EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Sunny side up
Toyota’s sun-drenched Solara provides plenty of refined, plein-air fun.

I am a white man. Ethnically Caucasian, yes, but the term hardly does justice to my tragic lack of melanin. In God’s Sherwin-Williams paint-chip display, I am in the upper left-hand corner, between Easter Lily and Eyeless Abysmal Sea Creature.

I’m Powder.

At 44, I am also a member of the last generation to have sunbathed without a full appreciation of the possible consequences, which include premature aging and premature death, which is worse. Today’s sun worshippers head to the beach or pool well equipped with sunblock, hats and moisturizers. When I was in college the only thing we took was a Quaalude.

And so, the clock is ticking. When will I start to sprout festive bits of runaway tissue on my lip or ear or schnozzle? Or worse. I did a lot of skinny dipping back when I was a lad. Wouldn’t that be a priceless bit of poetic justice?

Because of the physics of glass and skin-damaging ultraviolet light, automobile windshields and windows screen out a lot of UV light, but not all. Most high-end car manufacturers now offer some kind of UV and infrared-blocking glass coating as either standard or optional equipment.

All of which adds up to exactly squat if you drop the top on a convertible.

This week I received a press release from Mazda titled — and I am not making this up — “Top Down + Lubed Up = Driving Summer Fun.” Mazda is distributing window stickers to its dealers reminding owners of convertibles and sunroof-equipped cars to apply sunscreen before opening up the cockpit, i.e., “lube up.” This effort is part of a public awareness campaign with the Skin Cancer Foundation, which is celebrating its 25th year of lubricity.

Mazda’s admonition, though peculiarly phrased, is sound and more relevant than ever. Despite the well-known hazards of sun exposure, convertible sales shot through the canvas roof in the 1990s, peaking at more than 310,000 in 2001 before declining slightly. With alfresco versions of the popular Mini and PT Cruiser reaching the market this year, convertible sales seem poised to set another record.

The top-selling convertible in the U.S. last year was the Chrysler Sebring (42,476, according to R.L. Polk & Co.), a pleasant little ragtop and a favorite of rental fleets. Our test car this week is an eye-to-eye competitor with the Sebring: a 2004 Toyota Camry Solara SLE convertible. It even sounds sunny.

Trend bulletin: There are more four-seat convertibles on the market now than at any time in recent memory, including: Mitsubishi Spyder, Audi A4, BMW 3- and 6-series, Mercedes-Benz CLK, Volvo C70, Saab 9-3 and Volkswagen Beetle. As a type, the convertible seems to have progressed, from exotic photon collector that’s fit only for weekend follies to daily driver — a versatile, comfortable, no-sacrifice passenger car.

The Camry Sola ra SLE convertible (a name silly enough for the AKC Registry, like, say, Barksdale Chinstrap’s Dingleberry Surprise) is built in the same Georgetown, Ky., plant as the U.S. market Camry and Solara coupe, and shares those cars’ immanent quality.

The SLE is the top-of-the-line model, equipped with a turbine-smooth 3.3-liter, 24-valve V6; a five-speed automatic transmission; and more features than the seven faces of Dr. Lao. Among them: 17-inch alloy wheels; side air bags; ABS with electronic brake assist; leather and heated front seats; heated outside mirrors; six-disc in-dash changer with JBL stereo; and a full tank of gas, which these days is a considerable spiff.

For all that, the retail price of the newly revised SLE convertible has actually dropped 3% ($1,075) from last year, down to $29,450. That’s $1,395 cheaper than the Sebring, which offers neither the equipment nor refinement of the Toyota.

My only kibitzing regards the fact that traction and stab lity control is a $650 option on the Solara convertible. And where, I might ask, is the complimentary sunscreen? People are going to want that.

The convertible’s styling closely follows that of the coupe, the same water-dowsing-stick hood lines coming together at the bowl-profile grille, the same wind-tunnel smoke contours streaming along the flanks. The rear end of the car is bobbed conspicuously like the Lexus SC430 barchetta, and a thin spoiler traverses the trunk lid. It’s not an unhandsome design but fairly conservative: The rear wheel wells seem smallish and not quite a match for the front.

The convertible top has much the same profile as the coupe’s hardtop and doesn’t intrude on rear cargo space (13.8 cubic feet) when retracted. This space efficiency comes with a price, however. The top has no mechanized tonneau cover to hide under. Owners must wrestle with the semi-rigid, clip-on tonneau kept in the trunk if they want that finished look to the car (though I never bother).

You could hardly ask for a better interior design. Intuitive and fuss free, the cockpit has a rhythmic quality about it: three dials under the binnacle; three small LCD information screens under their own, smaller binnacles, with approximately the same degree of arch as the central console; three rotary dials for the climate controls, spaced evenly. All this as compared to the riddling control panels of, say, the Mazda RX8, where you can never be sure if you are tuning the radio, cranking the A/C or winding your watch.

The test car had a navigation system — Toyota’s interface is one of the best in the business — that comes bundled with an eight-speaker array ($1,350). The Solara’s five-speed auto shifter is gated in a panel of what looks like frosted glass, a nice grace note to complement the SLE’s faux wood trim, satin metal surfaces and general sturdy sophistication.

The SLE is not much of an enthusiast’s machine. The engine’s 225 horsepower, sluiced through the five-speed auto shifter, propels the 3,500-pound car to 60 mph in just over 7 seconds, about as fast as the Mitsubishi Spyder GTS and quite quick in practical terms, but nothing to praise Ra about.

The front-drive Solara’s handling is solid but limited. If you begin to tax those limits, the car tends to wash out in graceless front-end slides and pendulous weight shifts. If you want to add adrenalin to your melanin, I’d recommend the Saab 9-3 cabrio.

Surprisingly, the Toyota reverberates when jostled hard on road imperfections. Plainly, the chassis stiffness isn’t what it ought to be. This is a common enough complaint in four-seat convertibles based on coupe designs (the loss of a top reduces structural strength). The Sebring, for instance, bends like a hospital straw. But it’s not what I expect from Toyota. Oh well. I suppose even Milton Friedman bounces a check now and then.

No sports car, the Solara convertible is exactly what it looks like: a stylish, image-enhancing sun worshipper offering excellent gas mileage, plenty of lux for the bucks and, for a few fair-haired boys and girls, alas, squamous cell carcinoma.

I try to think of risk in epidemiological terms. Cars can be dangerous, and open-top cars, obviously, have their own set of liabilities, particularly if you go upside down in them. The fact is I’m far more likely to die in a car crash than I am from car-related sun exposure. So if I drive to the beach once in a while without basting Butterball-style in sunscreen, I’m not going to panic.

Yet my consciousness has been raised. If only for vanity’s sake, I’m going to make a habit of taking sunscreen with me when I drive convertibles.

Praise the lube and pass the ammunition.

2004 Camry Solara SLE Convertible

Wheelbase: 107.1 inches

Length: 192.5 inches

Curb weight: 3,549 pounds

Powertrain: 3.3-liter, dual-overhead cam, 24-val e V6 with variable valve timing and lift, five-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 225 hp at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 240 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 7.04 seconds

EPA rating: 20 miles per gallon city/29 mpg highway

Price, base: $29,450

Price, as tested: $32,149 (including $515 destination)

Final thoughts: Burning desire

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