Coupes are typically known for their sporty looks and handling. In comparison, sedans tend to appeal to those who favor function over hip factor, the convenience of four doors over two. Occasionally a coupe comes along that successfully bridges the gap between the two groups, appealing to both non-traditional coupe buyers and non-traditional sedan buyers alike. The 2004 Toyota Camry Solara is one of those cars. Coupe buyers like it because it's spacious like a sedan, and sedan buyers like it because it portrays a sportier, less stodgy image without sacrificing interior space and functionality.
Originally introduced in 1999, the Solara is the coupe version of the Camry, Toyota's best-selling midsize sedan. The Solara's close association with the Camry is both good and bad. On one hand, the Camry has a solid reputation for quality and reliability, but on the other hand, it's not known for its innovative design either inside or out. The 2004 Solara is the second-generation coupe the first generation spent four years proving itself as a Toyota Camry, while the new Solara begins to distinguish itself, becoming less of an apparent Camry and more of an attractive coupe.
Like the Camry, the Solara is available with either a four-cylinder or V6 engine. Our test car was a Camry SLE, the top-of-the-line trim, with the new V6 engine. Now displacing 3.3 liters, the V6's horsepower and torque have been increased to 225 hp and 240 pound-feet. Having spent considerable time in the previous 3.0-liter V6 Solara, the increase in power was immediately noticeable to us. The engine was responsive with just a tap of the accelerator, and remained smooth and quiet as the revs continued to climb. While the lower trim levels offer a five-speed manual gearbox, the SLE V6 comes only with a new five-speed automatic transmission. The new tranny shifted so quietly and smoothly, it was hardly a noticeable occurrence.
We previously reported that Toyota claimed the Solara's 0-to-60-mph time had been improved by a full second with the new 3.3-liter V6. After performing instrumented testing of our own, we enthusiastically second Toyota's assertion, as our clock showed the Solara hitting 60 miles per hour in 7.0 seconds, while the previous generation was only running eights.
Attempting to move further into the sport coupe category, the Solara now benefits from a retuned suspension which provides a stiffer, sportier ride. Not exactly BMW-stiff, mind you, but much less spongy than the previous Solara, while still keeping the interior quiet and comfortable. Our test car also displayed keener handling characteristics as it wound through curvy roads without the wallowing display one might experience in the old Solara.
One complaint our staffers voiced was reduced visibility through the Solara's rear windows. New styling gives the Solara a more hunkered-down, aggressive stance, but the wide C-pillars and high rear beltline create a larger blind spot out each side of the rear than in the previous Solara.
Moving through the Solara's interior, the design upgrades were immediately noticeable. The simple, elegant cabin features three large, interlocking gauges which span the instrument panel, providing soft illumination as opposed to harsh light. Soft-touch surfaces make the space comfortable and inviting, and several different textures are used to create a comfortably diverse environment. The cushy front seats are wrapped in perforated leather, a perfect setup for allowing the seat heaters to warm occupants almost immediately. Front legroom isn't stellar at 42.1 inches, but it doesn't fall too short of competitors such as the Infiniti G35 coupe (leading with 43.8 inches) and the Honda Accord coupe (43.1 inches).
In back, we found high seat backs, supportive door panel armrests and 35.5 inches of legroom (2.5 to 4 inches more rear legroom than competitors'). These attributes help stifle protests from taller rear-seat passengers once they're in and settled but getting into the rear seat is another matter. Rear-seat access from the passenger side is great since the front seat back flips forward and the seat bottom moves generously forward allowing ample entry and exit room. But driver-side access is hampered by the extremely slow-moving power driver seat which must be pushed all the way forward to allow passengers to climb in the rear.
Drivers will be pleased to see that although there are numerous buttons used to control the automatic climate control system (only the Accord has dual-zone control), all buttons are clearly labeled to lessen angst while acquiring a temperate cabin. The premium JBL audio system has just plain too many buttons, but large volume and tuning knobs, coupled with steering wheel-mounted audio controls should alleviate most frustration. There were, however, two blank steering wheel controls, which seemed odd since our test car was the highest trim level with nearly all options (although it was minus the optional touchscreen DVD navigation system).
If you're traveling en masse, or you just can't seem to pack lightly, the Solara's cavernous trunk will be a welcome surprise. With 13.8 cubic feet, the Solara's trunk has nearly double the maximum capacity of the G35 coupe's 7.8-cube cargo hold. The keyless remote trunk button will pop the lid high enough to be boosted the rest of the way by mere fingertips. Alternative in-cabin storage abounds, with map pockets on the front seat backs, door bins, a sunglasses holder above the rearview mirror and a super deep storage compartment with a push-to-open cover directly in front of the gear selector.
With such a long list of features and generous passenger and cargo space, the Toyota Camry Solara is certainly a coupe that provides the benefits of most sedans. While the 2004 version has taken a solid step toward offering the sporty benefits of a coupe as well, don't expect it to steal sales from the BMW 325Ci anytime soon. But, when it comes to competing with the likes of the Honda Accord, Toyota has an undisputable winner.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says: Normally, a two-door version of a four-door original just doesn't do it for me. I've never found them to be all that different, sportier or that much better than the original. So far, the only two exceptions to my opinion are the Infiniti G35 and Mercedes-Benz CL-Class. I carried this bias going into my drive of the Camry Solara.
