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2004 Toyota Camry Solara Photo
Reviewed by John Pearley Huffman
Editor, The Car Connection
BASE INVOICE
$17,297
BASE MSRP
$19,220
Quick Take
Related Articles: Scion Reaching for 100,000 Units by Joseph Szczesny (8/4/2003)A two-year plan... Read more »
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It would be one thing if Toyota tried to hide the Solara’s Camry roots and claim amazing performance for it. But they don’t. Camry is right there in the coupe’s official name and the sporting pretensions it does carry are generally muted — nothing about the car says “boy racer” or “muscle-bound mauler.” The Solara is for people who expect refinement, demand high-quality construction, appreciate the appearance of sophistication, prefer two-door style over four-door convenience and don’t mind some designed-in eccentricity.

I can’t name that person, but suspect she’s got full tenure in the Economics Department at Bryn Mawr.

The new weirdness

The first-generation Solara was nothing if not cleanly, anonymously handsome. This new one, however, obviously takes a bunch of its styling cues from the dang bizarre Lexus SC430. That said, it’s also better looking in actual metal and plastic that it is in photographs that tend to optically foreshorten the car’s length.

2004 Toyota Camry Solara

2004 Toyota Camry Solara

Enlarge Photo
Most of the odd elements of the 2004 Solara’s styling is in the rump, where the trunk’s drastic drop-off shape doesn’t seem to emerge naturally from the car’s other lines and the chrome-looking Toyota logo mounted on it is so big we assume it’s picking up faint radio signals from Alpha Centauri. The front end is also heavily sculpted, particularly under the bumper, and looks like an exaggeration of the Camry sedan’s nose, but isn’t quite as jarring as the rear. However the car’s mid-section, the actual greenhouse, is rather conventional and not that much unlike the old Solara’s. In a fashion-conscious segment like coupes, it probably doesn’t pay to produce a vehicle that blends into the crowd. And Toyota is smart enough to know that this isn’t a car that needs to please the same broad cross-section of buyers that, say, the Camry sedan must.

Past the exterior styling, there is no weirdness at all.

More, more, more

Toyota is offering the Solara in three separate trim levels: base SE, the sporty and cleverly named SE Sport, and the loaded-like-a-Lexus SLE. All three share are available with either four- or six-cylinder engines driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual (standard with the four), four-speed automatic (optional with the four) or five-speed automatic (mandatory with the six).

For a price leader, the SE carries an impressive load of stuff. ABS brakes, side airbags, a keyless entry system, cruise control, air conditioning, power operation for the side mirrors and windows, an eight-way adjustable driver’s seat and a sound system with six speakers and a CD player all are included in the $19,120 base price. That’s $245 less than last year’s Solara.

Move on to the SE Sport and the 16-inch wheels give way to 17s, and the suspension is stiffened and gets specifically valved shocks. A different body kit and black graphite trim are also part of the package, the steering wheel is covered in dead cow, the instrumentation gets new faces, there’s graphite trim on the doors, and the pedals are trimmed in a common metallic element that has an atomic weight of 26.981539, an atomic number of 13 and was discovered by Hans Christian Oersted in 1925. Give up? Okay, they’re trimmed in aluminum. Four-cylinder SE Sport models with the five-speed manual transmission start at $20,615. Going for the V-6 humps the price up to $22,945.

2004 Toyota Camry Solara

2004 Toyota Camry Solara

Enlarge Photo
Climb the mountain atop which the SLE sits and there you’ll find automatic climate control, a power driver’s seat, a JBL audio system that produces better sound than Heifetz on a Stradivarius in Carnegie Hall (that’s John Pearley Heifetz, in case you’re wondering), a sunroof, enough phony wood interior trim to cover the sides of every surviving ’65 Country Squire, leather covering just about everything the driver touches, and a truly cool illuminated center console panel. The SLE starts at $22,995 with the four (with cloth seats and 16-inch wheels) and $25,995 with the V-6 (which also includes 17-inch wheels and leather seating). The V-6 price is up $1320 over last year and that, coincidentally, is also the number of feet in a quarter mile. Isn’t that kind of freaky?

Front and rear side curtain airbags are optional on all trim levels, any SLE can be ordered with a DVD-fueled navigation system that raises the bar for this sort of thing but is still too expensive and limited in its everyday usefulness, and the SLE V-6 is also available with electronic stability and traction control — because you may just not be man or woman enough to handle this car without them.

Best in show

The interior is simply Toyota’s best. In SLE’s phony wood is perilously plausible and the more subdued trim in the SE and SE Sport is even better. The seats are perfectly shaped, all the materials used are top notch. It’s roomy up front and surprisingly roomy in the back. Much of that additional room must be credited to a long 107.2-inch wheelbase — a full two inches longer than last year’s Solara.

Of course most of the Solara’s mechanical pieces come over from the Camry. That includes the 157-horsepower, 2.4-liter, DOHC, 16-valve VVTi-equipped four that’s been around for a while, and the new 3.3-liter, DOHC, VVTi V-6 that also powers the Sienna minivan, the revised 2004 Highlander SUV, and the Lexus RX330 and ES330 — and will be (it’s strongly rumored) also offered in the 2004 Camry sedan. The 3.3 is rated at 225 horsepower in the Solara, down five from 230 horsepower rating it carries in the Sienna.

There’s nothing trick about the Solara’s MacPherson-strut front and dual-link with strut rear suspension system. But the tuning here is, if not perfect, at least perfect-adjacent. The SE and SLE are both comfortable one-handed cruisers with well-controlled ride motions, predictable reflexes and well-weighted rack-and-pinion steering. There’s not a lot of grip available from the P215/60R-16 or P215/55R-17 all-season tires, but they transition to understeer at the limit gently and not too loudly. The SE Sport’s 17s use the same 215-millimeter cross-section width, but feature a more aggressive compound and tread that results in quicker reactions and high limits. Slam on the ABS-controlled four-wheel disc brakes and the car slows with the expected grace. Since there’s little penalty in ride quality with the SE Sport, there’s little reason not to up for it if you actually enjoy driving.

This isn’t a sports car, no matter what the trim level, and it’s not really a BMW substitute either. It’s a big comfortable car built in America (Georgetown, Ky., to be specific), for big comfortable Americans, who want the security of some ability but don’t crave nth-degree performance.

The big surprise is the eagerness of the 3.3-liter V-6. Having driven it in minivans and SUVs, I didn’t expect it to leap for its redline so quickly, and it’s perfectly matched to the automatic trans. Sure it would be even better with a good six-speed manual transmission, but it’s tough to beat an automatic in daily commuting.

Good enough?

Big, popularly priced coupes like the Solara are an endangered species. Except for the Honda Accord coupe and, this is a stretch, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, there isn’t much competition left for the Solara. Without driving them back-to-back, it’s tough to compare the Accord and Solara directly. But, if my hazy memory is working, the Accord’s engines were even more eager and the chassis a bit more sporting in character (especially with the V-6 and manual transmission). But the Solara is roomier and its interior isn’t quite as stark as the Accord’s. Like so many Honda vs. Toyota product comparisons this one will probably be a pick-’em with no clear winner.

But next year they’ll chop the roof off the new Solara to produce a convertible. And a convertible Accord isn’t coming around at all.

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE Sport
Base Price: $22,945
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 225 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 192.6 x 71.5 x 56.1 in
Wheelbase: 107.2 inches
Curb weight: 3417 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights
Major standard equipment: Tilt/telescope steering wheel, A/C, power windows, keyless entry system, outside temperature gauge, low tire pressure monitoring system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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