SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide
How times and fashions change. Not long ago it seemed that convertibles were gone, never to return. Today, convertibles are coming back, with a good choice of two- and four-place models available for a wide range of budgets. One of the newest is the Toyota Solara convertible.
The Camry-based Solara coupe was introduced in 1998, but its designers at Toyota's Calty Design Research studio in Southern California had a convertible in mind beforehand as evidenced by the Solara Speedster that debuted at the 1997 Chicago Auto Show. The production Solara convertible isn't as radical as the concept car, but it adds fresh air and young-at-heart attitude to the Toyota lineup.
The Solara convertible is a joint venture between Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Canada (TMMC) and ASC. ASC has been a leading aftermarket convertible conversion firm since shortly after the apparent demise of factory-built convertibles in the mid-1970s. The ASC - Toyota partnership goes back to 1983, and has resulted in previous Celica and Paseo convertibles. The Celicas and Paseos were shipped from Japan to an ASC facility in Southern California, but, for the Solara, ASC has built a new shop near the Toyota plant in Cambridge, Ontario that builds the Solara. Toyota Technical Center (TTC), in Ann Arbor, Michigan, did the engineering development for the Solara convertible, and worked closely with ASC. Like the Solara coupe, the convertible is sold only in North America.
Like the Solara coupe, the convertible is more "sporty" than "sports." The smaller Celica covers the more serious sports sector well for Toyota. The convertible adds a large dose of fun and attitude to the Camry lineup, and, as I found during the past week, attracts plenty of attention. It has plenty of room and comfort for four people and all of the traditional practicality of a Camry to appeal to the pragmatic side of one's personality, and adds a dash of fun-in-the-sun frivolity for the hedonistic side.
APPEARANCE: Toyotas have been known for conservative styling, but there are exceptions. And the Solara convertible is definitely one of those exceptions. The Solara coupe is elegant and conservatively stylish; the convertible dispenses with the conservative. It looks even better than the coupe with the top down, and, unusually for a convertible, is not at all ungainly with it up. It shares its lower body panels, hood, and front and rear fascias with the coupe, and has its own side windows.
COMFORT: The Solara is the personal luxury car of the Toyota lineup, and so it is outfitted nearly to the style and level of its cousin, the Lexus ES300. The dark gray-over-cream leather interior scheme is very Lexus-like, with the Solara's faux wood trim one of the few differences. The front bucket seats are softly comfortable and supportive, and feature perforated leather surfaces for improved comfort. The driver's seat is power-adjustable, while the front passenger seat adjusts manually. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is tilt-adjustable. The instrument display is easily read. The console flows into the center stack, which contains the excellent automatic climate control system and the AM/FM/cassette/CD audio system. A 6-CD in-dash changer is available. The rear seat is contoured for two passengers, and access is helped by a front passenger seat that is spring-loaded to automatically move forward when necessary. Rear room is meant for real people, with only slightly less space than is found in a Camry sedan. There are useful storage spaces in the cabin, and a remarkably large trunk. The convertible top is fully-lined and power operated, with manual latching.
SAFETY: The Toyota Camry Solara convertible has front and rear crumple zones to help protect occupants. All four seating positions have three-point safety belts. Seat-mounted front side airbags are available.
ROADABILITY: The Solara coupe's chassis is biased toward comfort rather than sporty handling characteristics, and the convertible is no different. Its fully-independent suspension is compliant, and steering is light, with no torque steer problems. Because of the loss of chassis rigidity due to the removal of the roof, there is noticeable cowl shake over rough surfaces. But the suspension absorbs bumps and holes well. With the top up, there is, as expected, more noise than found in a Solara coupe, but it's still relatively quiet. With the top down, hats are safe, at least in the front seat.
PERFORMANCE: In any form, the Solara is more about style and comfort than speed. But, especially with the 200-horsepower 3.0- liter twincam V6, power is not a problem. Like all Toyota engines, this 24-valve aluminum alloy powerplant has great low- and mid- range torque characteristics for easy drivability. Maximum torque is 214 lb-ft at 4400 rpm, but there is plenty right from a start. The convertible is offered only with an electronically-controlled four- speed automatic transmission. It's smooth and unobtrusive and adds to the Solara convertible's luxury feel.
CONCLUSIONS: A stylish, exciting Camry? Absolutely, with the new Toyota Camry Solara convertible.
SPECIFICATIONS 2000 Toyota Solara SLE V6 Convertible Base Price $ 30,488 Price As Tested $ 31,860 Engine Type dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6 Engine Size 3.0 liters / 183 cu. in. Horsepower 200 @ 5200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 214 @ 4400 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 105.1 in. / 190.0 in. Curb Weight 3,485 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.4 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded gasoline Tires P205/60 HR16 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent dual link Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 27 / 0 to 60 mph 8.5 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES JBL AM/FM/cassette/in-dash CD changer audio system $ 200 Front seat side-impact airbags $ 250 Traction control $ 300 Carpets and cargo mat $ 167 Destination charge $ 455