Toyota Solara makes sport of Camry

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mid-sized coupes under 30 grand are not exactly all the rage as the 2004 model year cranks up.

There aren’t many out there, and there’s one less for the 2004 model year with the elimination of the Acura CL. But that hasn’t deterred Toyota from introducing a second-generation Camry Solara.

Its only direct competition is the Honda Accord coupe and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
First introduced in 1998, the Solara brought the near-luxury looking two-door into the price range of most people that it was directed at - the over-30 and under-55 set - including empty nesters who wanted a little sport, spark and style to park in their garage in place of ubiquitous sedan or minivan.
It was a solid entry in either a 4-cylinder or V-6 version. Perhaps a little short in the performance area and a touch bland in the inspired style department, but it provided a dose of Lexus quiet, two silky smooth engines to choose from and a well-appointed and expertly crafted interior.

For those who really wanted to walk (or ride, as the case might be) on the wild side, a spacious convertible capable of carrying four adults in comfort was also offered.

The convertible has been temporarily set-aside for 2004, but the all-new Solara introduced late this summer has improved on the original in just about every area including engine size, interior volume and luxury appointments; and without a price increase. Jump up and click your heels, Toyota fans.

In addition to improvements that can be measured in inches, feet and horsepower, the Solara has an eye-catching new aerodynamic look that can be measured only by the senses, but it’s a shape that should please most and it’s a shape that departs and nicely separates it from its rather conservative platform mate, the Camry sedan.

Solara is enough a mainstream product to keep current owners in the fold, but just quirky enough with its curvaceous wedge shape to attract people who might decide it’s time to make a statement.

The Solara look does for Toyota much like the rather daring Lexus SC430 hardtop convertible did for Lexus. Taking risks is not something the conservative Toyota is known for. But here they did, and succeeded.

We must note that the Solara caught the eye of several people during our test week. It turned more heads than anything we’ve driven in recent months. And we’ve driven some head-turning stuff.

Beyond the exterior styling, the Solara should please its buyers with an attractive interior and a dashboard layout loaded with a brushed satin aluminum look finish, the current rage in automobile design circles.

In fact, the center stack is as close to Lexus-like as Toyota will ever probably dare to go without having the Lexus logo attached. It includes up-high stereo controls featuring an old-fashioned tuning knob for the radio. Bless you, Toyota.

The climate controls aren’t quite as clear, but they are very useable. Too many look-alike buttons have to be studied until familiarity takes over.

Three eyebrow gauges on top of the center stack are the signature feature setting the dash off from other models in this segment. The gauges display time, outside temperature and gas mileage information.

The power-controlled front driver’s seat is extremely comfortable. Together with a manual tilt and telescoping steering wheel, any size driver should be able to find an acceptable position.

We evoke the Lexus name again but it’s because the Solara comes so close to the premium brand in so many areas. For instance, the interior solitude reminds us of a Lexus. And the compliant and well controlled but not-too-soft ride is also a Lexus trait.

Likewise, the new silky smooth 3.3-liter V6 is mated to a slick-shifting five-speed automatic mimics equipment found in the luxury brand. In fact, the same engine has shown up in the 2004 Lexus ES 330.

One of the 2004 Solara’s endearing traits, and one that might be overlooked is its new-found parking lot agility. Toyota has cut the turning circle from 38.1 feet to a very tidy 36.7 feet. Can you say, turn on a dime?
The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine generating 157 horsepower carries over from the previous edition. But the real news is the all-new 3.3-liter V6 replacing a 3.0-liter engine.

It develops 225 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque compared to 198 horsepower and 212 pound-feet of torque in the previous edition.

That translates into a vast performance upgrade. Toyota says the new car knocks more than a second off 0 to 60-time, at 7.1 seconds. Other independent tests have recorded 6.9 seconds.

While no muscle car, the new V6 feels energetic with power smoothly delivered through the five-speed automatic. Unfortunately, a manual transmission is not available with the V6. That’s too bad, it would add yet another dimension to the new Solara.

A five-speed manual can be mated to the four-cylinder engine.

Because of design tricks, the new Solara looks smaller than the original. But it’s an inch longer and the wheelbase has been stretched two inches. This translates into more room up front and increased legroom in the rear. That being said, it is still a bit tight in the rear. But the Solara does qualify as a true four-place coupe.

The Solara comes in three trim levels, SE, SE Sport and SLE. The Sport model features a suspension tuned for sportier driving along with 17-inch wheels and tires.

The top-of-the-line SLE, such as our test car, comes well equipped with a complete power package, automatic climate control, a premium JBL sound system with 6-disc changer, power moonroof, seat-mounted side airbags and antilock brakes.
The SLE base price is $26,535. Options such as side-curtain airbags and vehicle stability control brought the price of our test vehicle to $27,785.

If you are on a tighter budget, a well-equipped base SE with four-cylinder engine lists for $20,465. It comes with full power controls, air conditioning and good sounds from CD and cassette players.

Toyota has got another winner without making you drive a Camry sedan and you get a lot of Lexus-like stuff for 20 grand.