Restyled coupe all show, no go
The Toyota Solara’s body is stylish. Its interior is roomy and nicely finished, but the styling there is bland.
The Toyota Camry Solara sport coupe held such promise. Sharply restyled for 2004, from its cat’s-eye headlights to its sculpted back end, the gleaming red Solara had the sleek look of a performance car as it glided up to the curb.
This was the top-drawer SE Sport version of Toyota’s family sedan turned sports coupe, equipped with a 225-horsepower V-6 and sport-tuned suspension. So the credentials were there.
But from the first turn at the wheel, the anticipation turned to disappointment. Bland performance, dull steering, a harsh and noisy ride, Solara epitomized the expression: all show, no go.
It was like being back in high school and landing a date with the most popular cheerleader, only to find that despite her desirable appearance, she was vapid and uninteresting in person. One of life’s cruel lessons, that a person or a car can be both beautiful and boring.
The new Solara looks much more interesting than the previous version and certainly more so than the mainstream Camry family car from which it was derived.
On the practical side, the coupe carries a moderate price tag and offers good interior accommodations despite its two-door configuration. About 2 inches longer than the sedan, Solara even has decent space for two in the back seat.
The Camry Solara is also a safe buy, carrying with it Toyota’s much-envied reputation for long-lived reliability and durability. For many drivers, the attractive body and Toyota quality are plenty incentive to buy.
But for those who desire a car that performs as good as it looks, Solara would be frustrating and unfulfilling, its beauty only skin deep.
What it is
An attractive sports coupe aimed at midlife drivers, Solara strives to put a sporty spin on the popular, reliable Camry sedan.
The smooth 3.3-liter V-6 provides decent pull, upgraded to 225 horsepower for 2004 from 198 for the previous 3-liter engine. The new all-aluminum engine has two cams for each cylinder head and four valves per cylinder. Actually, engine power is the highlight of Solara’s performance, adding spark that it otherwise lacks. The coupe is fairly heavy, at 3,25 pounds, so the engine works hard to get things moving from a standstill.
Once under way, the engine feels strong, accelerating smartly and cruising quietly at highway speed.
The base engine is a 157-horsepower inline four, which must feel paltry indeed. The four comes with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transaxle, while the V-6 is available only with a five-speed automatic.
The automatic shifts seamlessly, though it takes a hard shove on the throttle to get it to downshift for passing.
The front-wheel-drive Solara , like the Camry sedan, handles well enough for all practical purposes. What’s missing here is the sharp steering response, balanced cornering and powerful brakes that one might expect from a sport coupe.
The sport-tuned suspension was hardly impressive, feeling neither comfortable nor well-controlled. The ride is merely harsh, the Solara stumbling over bumps amid a racket of thumping tire bounce and road roar. On the freeway, the tire noise is annoying and intrusive, especially over concrete unadorned with rubberized asphalt. More insulation, please.
The body fit is tight, though, with essentially no wind roar around the windows or moonroof. The Camry platform feels stiff and solid, with no sensation of chassis flex in curves.
Solara is a strikingly good-looking coupe, a long, sleek form with nicely integrated curves and creases. The look tends toward the feminine and should have much appeal for style-conscious women.
Despite it scarlet hue and distinctive shape, Solara failed to attract much attention. Toyota recently introduced a convertible version of Solara.
Roomy and comfortable, the Solara’s interior is a favorable departure from most coupes. Driver and passenger space, are spacious even for the tall guys in my family.
The doors are huge for back-seat accessibility, which is a pain in tight parking spots.
The look inside is nicely finished but fairly bland, with generic-looking gauges and controls. This is a Camry, after all.
Solara starts at just $19,120 for the four-cylinder, stickshift SE model, with the top-end V-6 SE Sport tested here boasting a base price of $22,945.
That base price buys a lot of standard features, including power windows, locks and mirrors with remote locking; eight-way driver’s seat; a six-speaker audio system with CD; leather steering wheel, shift handle and parking-brake lever; side air bags; and antilock brakes.
The only options were a power moonroof, $900; a carpet and cargo-mat set, $184; and shipping, at $485.
The final price of $24,514 is something of a bargain for a full load of style and features, and somewhat offsets the lack of sterling performance.
Toyota might have produced another, more expensive model that would include the performance bits and pieces missing on the current top-level Solara. This would have provided a halo effect for the rest of the model line, given driving enthusiasts something to shoot for, and put Solara in better position to compete with today’s rich array of midpriced sports coupes and sedans that back up their styling with genuine performance.
Toyota Camry Solara SE Sport
Four-passenger, two-door coupe, front-wheel drive.
Price as tested:
3.3-liter V-6, 225 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 240 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm.
20 city, 29 highway.
Beautiful body styling.
Moderate price tag.
Harsh, noisy ride.
Generic interior styling.