Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
First introduced four years ago as a more sophisticated sister to the Camry family sedan, the Solara coupe has quietly enjoyed the reputation of most Toyota vehicles reliable, well built and inoffensive-looking. For most types of vehicles, such qualities would be considered desirable, if not optimal, but when it comes to coupes you would hope that sporty, stylish and fun would figure in there as well.
With the debut of the second-generation 2004 Solara, Toyota has made an attempt to bring some of those more desirable elements to its midsize coupe. The suspension has been retuned for better handling, a larger V6 offers more power and, although the looks are still cut to appeal to a wide-ranging audience, there are enough new lines to separate it from the slab-sided Camry sedan on which it is based. The result is a second-generation Solara that manages to add a significant measure of fun without sacrificing the traditional elements that made it so appealing the first time around.
Three trim levels are now offered to better target the Solara's broad-based audience. The base SE can be equipped with either a four-cylinder engine and a manual or automatic transmission or an automatic-only V6. Although well-appointed with standard features like ABS brakes, side airbags, keyless entry and a six-speaker CD stereo among others, the SE is actually $245 less expensive than last year's model, which had a base price of $19,120.
For those craving a more involved driving experience, Toyota has added an SE Sport model that steps up the performance quotient with stiffer springs, sport-tuned shocks and standard 17-inch wheels and tires. An exterior body kit adds a few more edges to the outside while the interior gets black graphite trim, a unique gauge design, a leather-covered steering wheel and aluminum-trimmed pedals. Four-cylinder SE Sport models with the five-speed manual transmission start at $20,615 while V6-equipped versions start at $22,945.
The top-of-the-line SLE trim is now offered on both four- and six-cylinder models and features a luxury carlike list of amenities. Automatic climate control, a power driver seat, a premium JBL audio system and a sunroof are just a few of the many features that come standard on all SLE models. Adding the V6 engine not only gets you more power, it also adds full leather seating and 17-inch alloy wheels. Four-cylinder versions start at $22,995; the V6 adds another $3,000 to the starting price.
Front and rear side curtain airbags and a rear spoiler are optional on all trim levels. SE four-cylinders can be upgraded with a power driver seat and a moonroof while the SE V6 and SE Sport models can be further upgraded with an upgraded JBL sound system. All SLEs can be ordered with a touch-screen DVD navigation system but Toyota's electronic stability and traction control system is only offered on the SLE V6.
All trim levels benefit from a new interior design that is both better-looking and more tightly constructed than before. Silver metallic accents contrast with unique green translucent plastic on the stereo and shift bezel to give the interior a noticeably more distinctive look than standard Camry sedans. SLE models are fitted with high-quality wood trim that looks as though it was pulled directly from higher-line Lexus models, and panel gaps are so tight you would be hard-pressed to slide a business card between them let alone find any misalignment or fitment issues.
Materials quality is excellent throughout and the placement of the controls gives little cause for complaint. Satellite steering wheel buttons have been added this time around for easier manipulation of the audio system and the latest Toyota navigation system sets the standard for its ease of use and the sheer amount of information it can provide.
While previous Solaras leaned heavily in favor of ride comfort over performance, the completely revamped suspension of this year's model delivers a more balanced combination of the two. Additional efforts to reduce noise and vibration give the Solara a luxury-car feel while the retuned springs and sway bars reduce the constant dipping and swaying that plagued the previous model. The SE Sport model is particularly impressive as it is able to carve through corners quickly with solid road feel and little body roll while still managing to retain a comfortable ride quality on rough streets. It's still not a performance coupe, but there's some measure of fun to be had should you feel the urge.
The standard 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine is a direct carryover from last year's model and remains rated at 157 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. With the help of variable valve timing, the smooth four provides adequate power over a wide range of engine speeds and up to 33 miles per gallon on the highway when coupled with the five-speed manual transmission.
Bigger news comes in the six-cylinder department as the optional V6 now displaces 3.3 liters and offers 225 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque, up from 198 and 212, respectively. Coupled with a new five-speed automatic transmission, the modest gains shave a full second off the Solara's previous 8-second 0-to-60-mph time, according to Toyota.
Pushed hard up a winding mountain road, the Solara moves smoothly through the gears, but there's not much urgency in its pace. With little noise and even less vibration, there's rarely a sense that the engine is working hard, but illegal speeds come quickly enough that careful attention to the redesigned gauges remains necessary. A manual shift gate for the five-speed automatic is a welcome improvement, but until a real shift-it-yourself gearbox is available with the V6, the Solara will be denied true driver's coupe status.
Not that such a shortcoming matters much, as the Solara has never been about appeasing the true enthusiast anyway. It's a car for those who want the dependability and simplicity of a Camry sedan dressed in a more appealing and athletic package. With its newfound power, more elegant interior and sharper handling, the Solara delivers on those promises in a way that will delight repeat buyers and surprise the newcomers.
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