Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Sitting in my third-floor, West L.A. apartment, I can push the blinds aside, peer out over the rooftops, and (after my eyes adjust to the hazy sunlight) see a billboard for the new Toyota Solara that proclaims, "Two Doors. No Guilt." Hmm, no guilt. I'm not sure if that's the most effective method of marketing a new model that is supposed to be more than just a two-door Camry.
After spending a week behind the wheel of this latest coupe to come from a Japanese automaker, it's apparent that a no-guilt Camry is exactly what Toyota was after when it created the Solara. Styled at Toyota's CALTY Design Center in Newport Beach, Calif., the new Solara has a new look but a familiar feel. Rather than stray too far from the monumentally successful recipe that gave Camry its best-selling car title, Toyota has created a two-door acorn that fell right next to the tree. This is both good ... and bad.
Good in the fact that all the traits we've come to expect in the practical, people-moving Camry are still present in the Solara. In this particular SE model, that included a smooth-revving 3.0-liter V6 (a 2.2-liter inline four is standard) good for 200 horsepower. This is a fantastic powerplant that offers sufficient go-power, 20+ mpg in city driving, and rock-solid reliability. Out test unit, equipped with a four-speed automatic that occasionally missed a downshift, scampered to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. Unlike the Accord Coupe and Acura CL, you can order your V6 Solara with a five-speed manual transmission, which is said to do zero-to-60 in around seven seconds flat. With that kind of accelaration, Solara owners may feel a bit of pride with a touch of vanity, but guilt? Certainly not.
Handling is also Camry-like, with excessive wallow and sidewall roll when trying to negotiate tight corners. The standard 205/65R15 tires don't offer the kind of grip you'd need for serious slaloming, but an optional sport upgrade improves things with 16-inch wheels and revised rear suspension settings to improve stability. The Solara also gets a stiffer chassis and front suspension set-up than a Camry, plus a redesigned power steering system to give increased feedback during cornering maneuvers. It works in the sense that the coupe feels capable, if not downright sporty. Again, none of this adds up to guilt but rather a modest departure from the pure mundane-ness that is a Camry sedan.
Braking duty comes via four-wheel discs. ABS is optional on the four-cylinder model but standard on both the SE and SLE V6 models. Out test car exhibited outstanding braking characteristics that inspired confidence when battling it out on the mean streets of Los Angeles. The system also halted our car from 60 mph in 133 feet.
Once inside a Solara, its sedan origins become even more pronounced. There is a piece of wood trim that runs along the dash and a few minor tweaks to ergonomic layout but, otherwise, it is pure Camry. Thankfully, that includes a fully functional rear seat, which, by comparison, makes the Accord Coupe and Acura CL seem like two-seater sports cars. With the front seats moved all the way back, my six-foot frame still fit in the back seat with adequate legroom. Toyota's coupe also passed the reverse-facing baby seat test with flying colors, offering clearance to recline the front seats even with young Kirk Brauer riding in back. This is probably the Solara's single biggest advantage over the competition. Obviously entry and egress aren't as carefree as with a Camry sedan but, once you get everyone belted in, five normal-sized adults can be readily transported in total comfort. How many two-door vehicles can claim that?
Other interior features included a convenient set of cupholders with hinged covers, a CD player, cruise control, power windows/doors/mirrors and a power moonroof. Interior rattles and squeaks, along with wind or road noise at high speeds, were non-existent. As with the recently redesigned Camry, it seems that a bit of Lexus magic has made its way into the Solara. Toyota reports that vibration-damping and noise-suppresant materials are used throughout the cabin, as well as in the wheel housings, dash panel and trunk.
While we're on the subject of trunks, it should be noted that, although trunk space is generous for a car in this class, the Solara's shape has compromised its ease of loading and unloading. Specifically, when trying to load a folded-up baby carriage, I found that the outward curve of the rear window cut sharply into the trunk's opening, requiring the carriage to be held at a creative angle to slide it between the taillights and trunklid's hinges. However, as with passengers, once the carriage was inside the Solara's trunk, it had plenty of room to relax and stretch out.
During our test drive around L.A. we noticed a conspicuous lack of head-turning with Toyota's new coupe. This is still a relatively new model and, if nothing else, at least its body design and overall look are different from a Camry. So why the disinterest from what is notoriously a car-crazy town when it comes to new vehicles? We can only assume that, with all those billboards broadcasting the Solara's shape above Los Angeles, everyone already knew what it was.
Even though our SE had the V6, it wasn't as luxurious as the top-line Solara SLE that comes standard with a perforated leather-trimmed interior, eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, 15-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry (our test car had this as an option), automatic climate control, heated side-view mirrors, a HomeLink remote-control system and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. In addition, the SLE can be ordered with traction control but it can't be ordered with the five-speed manual.
Areas where the Solara recorded "in need of improvement" marks included the front seats (more lateral support) the suspension (less wallow) and the standard 15-inch wheels (cheap looking wheel covers). It could also use a slight power increase and maybe a couple bulges or fender flares to give the body some additional character. It's not that we don't like the Solara's look, we just think it needs more reasons to stop and take notice.
If you feel like a theme, suggesting that the Solara should be sportier, is developing, you're right. Much like Honda with its new Accord coupe, Toyota has tried to create more than just a two-door version of its best-selling sedan. Unfortunately, they haven't really succeeded. Where the Accord coupe looks and feels very different from its four-door brethren, the Solara just seems like a stylish two-door Camry. Once again, that's good in the sense of interior roominess, mechanical longevity and overall design, but bad in the sense that, as a coupe buyer, if you're writing off the practicality of four-doors, you're probably expecting something back in the way of performance.
By offering a five-speed manual version of the Solara, Toyota has given its coupe a major advantage over the Honda/Acura models. Why not follow that up with a true performance engine and suspension? If not as standard equipment, at least as an option. Unfortunately, the Accord and CL possess interior, exterior and mechanical designs that are more distinctive (and more performance oriented) than the Solara's.
The solution may be on its way in the form of a convertible and/or high performance version of the Solara. Rumor has it that TRD (Toyota Racing Development) is even tinkering with the idea of creating a supercharged Solara that will make 250 horsepower! We're not sure about guilt, but at that point there would be plenty of gluttony, lust and envy associated with the Solara, which is just what this car needs.
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