Convertible, styling throw Solara a curve
Toyota saved the best for last, or at least it saved it for midyear, with the arrival of the convertible companion to its redesigned Camry Solara coupe that bowed last fall.
Like the coupe, the convertible has undergone a design and engineering remake for ’04 with more of a focus on the youthful and less on their parents.
The convertible has adopted a new appearance–the same as the coupe–with a resemblance to the SC430 from Toyota’s luxury Lexus division. It has curves where the old one had straight lines.
Fans of the old look, this scribe being one of them, might feel the tail end of the new model a bit paunchy, though a spoiler has been added to make it look less bulbous. The jewel-like headlamp treatment is very fashionable, however.
The old model had a slight wedge shape with a sloping front end; the new one is round with an arc-shaped roof. While the arc-shaped roof line robs rear-seat occupants of head room in the coupe, it is less pronounced on the convertible so there’s ample room for the melon. And hip and leg room are sufficient for adults so you don’t have to reserve the back seat for kids.
For easy access to the rear seat, both front seats slide forward and the seat belts, which usually hang from the side walls as barriers to the rear seat, also slide out of the way for entry.
While the design will bring mixed reactions, there no doubt will be unanimous agreement that the new Solara performs much better.
The 3-liter, 198-horsepower V-6 that produced 212 foot-pounds of torque has been replaced by a much more lively 3.3-liter developing 225 h.p. and producing 240 foot-pounds of torque. It’s the same V-6 in the Camry sedan, which provided the platform for the Solara coupe and drop top.
Yet the convertible delivers 20 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway from the 3.3-liter teamed with a 5-speed automatic that allows manual shifting by tapping the lever.
With the 3.3-liter V-6, you enjoy quicker yet quieter movement taking off from the light, merging or passing. A little added spirit never hurts.
And the suspension has been sport tuned to control body roll and pitch. You also experience more precise response to steering input and smoother ride.
As an added benefit, the convertible comes standard with wider-profile 17-inch radial tires (optional on the coupe) designed for optimum handling.
The Solara convertible is offered in base SE and top-of-the-line SLE versions, the latter the model tested.
The standout feature of this car is that it allows open-air motoring. Being a drop top is Solara’s strength, though it also is its weakness.
The strength comes from the ability to press a button and drop the top, which takes 10 seconds once you unhook the latches above the windshield. When down in its hiding place the top robs some storage space from the t runk, but not enough to keep you from tossing in luggage.
And, as we said, this car is more youth than parent oriented than its predecessor, as evidenced by the fact the trunk has a pair of water-bottle holders built into the floor. Hmm. A slap in the face to the Dodge Magnum, which carries four milk-jug holders in back.
The beauty of this new Solara is that it was designed as a convertible whereas the old model was a coupe with the top chopped off.
“For the first time ever, the Solara convertible has a wholly dedicated convertible body styled as forethought, not an afterthought,” said Don Esmond, Toyota Division senior vice president and general manager.
The chassis has been reinforced to provide higher torsional rigidity to improve ride and handling and reduce road and wind noise.
The beefed up chassis also means you don’t experience irritating squeaks each time the body flexes.
But the weakness is that it’s a convertible a d has a soft top that wraps too far around the sides, limiting vision and making backing out of the mall parking space more than an adventure.
The convertible comes with a glass rear window with defroster, but the rear window is very small and provides limited view of what’s coming at you from behind. Compounding the problem, the rear seat has two large headrests that block out any view out the window on each side.
Great top-down motoring, but you have to be super cautious of vehicles and/or people on either side or in back when the top is up.
And, being a convertible, you can’t get side air-bag curtains that release from the roof to protect occupants. Instead you get side-impact bags that deploy from the front seats. Curtains are primarily designed for head protection, side impact for upper torso and some head protection.
Base price of the SLE convertible is $29,450. Standard equipment includes dual-stage front air bags with passenger-seat sensor so the bag doesn’t deploy if the seat is empty; four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; air conditioning; power and heated outside mirrors; power driver’s seat; power door locks; and power windows. There’s also a button in the dash that will power all the windows up or down at the same time.
Also standard are perforated leather seats; remote keyless entry; digital clock; cruise control; tilt/telescoping steering with audio controls; JBL AM/FM radio with cassette and six-disc in-dash CD changer; daytime running lamps; fog lamps; two power plugs; and cupholders built into the sidewalls to serve rear-seat occupants.
Only options added to the test car were pearl paint for $220, first-aid kit/trunk carpet/mat for $213 and vehicle stability control for $650.
Of those items, only vehicle stability control, which is available for the first time, is needed.
The system helps maintain lateral control using the ABS and/or throttle to prevent wheel slippage. And when you add stability control, Toyota throws in traction control for surefooted movement when you pull from the light.
Being a convertible, it warrants comparison with the other new drop top on the market for ’04, the Chrysler PT Cruiser (Transportation, March 21).
The slimmer, trimmer retro PT is the choice when it comes to styling, though Solara wins when it comes to rear-seat room and availability of stability control (traction control only PT).
With its 2.4-liter, 220-h.p. turbocharged 4-cylinder, the PT in high-performance GT form is an equally lively performer–while delivering 25 m.p.g. city/35 m.p.g. highway versus 20/29 for Solara.
Both tops drop in about 10 seconds, but rather than releasing two handles, PT requires turning only one latch to lower the top.
And the PT base price is lower, $27,565 versus $29,450 for Solara.
2004 Toyota Camry Solara SLE convertible
Wheelbase: 107.1 inches
Length: 192.5 inches
Engine: 3.3-liter, 24-valve, 225-h.p. V-6
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 20 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway
Base price: $29,450
Price as tested: $30,533. Includes $220 for pearl paint; $650 for vehicle stability control; and $213 for preferred accessory package with first-aid kit and cargo carpet/mat. Add $515 for freight.
Pluses: Styling remake with look similar to Lexus SC430. Drop-top motoring. Respectable price with wealth of standard equipment and stability control available. Decent rear-seat room. Very good mileage.
Minuses: With top up, visibility very poor to the side and rear thanks to wraparound drop top and rear-seat headrests.