2002 TOYOTA CAMRY SOLARA SLE CONVERTIBLE

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SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide

By Tom Hagin

SPECIFICATIONS

      Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 30,525
      Price As Tested                                    $ 31,409
      Engine Type              DOHC 24-valve 3.0 Liter V6 w/SMFI*
      Engine Size                                 183 cid/2995 cc
      Horsepower                                   198 @ 5300 RPM
      Torque (lb-ft)                               212 @ 4400 RPM
      Wheelbase/Width/Length                  105.1"/71.1"/191.5"
      Transmission                           Four-speed automatic
      Curb Weight                                     3515 pounds
      Fuel Capacity                                  18.5 gallons
      Tires  (F/R)                                     P205/60R16
      Brakes (F/R)                          Disc (ABS)/disc (ABS)
      Drive Train                  Front-engine/front-wheel-drive
      Vehicle Type                        Four-passenger/two-door
      Domestic Content                                        N/A
      Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                               N/A

PERFORMANCE

      EPA Economy, miles per gallon
      city/highway/average                            19/26/24
      0-60 MPH                                        8.5 seconds
      1/4 (E.T.)                          17.0 seconds @ 83.5 mph
      Top-speed                                           125 mph
                          * Sequential multi-point fuel injection
                                   
     The Toyota Camry Solara appeared in late 1998 as a replacement to 
the two-door Camry SE. Soon after, custom automotive fabricator 
American Sunroof Company (ASC) sliced off the roof and added a power 
soft top to make the Solara Convertible. Available in SE four cylinder, 
SE V6 and as our tester for this week, the top-line SLE V6, Solara 
Convertible is an excellent compliment to Toyota's best-selling Camry line.

     OUTSIDE - Toyota believes that there is still a market, albeit a 
small one, for personal luxury coupes and convertibles. Several 
automakers recently discontinued their versions, but the market says 
that many Baby Boomers continue to wax nostalgic for big, long-hooded 
sporty cars, but, in Toyota's case, aren't ready to abandon 
practicality. Solara's styling is unique, with its strong character 
lines and a wide, aggressive rear end, it's more expressive than a 
Camry. The nose is pointed and somewhat similar to its competitors, but 
its forward-raked tail with a small rear spoiler displays character. 
For 2002, exterior changes such as a new grille, front and rear 
fascias, fog lamps and four-bulb headlamps have freshened the 
three-year-old design. Also, new wheel covers for the SE model and 
revised alloy wheels for the SLE further enhance its style.  Body fit 
and finish, with perfectly uniform panel gaps and impeccable paint, 
follow the Toyota tradition. The lines of the Solara stream along its 
sides then melt into polished curves while along its flanks, two 
character lines break its vertical plane. The door handles, body 
moldings, outside mirrors and rear mudguards are all body-color. The 
power-folding top with a large glass rear window are insulated and the 
rear window also comes with a timed defogger. And at nearly nine cubic feet, trunk space is ample.

	
	
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INSIDE - Solara feels different from the Camry from the moment you sit in the driver's seat. The dual front bucket seats offer good lumbar and thigh support, while optional dual side airbags are neatly tucked into the outboard sides of the front seats. The dashboard is cockpit-style and flows into the door panels, which are accented by a strip of tasteful faux wood trim. New for 2002 are unique upholstery fabric and lighter grain wood trim that has now been applied to the surround of the gearshift stalk. Also new are optional heated seats, which will no doubt come in handy for cool weather, top-down motoring. Opening the long, heavy doors can be a chore for some, but the extra length gives easier access to the rear seat, which offers exceptional legroom, as long as the front passengers aren't in the full aft position. The rear seat gives adequate lumbar support, but seemed to be raked too far forward for truly comfortable long-distance trips. The deep center console, sizable glove box and oversized door map pockets add to the car's utility. There's even a small pullout tray in the center stack to hold toll and parking coins. The dash is populated by a legible, well-lit cluster of three gauges, with the speedometer in the center, tachometer to the left and the fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The stereo buttons are big and easy to find with minimal distraction, and the automatic climate control system of the SLE model is easy enough to use, but it could use larger buttons. We didn't like the fact that the convertible top button, located deep in the center console ahead of the shifter, was hard to access. The SLE model's standard leather is supple and perfectly tailored, and is applied tastefully to the steering wheel and shift knob. Adding to its utility, the rear seat folds flat to expand the trunk. Folding the top is a fairly simple process of unlocking a couple of latches and pressing the button. Once in its well, there is a boot cover that takes some practice to install quickly but looks great when it's in place.
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ON THE ROAD - Solara is powered by a 3.0-liter dual overhead-cam V6 engine. It produces 198 horsepower and 212 lb-ft of torque. The base SE model uses a new, 157-horsepower four cylinder unit which replaces the previous 132-horse version. From a standing start, Solara V6 automatic manages 0-60 mph acceleration runs in the low 7-second range, while its silky-smooth performance and good off-line torque are far superior to any in its class. Full steam in the Solara comes in short order, and with its strong torque rating, the V6 delivers a steady flow of acceleration. Power, however, is noticeably reduced in the mid rpm range, where it quickly loses steam. During idle, the driver feels almost no vibration through the steering wheel, seats or floorboard, and 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. 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. BEHIND THE WHEEL - Solara is built on the same 105-inch wheelbase as the Camry, although the ASC-modified chassis features structural reinforcements to assist in eliminating twist. Its basic handling characteristics exhibit understeer, which is true for many front-wheel drive cars, even those without high-performance intentions. It has ample body roll, or lean through the corners, but it's no sports car. Considerable squat under brisk acceleration and abundant nose-dive during hard braking is another unpleasant trait, but can be rectified with aftermarket upgrades. Unfortunately, Solara's suspension travel ran out quickly. On the highway, Solara felt like a large car, floating over highway expansion joints and providing occupants a soft and supple ride. Fortunately, the extra bracing added by ASC allows its driver to cross railroad tracks with a responsive thump and little or no cowl shake. The steering is progressive and communicative, more so than that of a Camry, and it's a bit sharper and quick enough to keep up with rapid direction changes. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard issue on the SLE (optional on the lower level SE), providing powerful, well- controlled stops from high speed. Mild pedal pulse, accompanied by typical anti-lock brake system ratcheting sounds, let you know the ABS system is working. SAFETY - Dual dashboard airbags, ABS, front seat belt pre-tensioners and side-impact door beams are standard; dual side-impact airbags and traction control are optional. OPTIONS - Side-impact airbags, $250; carpet/cargo mat set, $179.
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