Scott Mead, Contributor
There's always something special about a convertible in the summer -- the feeling of the breeze whirring through the cockpit, the sensation of being at one with nature, and the ability to contract skin cancer while driving a great car. That's what we hoped for, but we were more impressed with the weather than Toyota's new Camry Solara drop top.
Convertibles have come a long way in the past five years. Chassis have been strengthened (reducing flex), new top materials and weather sealants provide a stronger barrier to the elements (not to mention a quieter cabin) and top mechanisms have become a one-touch marvel. However, our Solara tester's top had the fit and finish of a backyard chop job, with a lid that wouldn't come close to sealing at the driver's cowl (leaving a three-eighths of an inch gap between the windshield frame and the top), a jerky top mechanism and more cowl shake than Charo doing the "cuchi-cuchi."
In fact, the Solara is the first convertible (built in conjunction with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Canada and ASC, primarily known for their factory sunroof installations) we've tested that had more wind noise with the top and windows rolled up rather than down. Granted, this was probably an isolated problem with our test vehicle, but with Toyota's reputation for stellar fit and finish, we felt as though we were driving a poorly finished kit car instead of Japan's finest.
Convertible top aside, the rest of the Solara exhibited fit and finish on par with the rest of the Toyota line, with excellent panel gaps and first-class finish. The chassis features structural reinforcements to assist in eliminating twist, but lacks stiffer springs and increased shock rates to cope with the added weight.
Wallowy and weak would be the best way to describe the handling characteristics of this latest Toyota offering. In the twisties, the Solara's suspension capability ran out quickly, with a great deal of understeer during hard cornering maneuvers, and the ability to easily get the front tires to rub against the inner wheelhouse in decreasing radius turns. In typical Toyota fashion, the Solara's steering felt numb and vague with very little road feel available through the wheel. With its slow steering rack, turn-in wasn't as precise as we'd like, but predictable nonetheless.
The Solara exhibited a good deal of dive and squat when accelerating or during emergency braking exercises. Unlike the rest of the Toyota line, the Solara continually bottomed out when traversing shallow dips in the road. On the highway, the Solara felt like a large car, floating over highway expansion joints and providing occupants a soft and supple ride.
Powered by a 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower DOHC V6, the Solara is silky smooth at idle with good off-line torque, but power drops off in the midrange, giving the Solara the passing power of a kidney stone. In the mountain section of our test, we often wondered if we were driving a four-banger. Four-wheel, ABS-assisted disc brakes are standard issue on the SLE and optional on the SE, which provide powerful, linear stops. Moderate pedal pulse, accompanied by ABS system grinding noises, let us know that the system was working.
Mated to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, the Solara shifted smoothly and positively until you mashed the pedal to the floor, where we found the transmission to be slow to kick down to a lower gear, often free-spooling for a couple of seconds before slamming into gear. Having driven numerous Camrys, we can definitely say that this is not a normal trait.
Inside, we were treated to a full leather interior on our SLE tester, with dual front bucket seats that offered good lumbar and thigh support, but lateral support was lacking during cornering exercises. Optional dual side airbags were neatly tucked into the outboard sides of the seats. The dash and door area is accented with fake walnut, which should have been carried out to the center stack area, instead of the cheap black plastic used in its place.
The driver's controls are all within easy reach of the hand, with the exception of the convertible top switch and rear windows, which are buried in the front of the center console along with a second powerpoint. Climate controls are a dream, with a large temperature adjustment knob and oversized buttons to regulate venting and fan speed.
Out back, passengers are treated to a good deal of legroom, so long as the front seats aren't in the full aft position. The couch has a decent amount of lumbar support, but is raked too far forward to be comfortable on long trips. The Solara scored high for easy ingress and egress with the top down, but rear passengers will struggle to get out with the top closed.
Storage space is very good for a convertible with a trunk that will hold far more than the usual golf bag; a deep, oversized center console, a decent glove box and oversized map pockets built into the doors add even more cargo capacity. There's a shallow pull-out tray in the center stack for toll coins and gum wrappers, but that's all it's good for.
Pitted against the Chrysler Sebring JXi Convertible and Ford Mustang GT Convertible, the Sebring is down 32 horsepower and half a liter, but is cheaper by $2,425. The Mustang gives you two more cylinders and 60 more horsepower, but you lose valuable rear seat comfort for the $3,145 you save. If you're looking to carry four passengers al fresco, we'd opt for the Sebring JXi without hesitation, but if you're looking for driving excitement and an open roof, the Mustang is a no brainer.
Yep, summer time is convertible time, and while the Toyota's latest entry in the drop-top market provides many of the little refinements you would expect from Japan's No. 1 automaker, the Solara needs a large injection of soul to go with it.
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