I can appreciate what a Camry offers. It's quiet, smooth, comfortable and reliable, though my preferences still lean toward German sport coupes. After spending a weekend in the Solara, it didn't take me long to rethink my position. I found I loved driving it around town. Having plenty of power, the Solara was smooth and luxurious all the time, while being surprisingly sporty when you wanted it to be. The unbelievably comfortable seats and rocking sound system rounded out the package.
Though the drive was delightful, I still prefer German styling with its harder edges and more aggressive looks. The Camry seemed too rounded and curvy, and the styling felt like it was pitched to someone older than me.
After my experience in the Solara, it really had me wondering whether my German style sport bias has been overcome by a desire for Japanese luxury appointments and value. After you get coddled like you do in the Solara, it becomes a tough proposition.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: When fully loaded as our test vehicle was, the Camry Solara does a fine impression of an entry-luxury coupe. The materials used in the cabin everything from the metallic-finish center stack controls to the soft leather upholstery are a definite upgrade from the Camry sedan. Consider the difference between a sedan and a coupe buyer and this makes sense: The coupe buyer is willing to give up some space and convenience in favor of a more sophisticated look and feel.
Out on the road, this is the sportiest Camry yet. Take the car around a turn, and the Solara demonstrates a level of body control and steering feel that Camry sedans can't give you. If you get a little more aggressive with it, though, it's soon obvious that this still isn't really a sporting coupe and is in fact intended for the mainstream driver who wants superb ride comfort with a little extra capability for the occasional back-roads detour.
Like most of the editors on our staff, I think I'd want a larger dose of sport if I were going to purchase a coupe. I'd also want a better contoured driver seat; the Solara's forces you to sit in a reclined position, which is probably desirable for larger drivers but wasn't very comfortable for me. Additionally, although the backseat has plenty of legroom and foot room, it's tight on headroom for a midsize coupe I didn't find it significantly more accommodating than the Infiniti G35's backseat. But beyond this, there really isn't anything to complain about, as this is one of the most refined cars in its price range. If you want a Camry, but with more style and capability (and two fewer doors), the Solara won't disappoint.
"OK, it's not really a Lexus, but it sure looks like one. The 3.3-liter engine purrs like a kitten. It is one of the most comfortable cars I have ever driven. A great replacement for the BMW 325Ci I traded in for it. My wife and I love it. The navigation system is the best I have ever used. The seats are big and roomy. With the navigation system, you only get a single CD player. They could have put a six-disc CD player in the trunk." jsteff, Aug. 27,2003
"The V6 Solara SLE handles like a dream. This car is very sporty and powerful. I found that my car gets great gas mileage; however, filling it up initially isn't cheap because the car has an 18-gallon tank.But, it is well worth it because you can ride forever once you fill it up. Everything in the car is driver-friendly. The radio/CD controls are placed within easy reach of the driver and the stereo system is nice. Also, although the Solara is a two-door car, don't be fooled because it has a full backseat that can accommodate three average-size adults. Although I love the entire car, I am partial to the radio/CD system. The in-dash six-disc changer is a must-have." tlh9, Aug. 26, 2003
"Owning a Solara SLE is like driving a dream car! This is so close to having a Lexus, you can taste it. It was love at first sight, and it's great having one of the first ones in Omaha. I used to draw cars as a teenager, so I can appreciate the curvaceous lines of this sculptural work of art. The interior is glamorous, sleek and invitingly perfect! Driving the automatic with the manual upshifting/downshifting capabilities is just so much fun, especially in city stop-and-go traffic. It makes me feel like a kid again! I LOVE THIS CAR!!! Favorite things about the '04 Solara: The flowing, curvy styling from all angles, the auto transmission with manual down/upshifting, the sleek contemporary interior and the feel of a luxo Lexus. The Gold Package should include the Toyota emblems on the center cap of the alloy wheels. The engine could have a tad more pep, like the Maxima's. Otherwise, this is as good as it gets for an American-made coupe!" Richard Thies, Aug. 19, 2003
"Granted, I have only had this car for three days, but I just love it. Many areas of this car have the quality look and feel of the more expensive Lexus SC. The interior design was well-thought-out and built, but it was the handling on the test-drive that sold me on this baby. We took this car out on a slightly pitted back road and let it open up. The suspension was fantastic and when taking tight turns at high speeds we experienced very little roll. This car hugs the road very well and the automanual shifting makes it very fun to drive. It is by no means a sport coupe, but is far sportier than the Camry or old Solaras. I love the ride quiet, very little noise. This is the first Toyota redesigned and built in the U.S. and I was a little worried that the build quality might not be as high. But Toyota's sterling reputation convinced me that this car would be as high quality as its other cars. gtip, Aug. 17, 2003
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