chassis is one of motoring’s treasures which, curiously, not everyone wants to plunder. For many testers, just driving the Solo was such hard work it deterred them from even trying to come to terms with its phenomenally high limits. And it’s true, at low speeds it lacks promise. The steering is heavy and prone to deflection from any road irregularity and the car tramlines under braking and turns slothfully into sharp corners.
Despite being only mid-engined four-wheel-drive production car, Solo’s real claim to fame lies in unique composite monocoque of aluminium and epoxy resin. Revcounter dominates dash and all dials are clearly visible behind Momo wheel.
The low speed ride offers only partial consolation. With softly-sprung MacPherson struts at the front and rock-solid double wishbones astern, it feels supple enough, but badly over potholes. Even the tyres, 205/50 Goodyear Eagles at the back and 195/50s up front, would seem more appropriate on a fast hatch than an alleged supercar.
But Panther’s sums are not horribly wrong. Really drive the Solo and you realise, within the first mile, that they work to the last decimal place. Forget the narrow tyres, the Solo will outgrip any Carrera 4 or Esprit Turbo without raising a sweat. And the promise of positive downforce is kept: the faster you go, the better it grips. The steering, with an ideal 2.9 turns I across the locks, is in such telepathic communication with the road (that’s where the narrow tyres help) it could make the Porsche 911 964 engineers wonder where they went wrong. .Many would argue that the responses through the wheel are so lucid, they border on kickback and some would prefer a system that does not load up under lock. But for relaying information about the grip of the tyres, the Solo’s steering is second to none.
The Panther’s problem is perhaps that it hangs on too well. No responsible driver on public roads is ever going to approach its limits in the dry, still fewer in the wet. That’s a shame because the Solo’s sublime secret is what happens when you finally persuade the skinny tyres to relinquish their hold on the road.
Even if you could get another mid-engined car to follow the Solo through a fast corner, the last thing you would do when the nose ran wide would be to come off the power. But you can blast the Panther into a corner, feel to the inch how far and fast the nose is drifting and, when it has gone far enough, just lift off.
Instead of being thrown backwards off the road as instinct would suggest, the Solo just pivots around its axis and flows gently into oversteer. The rate at which the back moves depends on how quickly you wind off the lock and how far it goes is decided by your reapplication of the power. You can make it wriggle its hips, or you can powerslide out of right handers on full left lock and full power. The point is, it’s the driver who decides which, not the Solo. That it sets new standards for mid-engined friendliness is undoubtedly down to its four-wheel-drive hardware. Unfortunately it’s also the reason why you need a racetrack to appreciate it.
But you can appreciate the ride anytime you find an open road. Like the handling it all comes right when the Solo reaches its preferred operating speed. The jarring disappears and is replaced by unflappable chassis composure.
As you fly down the road, every crease, ridge and bump is absorbed with unshakeable confidence. Potholes you would swerve to avoid in town need not deflect you from your chosen line in the country, as they disturb neither the car nor its occupants.
Sitting forward as in a Group C racer takes getting used to, but driving position is near perfect despite limited seat travel and no wheel adjustment. Minor controls from Ford work well but look cheap for £40,000 car. Luggage space is virtually non-existent.
It’s a pity that the brakes, ventilated discs up front and solid at the back, fail to match the stratospheric standards set by the rest of the chassis. Although they bite hard and passed our fade test with little drama, no tester felt confident of their stopping ability. The problem lies with the ‘anti-lock system. Like so many other components, it comes from Ford’s parts bin and, on the test car at least, was prone to cutting in if you braked hard over a small bump. The effect of this feels like instantaneous brake fade and is most disconcerting.
PANTHER SOLO TECHNICAL FOCUS
The Solo’s technological advantage over the opposition is not just restricted to it being the only mid-engined four-wheel-drive car in production. (Lamborghini’s 4wd Diablo will be the next.) Panther claims it is the Solo’s unique use of composite materials that really distinguishes the Solo from all other rivals.
The centre section of the monocoque is made from an aluminium honeycomb sandwiched between two skins of epoxy resin. These skins are themselves reinforced with long-fibre woven glass cloth. Where the stresses are highest these fibres are unidirectional and in places which are too thin to accept the aluminium and glass sandwich, like the tops of the door frames, carbon fibre is substituted.
The most obvious result is immense chassis strength and torsional rigidity for comparatively little weight. Indeed Panther says it has ‘the strongest, safest passenger compartment of any production car in the world’. However, it also allows a very low centre of gravity, thanks to the only heavy components now being its mechanicals. As importantly though, the Solo’s construction also provides a massively stable and rigid platform for the suspension mountings, further contributing to the car’s handling prowess.
Panther has hardly stuck with convention on the Solo’s suspension design either. Anti-roll bars were discarded as unnecessary thanks to the car’s low centre of gravity and overall weight. Suspension rates also differ widely from front to back. At the front, soft springs are used to assist ride comfort while much stiffer items keep the back under control. Such a variance was possible because the driver sits so far forward. This driving position, following current sports racing car thinking, also allows an exceptionally even weight distribution: 46/54 per cent front/rear.
AT THE WHEEL
It takes a little time to become familiar with the Solo’s driving environment. You sit way forward, like in a Group C racer, and have no forward reference point beyond the leading edge of the windscreen. Lower yourself down into the driver’s seat and the instruments immediately grab your attention. Dominating the facia is a huge light-blue revcounter, dead ahead through the steering wheel. The smaller speedometer is displaced down to bottom left while the rest of the dials are spread out on the right. It looks haphazard until you realise that every one is clearly visible through the wheel. Sheltered by a black suede canopy they are also reflection free and easy to read.
