2004 New Car Review: Toyota Camry Solara SLE V6


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DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS
2004 Toyota Camry Solara SLE V6

``Something for everyone.'' Is this the secret of Toyota's success?

Considering the Japanese giant's comprehensive vehicle lineup, if that is not the complete secret, it is a major component. Even in a niche-market class like sports coupes, Toyota offers choice, with the Celica for the performance-oriented buyer and the Camry Solara for those seeking near-luxury ambiance and comfort. Style sells, and the completely-redesigned 2004 Solara adds much bolder styling and increased space and comfort to the traits that made its predecessor a success. Like the 1999 to 2003 version, the new Solara shares chassis and drivetrain components with the Camry sedan, and, while technically a Camry model, Camry badging is notably absent and both exterior and interior styling are completely different. The Solara is a long way from the old Camry two-door sedan.

Three distinct trim levels are offered. The SE is hardly ``base model'' equipped, with a full complement of comfort and convenience features. The SE Sport adds a tighter suspension tuning and sportier bodywork, while the SLE moves very close indeed to luxury coupe territory. Engines are the 2.40-liter, 157-horsepower four-cylinder familiar from last year and a new 3.3-liter, 225-horsepower V6. The four can be had with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions, while the V6 comes only with a new five-speed automatic with manual-shift mode. A just-finished week with an SLE V6 highlighted the new Solara's luxury character. Relaxing but spirited to drive, and with head-turning looks, it should fit the requirements of anyone looking for a combination of extrovert looks, practical space, and Toyota build quality and substance.

APPEARANCE: The original Solara was conservative in design; the second generation is anything but conservative. It's a slinky, curvaceous machine that has no sheetmetal in common with the Camry sedan, but does have a more than passing resemblance to its upscale cousin SC430 from Lexus. While the roofline appears similar to that of the first Solara, everything else is very different.

Although it was designed in the U.S., the Solara's style is an interesting combination of the sensuous shapes favored by French coachbuilders from the late 1930s through the mid-1950s and the playfulness of contemporary Japanese design. There are no simple lines or shapes on the car. The front is given a face, with eyes from the bright ``cat's-eye'' headlights and a mouth from the toothy grin of the grille. A character line formed from the inside fender lines on the hood extends under the grille. A wide lower opening flanked by standard foglamps adds sport character. The sides are defined by a strong shoulder line that runs back from the corners of each headlight and arches over the teardrop-shaped taillights until it disappears at the bottom of the trunk lid. The high point of the body is over the rear wheels, for a rakish wedge-shaped look. The taillights set the tone for the rear styling - complex curves galore. The ``ground effects'' look implied by the styling if the lower fascias and side sills on the SE and SLE is accentuated further on the SE sport.

COMFORT:The first-generation Solara was very Lexus-like inside, and generation two is even more so. Noise, vibration, and harshness are banished for a high level of refinement and comfort. Design and materials are first-class. In styling and appointment, the difference between the Solara SLE and a ``real'' (read: $40,000-plus name brand) luxury coupe is... 1) The trim on the dash and doors is simulated, not real, wood. And 2) the front passenger seat is manually-, not power-adjustable. The driver's seat is power-adjustable. The front seats provide very good comfort and support, and in the SLE V6 are upholstered with perforated leather for long wear and ventilation. The stylishly flowing instrument panel features backlit black-on-white instruments shaded well from glare and an interesting center stack design with three small hooded displays at the top for the trip computer, clock, and outside temperature. Audio and climate controls are placed for convenient use. Storage space abounds, with large door pockets, a locking glove box that holds much more than a pair of gloves, and both open and covered storage in the console, including a dual-layer box with power point for recharging a cell phone. Rear passengers get much more room than is the norm for a coupe, with cupholders and storage trays on each side for convenience. By coupe standards, the trunk is huge, although the trunk is smaller than a Camry sedan's. A 60/40 split to the rear seatback allows good cargo ability when necessary.

SAFETY: Safety cage and crumple zone construction, dual front and optional front side airbags, three-point safety belts for all occupants, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes are safety features of all 2004 Toyota Solara models.

ROADABILITY: The Solara's niche is still more sporty near-luxury coupe than serious sports car, but the 2004 version has increased its sport content without diminishing comfort. The suspension design, unsurprisingly as it is the Camry Solara, after all, is the same as the Camry's, with MacPherson struts in front and dual-link struts in back. As in the Camry sedan, both front and rear suspensions are mounted to anti-vibration subframes to give near-luxury levels of quiet and refinement. The standard Solara's springs and shocks are tuned a touch more firmly than the Camry's, and all models feature a front strut tower brace for additional chassis stiffness.

The Solara is pleasantly comfortable and quiet on the highway and secondary roads. Because of its weight and size and sporty touring intent, the Solara SLE is not a corner-carver like a Celica GTS, but it is enjoyable to drive on the scenic route at a moderate pace. The SE Sport model has a firmer suspension tuning, for enhanced handling. Braking performance is very good.

PERFORMANCE: Yes, compared to last year, there is extra power from the Solara V6 engine. Due to a displacement increase from 3.0 to 3.3 liters and adoption of Toyota's ``VVT-i'' variable valve timing system, maximum power is increased from 198 to 225 horsepower, with torque up from 212 to 240 lb-ft. That's noticeable, even with the weight increase, but it translates more into improved flexibility and refinement than raw acceleration. And that is absolutely in keeping with the Solara's value-for-luxury mission. Like many Toyota powerplants, it works best at the low and middle engine speeds used in everyday driving, with no real need to push it near redline. The new five-speed automatic transmission complements the engine, with smooth, quick shifts, and is biased toward fuel economy more than performance. A manual mode allow it to easily be held in gear for best operation on twisty roads or hills, and the engine's low- and mid-range power is best illustrated by the fact that it worked best a gear higher than expected - where other cars felt best in second, the Solara worked well in third.

CONCLUSIONS: For 2004, the Toyota Camry Solara grows up with bolder styling and more power.

SPECIFICATIONS
2004 Toyota Camry Solara SLE V6

Base Price $ 25,995
Price As Tested $ 27,130
Engine Type dual overhead cam aluminum alloy 24-valve V6
Engine Size 3.3 liters / 202 cu. in.
Horsepower 225 @ 5600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 240 @ 3600 rpm
Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length 107.1 in. / 192.5 in.
Curb Weight 3439 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 15.3
Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline recommended
Tires P215/55 VR17 Bridgestone Turanza
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc Antilock standard,VSC optional
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent dual-link strut
Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE SPECS
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 29 / 26
0 to 60 mph 7.1 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Vehicle stability control, anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist $ 650
Destination charge $ 515

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