The people at Toyota must live on no doze. This company never seems to sleep. The Camry line, which is now in its fourth generation, is considered the standard in midsize four door sedans. It is exceptionally quiet, very smooth and competent. Its reputation for quality and longevity is legendary.
The Camry was available in a two door model with the previous generation. Sales were slow and prices were relatively high. It was a nice car but was nothing more than a two door Camry.
Enter the Solara. It is based on the Camry chassis and uses the same drive line components, but that is were the similarity ends. The structure has been stiffened with additional bracing over the front strut towers and behind the rear seat. Shock damping, spring rates and bushing stiffness were all increased over the Camry. The body is all new with no resemblance to the Camry upon which it is based. Even the interior and dash is all new.
The new design was created at the Calty design studio in Newport Beach by 35 year old Warren Crain. The job should probably extend his employment contract, as it is as beautiful as it is unique. The profile is very swoopy with a deep crease that runs the entire length of the body. The roofline is very pleasing and blends well with the clean tail section.
It rides on the Camry wheelbase of 105.1 inches and it is about an inch longer at 190 inches and an inch wider at 71 inches. The suspension is fully independent with struts in all four corners, with control arms in front, and multilink location in the rear. Both ends have anti roll bars.
But don't think this Solara has lost the comfort so well known in the Camry. The ride is smooth, supple and very well controlled. Has Ponderosa Road been repaved? It was so smooth, I thought I made the wrong turn and had to check the street signs. Remarkable at any price but even more so at $25,000.
Freeways are glass like and tar strips and minor irregularities are a thing of the past. The stiffened suspension dissuades wallow or float. In the corners, the Solara shows off its sports tuned suspension. It can be pushed hard and deep into the corners of Green Valley and Bass Lake Road. Tracking is true and the moderate understeer is very predictable. The 205/65 series Bridgestone Potenzas are capable of high lateral grip forces. It allows for aggressive driving without stress and safe avoidance maneuvering.
The rack and pinion power steering has a quicker ramp up in steering effort over the Camry. The result is a tighter, quicker and heavier feel. On center feel and response was excellent and the road feel at speed has been enhanced.
Under the hood you will find the familiar Toyota 3.0L DOHC 24 valve V-6. It is used in the Camry, Avalon, Sienna, Lexus ES300 and their new small SUV the RX 300. It is very smooth and has a wide power band. It produces 200 hp (198 in California) at only 5,200 rpm and a robust 214 (212 in California) lb-ft of torque at 4,400. A 2.2L DOHC 16 valve inline four comes standard in the base SE which puts out a respectable 135 hp (132 in California) and 147 (145 in California) lb-ft of torque at the same rpms as the V-6.
The Solara performance matches its looks and handling. It scampers from 0-60 mph in a swift 7.6 seconds with the fastest run at 7.47 seconds. Passing performance averaged a quick 4.4 seconds from 50-70 mph, with uphill acceleration slowing to 6.6 seconds (all in third gear) on hills similar to the El Dorado grade.
Whoa power is provided by four wheel disc brakes (the fronts are ventilated) with standard ABS. Pedal feel and modulation were excellent.
Fuel consumption was minuscule. Although EPA rated at 21/28 city highway, I averaged almost 25 mpg in El Dorado County. On the highway I would expect at least 30 mpg at a steady 65-70 mph. With its large 18.5 gallon gas tank, a highway range will be limited more by human endurance and less by fuel exhaustion.
The Solara that I tested was an SE V-6 five speed manual. It was precise and smooth through the gears and the clutch was light and progressive. The gear ratios were nicely spaced and the right gear was available for any speed or condition. Considering the kind of car this is trying to be, I would prefer the manual over the four speed electronically controlled automatic, but I am probably in the minority. The five speed adds to the sporting nature of this vehicle.
On the inside, the Solara really shines. If it didn't say Toyota, it may as well have said Lexus. This entire interior package is very tasty. The seats in my car were leather, with the seat centers being perforated and breathable. Besides being beautifully designed, the front seats were body conforming and offered excellent support. I could spend hours in this car without any fatigue.
The dash is simple and elegant. The pod in front of the driver contains a large speedo in the center with a large tach to the right and smaller temp and fuel gauges grouped to the left. The center section forms the vertical part of the center console. On top is the clock with AC vents, the sound system controls which include a single pay CD and cassette, and HVAC controls are stacked in descending order. They are easy to operate and clearly marked.
There are two power ports and behind the shifter are two cupholders and an armrest/storage console. The right side of the dash has a glove box below and an air bag above and is covered with a nice-to-touch, thick, dense material. There is a small, simulated wood treatment that extends across the dash and into the soft touch door paneling.
The windows and locks are standard power as well as the outside rearview mirrors. Leather also covers the steering wheel and shifter.
The sound system is worthy of a mention. It is powerful, clear and full of fidelity. Deep bass and clean highs make for easy and enjoyable listening. It is the only sounds you will hear, as this car is quiet. No road noise, rattles, or engine sounds enter this cabin. On the highway, wind noise is virtually non-existent and the engine turns a reasonable 2,500 rpm at 65 mph.
The rear seats, although harder to get to than with a four door, are really nice. Legroom was surprisingly plentiful and the shape and size would be suitable for long trips and very pleasant for short ones. The rear seats fold down to expand the sensibly sized 14 cubic foot trunk. One thing I did notice is that the rear side paneling was hard plastic and the windows were fixed. The only way to open the rear windows is with a big hammer, but that could be very messy and expensive. Minor flaws.
Now for the good news, this car is a relative bargain. My test car listed for $21,188 plus the upgraded cassette and CD ($150), side impact airbags ($250), power moonroof ($900), leather upgrade package with power driver's seat and alloy wheels ($1,910), diamond white pearl paint ($210) and carpeted floor and truck mats ($166). Add $420 for destination the total is $25,204.
Prices start at $18,638 plus destination for the four cylinder, manual SE, all the way to about $27,500 for a fully loaded Solara that is so nice it could easily be rebadged as a Lexus.
Toyota plans to build about 50,000 Solaras out of its North American plant and considering the breadth of the car's functionality and appeal, there won't be many wallflowers at dealers.
SPECIFICATIONS Price $18,638 to about $27,500 Engine 24 valve DOHC V-6 200 hp @ 5,200 rpm 214 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm 16 valve DOHC I-4 135 hp @ 6,200 rpm 147 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm Configuration engine is transverse mounted, front wheel drive Transmission 4 speed electronically controlled automatic 5 speed manual Dimensions Wheelbase 105.1 inches Length 190.0 inches Width 71.1 inches Height 55.1 inches Weight 3230 pounds Fuel Capacity 18.5 gallons Performance (5 speed manual) 0-60 7.6 seconds 50-70 4.4 seconds (third gear only) 50-70 uphill 6.6 seconds (third gear only) Top Speed Reported to be in excess of 130 mph Please believe the reports and stay legal and safe. Fuel Economy EPA 21/28 mpg city/highway. I averaged about 25 mpg in El Dorado County and estimate about 30 mpg at constant legal highway speeds.