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2006 Toyota Solara Coupe Review

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2006 Toyota Camry Solara Coupe

By Gareth Wardell

I wish the Camry Solara Coupe was around when first I began to buy cars.

I was born and educated in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, famous for many things like its grand castle, a loyal Cairn terrier called Grayfriar’s Bobby, and Sean Connery. In my youth we were exhorted to be patriotic, to “Buy British,” so we continued buying cars with iffy Lucas electrics, shoddy build quality, no rust protection, and no radio or heater.

One day I noticed a new car about town, a very small new car, something called a Daihatsu Charade. It caused quite a stir. It had a heated rear window, radio and a heater, was rust proofed, and all as standard equipment. And it was far cheaper than available British Leyland cars in its class.

The writing was on the wall but British manufacturers continued to look the other way. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Toyota is everywhere. It is America’s third largest maker of cars and trucks. Indeed, the Camry outsells every other vehicle except the Ford’s F150 truck and DCX’s Dodge Ram pick-up.

There is every indication that Toyota will become the biggest manufacturer in America, if folk continue to buy their cars and Ford and GM keep “downsizing,” that’s getting smaller to you and me.

Camry means “crown” in Japanese, which is a too-royal choice of name for a car now more of a people’s car than anything VW produces. Americans have taken the Camry to their heart, in all its forms. The one I was given to test is the SE V6 Coupe Sport. There is also the SLE, a Convertible, and a plain and simple SE.

First impressions are all favorable: it’s solidly built, not a squeak or a rattle, with an engine as quiet as a mouse, no- scratch that. It is quiet as a fish. I twisted the ignition key on two occasions thinking the engine dead, but it was alive and kicking yet as quiet as a Rolls-Royce, very impressive.

I wonder if Toyota employs a sound engineer to go around checking every element of a new model for sound quality. Perhaps he carries a stethoscope around his neck like a medical consultant: swish, flip, whoosh, tic-tic-tic, and clunk. (That was the sound of the sunroof opening, ash tray, the window winding up, signal indicator, and door closing.)

The interior quality of plastics is good if not quite as good as its German rivals. All the gauges are clear and easy to read. The radio has acoustically exquisite speakers, well balanced, its controls, like all the others, such as air-conditioning, are close to hand.

You can see the front edges of the bonnet for spatial awareness in tight jams. The steering wheel is adjustable and though not electric the seats are adjustable too, making a comfortable driving position easy to find.

There is plenty of room for passengers fore and aft. The luggage compartment has the addition of rear seats that drop down to take six feet loads, seats clever enough not to snag the seat belts when being erected again.

When you are a mother struggling with shopping and kids one touch seat maneuver is a great way to avoid headaches and muscle strain. And plipping the trunk lid with the remote in your teeth is another handy convenience. Everything on the Camry works with pleasing precision. If only British and American cars did so well.

I must mention the color. My car came in an intense red, “Absolutely Red,” one of the best reds I have ever seen on a car, a red that will give distinction to the livery of expensive luxury sports car. I should know. I’ve studied art long enough to understand how important color is to visual harmony.

And how does it drive – extremely well, thanks.

There is enough feedback through the steering to keep all but the most experienced, energetic driver content. It can turn on a dime. There’s a lot of satisfaction in taking a five second U-turn arrow at the lights at 30 mph and not curb the alloys, while the expensive limo behind takes an ocean liner’s arc to get around.

The 24 valve DOHC V6 has plenty of urge from 3,000 rpm onwards and never feels strained, not even when pushing hard on the freeway. I averaged 32 mpg on long journeys. The five-speed electronically controlled sequential automatic I drove has seamless acceleration with no jerkiness or delay in changing gear.

The brakes are immediate, progressive and fade-free. I managed 90 mph for long sustained stretches and had to hit them a few too many times to avoid drivers engaged in aggressive lane changing. (Does no one like to signal in California?) The brakes never let me down.

In the unlucky event of an accident the car is equipped with airbags everywhere.

What did I not like? I’ll start with the overall design of the exterior. Rear vision is compromised because of the rising waist line (a bit like my own) and it also causes a blind spot. You cannot prop your elbow on the door because the waist is too high.

A sports coupe, to my mind, should be rakish, sleek, and sinuous, not tail high and heavy. I suspect it’s like that to accommodate the hood on the convertible, but like Toyota’s luxury range, the Lexus SC430, its rear trades elegance for storage.

Would I choose automatic in a coupe with sports suspension – never! That’s because I’m not a lazy American driver who needs one hand free for the Starbuck latte or the cell phone. I enjoy being in touch with the mechanical bits of the car. To me, a good sports saloon should have a gear straight into the transmission. The gauges are a different color to the switches and radio-tuner illuminations, an irritation that grows. And the damping is a tad harsh over the washboard roads that snake across California’s grasslands. Ruts and potholes jar the suspension. Other than a dislike of fake wood trim, and a feeling that the Camry just misses on pizzazz, there is not much to put you off buying a new Camry Solara Coupe.

I own two Toyotas. Both are the wee 3-door RAVs, one in my LA home and one in my Edinburgh home, an SUV brilliantly suited to European narrow roads and alleys, compact in size for small garages.

Toyota have ditched it in place of a new, improved 5-door only RAV4. I think that a backward step, especially since sales of big SUVs is falling. The small RAV is a wonderful, undervalued vehicle.

Porsche seem to think so too because they are about to produce one as part of their SUV range. I mention this for two reasons. I think Toyota one of the most enterprising car companies on the globe. They went ahead and built hybrid cars when everyone else said they would not sell. More fool they. I also touch on Toyota’s adventurous spirit and concern for the environment because their dealer service lets them down. Those I have dealt with in Los Angeles are among the most belligerent I have ever encountered. They attack potential customers like circling piranhas. I’m sure women are put off entering showrooms alone.

Here is one of many examples I personally experienced, and I promise you, I am one macho Scotsman.

On entering a dealership to enquire about buying a 3-door RAV4 I was confronted by a very loud salesman.

“I’m interested in buying the small RAV4.”

“That’s a woman’s car!” “Is this the Toyota sales department?” I asked, shaken.

“Yes,” he answered.

“I don’t goddamn believe you,” I said, and left.

I bought privately.

If Toyota North America ever wants to listen, I’m happy to tell them how to match dealer attitude with the quality of their cars.

And their parts departments are no better, counting among my worst for untidiness and availability of parts.

All of which must be a contradiction if they are selling so many cars, so don’t let it put you off buying a Camry Solara Coupe.

I’ll get to the bottom of the mystery one day.