Four years. That’s how long Chrysler’s Sebring Convertible has ruled the roost in the sub-$30k, four-seat ragtop market.
What’s remarkable, in these days of the never-ending quest to fill every automotive niche possible, is that for all this time, the Sebring has gone largely unchallenged.
That all changes this month with the arrival of Toyota’s Solara Convertible, a car that largely clones the Chrysler’s attributes.
Even though the folks at DaimlerChrysler are putting-up a serious fight with a heavily-facelifted Sebring Convertible — unveiled at the New York Auto Show this week — the Solara will prove a formidable adversary.
Why? One word: Camry. While the Solara Coupe provides the basic body styling for the convertible, the car is essentially Camry-based. Similar platform, similar suspension, similar engines. And, for hundreds of thousands of buyers, that means two things; top-notch quality, and bullet-proof dependability.
Like the Solara Coupe, the new ragtop was styled at Toyota’s Calty Design Center in sunny California, and is being built at the carmaker’s Cambridge assembly plant in Ontario, Canada.
If there’s a prize for the most convoluted assembly process, then the new convertible would surely win it, hands down. Because ASC – that’s the American Sunroof Company – is responsible for fitting the new top, Solara Coupe bodyshells are taken off the Cambridge assembly line and shipped to ASC’s new factory close by.
Here, the coupe’s roof is sliced off and extra reinforcement added to beef up the body. Then it’s back on the truck to Cambridge, where the bodies are painted and the powertrain and interior added. Then, it’s off again to the ASC factory to have the power top and retractable rear-quarter windows fitted, along with the remainder of the trim. It’s a wonder the car doesn’t get dizzy.
2000 Toyota Camry Solara
2000 Toyota Solara 2
But the schlepping around is worth the effort. ASC has done a fine job in turning the Solara topless. The soft top itself is nicely-padded, fully-lined and features a glass rear window with de-mister.
While most convertibles seem like a black hole inside, the Solara offers better-than-most visibility. Small, retractable, rear-quarter windows help reduce blind spots, as does the well-sized rear window.
Dropping the top is simplicity itself. Release two over-center latches on the windshield header, punch the switch on the center console, and the top whirrs back into a well behind the rear seats.
Twenty seconds max. There’s a vinyl boot that covers the top, making it all look neat and tidy. But it’s hard to imagine any owner bothering to use it. When not being used, it also takes up valuable space in the trunk. I can see it going on a garage shelf and staying there.
But the real beauty of the conversion is that Toyota’s designers have managed to retain the Solara coupe’s excellent rear seat space. Yes, the top folding mechanism has pitched a little shoulder room, but two tallish adults, or three kids, would have no complaints sitting in the back, even for decent-length road trips.
And with the top down and the side windows raised, it doesn’t feel as if you’re sitting behind a Northwest 747 on take-off. At cruising speeds, wind buffeting in the back is well contained, and up-front, hairdos hardly get ruffled.
The only negative is that in order to stow the top, a chunk of trunk space has been surgically removed. There’s reasonable stowage space back there, but it’s an awkward shape; great for party-sized pizzas, less great for bulky Samsonites.
2000 Toyota Camry Solara
The Jell-o shimmy
Normally, when you slice the top off a car, its body takes on the structural rigidity of Jell-O. Toyota says that from the outset, the Solara was designed to be a convertible and, consequently, only requires minor reinforcement.
And, by and large, the Convertible feels pretty stiff. Hit a rut or pothole at speed, and the body does do a little shimmy ‘n shake, but nothing serious. Otherwise, the ride is Camry-smooth and Camry-refined.
There’ll be two Solara Convertible versions on offer by mid-summer. Initially only a V-6-powered SE for $28,008 is on offer, along with a more-glitzy, leather-clad SLE, also with V-6 motivation, for $30,488. Both come with four-speed automatics.
By July-time, the SE will be offered with a 136-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder, again with four-speed auto. We’re guessing prices for that will kick off at around the $25,000 mark.
Our V-6 SLE tester was as creamy a cruiser as you can get. The 3.0-liter motor packs a muscular 200 bhp, and in true Toyota tradition, delivers uncannily smooth, whisper-quiet performance.
And despite its family, four-seater image, the car is no slug. Punch the throttle and, thanks to a super-responsive automatic, the Solara picksup its skirts and runs. Standstill to 60 mph sprinting takes around 8.5 seconds, which should more than satisfy the car’s target audience.
It’s no sports car around the twisty bits, but that’s not what the Solara is about. This is an arm-on-the-door, smell-the-roses, look at the mountains kind of car. The springing is soft so the car leans a little on tight curves, but the standard P205/60R-16 Michelins provide decent grip, and more important, provide a smooth, quiet, comfortable ride.
But perhaps what’s most appealing about the Solara Convertible is its exclusivity. Toyota plans to build just 3500 this year, and no more than 6000 in a full year.
That means the chances of seeing another in the valet parking lot outside Saks Fifth Ave. are about as slim as the dealer discounts you’ll get on the car.
|2000 Toyota Solara Convertible
Base Price: $28.008|
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 200 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Length: 190.0 in
Width: 71.1 in
Height: 55.1 in
Weight: 3100-3300 lb (est.)
Fuel economy: N/A
Major standard equipment:
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