Less obvious but as impressive is the near perfect driving position. Despite an un-adjustable wheel and limited seat travel, most drivers will be comfortable from the start. Those taller than six foot may find it short in the leg, but such is the cabin’s width, you can splay your knees and remain comfortable. A clutch rest is provided.
COMFORT AND SPACE
The Solo is a two seater. Don’t let the provision of extra rear seats on the options list fool you into thinking otherwise. If these are specified they take away the only luggage space in the car and are useless to all humans bar the smallest toddlers. For two though, the cabin is airy and spacious. Ventilation is easily directed but during the recent hot spell proved totally inadequate against the heat soaking through the bulkhead and we were grateful for optional air-conditioning.
Storage space on board, even by mid-engined standards, is pathetic. If you opt for the rear seats it amounts to two central cubby holes and a lockable glovebox. The front is taken up by the space saving spare tyre, the rear is full of engine. There is no boot as such.
Cruising in the Solo would be a fuss-free affair but for the harmonic vibrations that resound through the bodyshell and make driving the car above 70mph not dissimilar to travelling in a light aircraft. Every other second or so a low frequency thrum reverberates through the bodyshell and while the noise is tolerable, its novelty soon wears off. Two other Solos we have driven suffered from exactly the same problem. As with most of the Solo’s shortcomings, this heterodyning is down to the harsh engine. Otherwise, the Solo resists other potential noise intrusions from the road and wind with great success.
FINISH AND EQUIPMENT
Despite the bad impression caused by huge panel gaps, the Solo appears to be quite well built by the standards of other very low volume manufacturers. Appearances can be deceptive. During its time with us, the Solo did itself no favours at all by suffering a massive electrical failure, a soaked passenger footwell during a rainstorm, a bout of overheating and niggling faults too numerous to mention. Even so, the inside is beautifully stitched together with leather covered seats and doors, thick woollen carpets and matt black suede on the facia.
Air conditioning, rear seats and metallic paint are all extras. The list of standard goodies includes a 10-seater compact disc autochanger in the nose, electric windows and mirrors, central locking and alloy wheels. Hardly extensive considering the price, but at least all the essentials are there.
It would be a shame, perhaps a travesty, to dismiss the Solo for its many undeniable faults, even those which developed with our test car. The biggest problem is an engine which is unfit to serve in such a potentially great car. It is responsible for uninspired performance, uncouth vibrations at speed and is devoid of any merit bar reasonable mid-range urge. The only silver lining is its tuning potential. If you wrung an extra 100bhp from it at least the performance would take your mind off the noise.
And the chassis could take 300bhp with ease. That said, the way the Solo handles will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed many will resent the sheer effort required to drive the car, but find the right road and nothing will stay with you. Should you get it wrong, you can be sure the Solo will look after you way beyond reasonable expectation.
During our time with the Solo, it pained and frustrated us, but, overall, our hats are off to Panther. It must be one of the smallest manufacturers in the world, yet it has produced a car with more flair, innovation and design integrity than most massive corporations ever show. From the way it looks to the techniques with which it is built, it is unique.
Panther will make only 100 Solos, each one individually numbered, so its exclusivity is guaranteed.
Its rivals, all technically better cars, will be around long after the Solo has died. And that’s the shame because, of them all, it is the Solo that shows the way forward.
At the wheel Boot/storage Visibility Instruments Heating Ventilation Noise Finish Equipment
OUR RATING VALUE RATING
PANTHER SOLO £39,850
The Solo breaks new ground with its composite construction and handling but is let down by an engine that is coarse and gutless. As a result, performance and refinement are inadequate for a car in this class. Nevertherless its adventurous cabin and styling, combined with a 100-off production run, ensure an individuality that no rival can emulate
AUDI QUATTRO 20V
It may be old but increased power from its 20-valve engine has given it a new lease of life. Its performance is better than ever and, with Torsen differential, its grip on the road, wet or dry, is more formidable than ever. But it is very expensive, has an unpleasant digital dashboard, a rubbery and baulky gearchange and is at last beginning to show its age
LANCIA DELTA INTEGRALE 16V
Although it is not noticeably faster than the eight-valve version it supersedes, the 16-valve Integrale still goes like a rocket. A revised torque split favouring the rear wheels means that the handling is even more entertaining than before, but requires more commitment to match. Fatter tyres take their toll on the ride but at least ABS is now standard.
LOTUS ESPRIT TURBO
Although recently eclipsed by its faster, more muscular brother — the Turbo SE — Hethel’s other Esprit, is still a blisteringly quick car. The mid-engined layout permits typically agile responses and the wide Goodyear NCT rubber provides tremendous lateral grip in the dry. Unfortunately the car is marred by a distinct lack of all-round vision combined with a poor driving position.
PORSCHE CARRERA 4
Porsche’s immortal 911 gets four- wheel drive and, for the first time, impeccable manners. The Carrera 4 is an all-weather supercar which combines a superb engine with a fail-safe chassis to produce a driving machine of awesome ability. However, the all-drive hard- wear puts up the weight and takes the edge off the razor-sharp responses of the cheaper 911 Carrera 2 964.
RENAULT GTA V6 TURBO
Still unfairly ignored in the UK, the Alpine-built GTA offers slingshot acceleration, great grip and wonderful looks — and for the price of a much less able sports coupe. Unlike the Porsche 911, its rear end has not been tamed and caution is still required on wet roundabouts. Otherwise it is an endlessly satisfying and highly individual pleasure.