Toyota's Camry has become synonymous with solid, dependable transportation. Add gas, oil every now and then, and drive for the next decade, without worrying about a thing. Such steadfastness has made Camry America's best-selling car for two consecutive years. However, there's nothing particularly sexy about reliability, until now.
The Solara retains the Camry's smooth, quiet performance and appliance-style function, while serving up two-door swoopy coupe styling and a sporty edge. What's more, Toyota offers Solara with something that's hard to find in a mid-priced coupe: an optional manual transmission available with the optional V6 engine.
The Solara debuted for the 1999 model year, and little has changed for 2000. Underneath its exterior sheetmetal rest the basic mechanical underpinnings of a Camry, with some tweaking here and there. In an era when the coupe seems to be a vanishing breed, Toyota thinks it's found a niche with the stylish Solara.
SE 4-cylinder ($18,938); SE V6 ($21,648); SLE V6 ($25,838)
What prompted Toyota to build a high-profile coupe in an era when classics like the Buick Riviera and Ford Thunderbird have disappeared? Demographics. Baby Boomers who have paid off their mortgages and watched their kids graduate from college are now ready to splurge on themselves. They're nostalgic for big, long-hooded coupes, but aren't ready to turn their backs on practicality. Toyota calls Solara a well-deserved indulgence -- exactly what it thinks these empty-nest Boomers want.
Solara's styling is unique. With strong character lines and a wide, aggressive rear end, the Solara is more expressive than a Camry, and more interesting to the eye. Of course, Toyota doesn't want shoppers to completely forget the Camry, or its reputation for quality. That's why the coupe's official name is Camry Solara.
Solara is available with a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine or an optional 3.0-liter V6, both offered in the Camry. It's built on the same 105-inch wheelbase, although Solara gets extra bracing in the front end and behind the rear seat to stiffen the chassis. It has firmer suspension settings than Camry, and a recalibrated power steering system that delivers heavier, more direct feel at the wheel. It's all intended to make Solara drive more like a sports car, and to that end Toyota offers a five-speed manual transmission with the V6. That combo isn't available on the Honda Accord Coupe or Chrysler Sebring Coupe.
The base Solara comes well equipped. The standard package includes air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, and Toyota's five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty. Like the Camry, Solara is available with optional side-impact airbags.
Solara feels different from the Camry the moment you sit in the driver's seat. The dashboard hints at a cockpit-style instrument panel. It flows into the door panels, accented by a strip of tasteful faux wood trim.
In some color combinations, the plastic, vinyl and leather interior share the rich look and feel of Toyota's upscale Lexus cars. Still, there are things to quibble about. Shoulder belts are not height-adjustable. The storage bins on the door panels are a little too narrow to be really useful, and the center console could have used some of the faux wood that trims the dash.
The Solara driver looks at a crisp, legible, well-lit cluster of three gauges, with the speedometer in the center, tachometer left and the fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The stereo buttons are big and easy to find with minimal distraction; the volume and tuning dials sit closest to the driver, exactly where they should be.
Simple radial climate-control switches allow easy adjustments. The fan is a bit loud at full speed, but almost inaudible on lower settings. Solara has both a cigarette lighter and an extra power outlet. From the stalk-mounted wiper controls to the sunroof button overhead, switch placement and operation are first rate.
So are the seats. The optional leather is supple and perfectly tailored, while the seats themselves are soft enough to be comfortable yet firm enough to keep the driver from feeling lazy. The seatbacks have a memory feature, so they return to the same incline position when they're leaned forward. The front passenger seat has a toe-operated lever that slides the whole seat forward for easy access to the rear.
Solara is not a 2+2 coupe -- it's a full four-seater. Solara's three-place rear seat accommodates two 6-foot adults in reasonable comfort. Grab handles, a padded armrest and an ashtray are available for back-seat passengers. In short, accommodations are better than adequate for taking friends out for a night on the town. When it's necessary to carry oversize packages, the rear seat folds flat to expand trunk space.
When the Solara idles, the driver feels almost no vibration through the steering wheel, seats or floorboard. The only hint the car is running comes as a faint resonance in the gas pedal. Pick up steam and that silky smooth quality remains. At freeway pace, there's little wind noise in the Solara's cabin on the windiest days.
Full steam in the Solara comes in short order. With healthy torque, the V6 delivers a steady flow of acceleration. The four-speed automatic, which most Solara buyers will choose, takes full advantage of that power. Downshifts are as immediate as a jab at the gas pedal, and passing maneuvers are a breeze. Off the line, a Solara V6 automatic manages 0-60 mph acceleration runs in the low 7-second range, making it one of the quickest cars in its class.
When the road changes direction sharply and frequently, the Solara bears up well. The steering is less numb than that in the Camry sedan. It's more progressive in the effort required by the driver, a little bit sharper, and quick enough to keep up with rapid direction changes.
But the Solara is not a sports car. It's basic handling characteristic is understeer -- a pushing at the front of the car the helps keep drivers without racing experience from getting in over their heads. It has more body roll, or lean through the corners, than a sports car. But it is well controlled as the car's weight shifts from side. Solara is competent on all kinds of roads, and its supple ride keeps driver and passengers comfortable in all circumstances.
For entertainment value, the manual transmission gives Solara an edge on competitors. The five-speed adds another level of driver involvement, and it quickens acceleration performance.
However, we're not as enamored of Solara's optional traction-control system, available only on the SLE model. Traction control works by limiting engine power when the drive wheels slip, and the Solara's system might be useful in climates where slippery conditions are a constant problem. Yet managing power in a front-wheel-drive automobile is less demanding than in a rear-drive car to begin with. And the Solara's system is so aggressive that it turns the car into a turtle in conditions that aren't that difficult. Fortunately, a switch allows the driver to turn it off when it's not needed.
Does Solara have that intangible quality enthusiast drivers call personality? That's a hard thing to define. Certainly, it doesn't have the spirit of performance of favorites like BMW's 3 Series coupe. On the other hand, compared to some of the vanilla-flavored cars from staid Toyota, the Solara has personality. It doesn't beg to be driven like a race car, but it doesn't wilt under pressure, either.
Solara can get the blood pumping fast enough to more than satisfy most drivers. The Honda Accord coupe, Solara's most obvious competitor, has slightly more responsive steering, yet it doesn't feel as substantial as the Solara. And compared to the Chrysler Sebring coupe, or just about any car in the class, the Solara is smoother and quieter.
The success or failure of coupes probably depends less on fads or trends in the auto market and more on how well a particular car is executed.
The Camry Solara is well executed. It's solid, roomy and reasonably fun to drive. Anyone seeking the mix of looks, performance and practicality that defines a good coupe should have Solara on the shopping list.
Of course, this ticket can be expensive. Though Toyota has held the line on prices for the second model year, the Solara SLE we tested cleared $27,000, including preferred options like an in-dash CD changer, traction control and a power moonroof. There are dozens of alternatives for that money, from pure sports cars to fine sedans to sport-utility vehicles. Even among coupes, Solara competitors such as the Sebring offer as much visual impact for a few thousand dollars less.
It's up to the buyer whether Toyota's reputation for quality and rock-solid reliability, plus some panache, is worth the price premium.