2004 Toyota Camry Solara
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Stop the snickering.
Toyota's new-generation, 2004 Toyota Camry Solara isn't just a pretty car that appeals to women.
Starting its second generation, the Solara has Lexus-like styling cues and a more powerful V6 than before. It's larger and more comfortable to ride in.
It also has a more refined, upscale feel than its predecessor did and remains an affordable car with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of less than $20,000 for four-cylinder-powered coupe with manual transmission.
This compares with just over $19,000 for a base 2004 Honda Accord Coupe and more than $21,000 for a base 2004 Chrysler Sebring Coupe.
Standard equipment is plentiful in the five-passenger, midsize Solara. Front-seat side airbags, air conditioning with cabin air filtration, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, power windows, mirrors and door locks, an AM/FM stereo with CD player, keyless remote entry, and fold-down rear seats that expand trunk space are among the standard features.
There's also a new-for-2004 Solara Convertible, which has a starting MSRP around $26,000. It comes only with a V6 and automatic transmission. The soft top is power-operated.
Coupes outsell convertible
But Toyota officials said at the start of Solara production in 1998 that they expected the car to appeal to empty nesters whose kids have grown and who no longer need to haul around the family in the back seat every time they leave the driveway.
"… The Solara was a vehicle that declared, `it's my turn,'" said Don Esmond, general manager and senior vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.
Today, Baby Boomer empty nesters remain a Solara target market, and judging by their unsolicited compliments about the test Solara's Lexus SC 430-like styling, they like the looks.
Women have accounted for nearly 60 percent of buyers of past Solaras. But Toyota officials hope the new Solara brings a higher percentage of men. Esmond also said that Toyota hopes to get some younger "professionals looking to move up from their subcompact or sporty subcompact vehicles" to buy the Solara.
To this end, Toyota added an SE Sport grade of Solara that adds sportier suspension, tires and wheels as well as sporty exterior touches such as rear spoiler and side skirts to the Solara body.
Note, though, the SE Sport can be had with either the four-cylinder or V6 engine, and a manual transmission is offered only in the SE Sport with the lower-powered four cylinder.
Impression of quality
It looked more expensive, though. Maybe this impression derived from the small gaps between the body panels. In the new Solara, Toyota engineers reduced the size of the gaps from 1.5 millimeters to 0.5 millimeter.
"Such close tolerances result in a look and feel of extreme high quality and refinement," said Shigeki Terashi, chief engineer for the Solara.
Maybe the sense of refinement stems from the quiet inside this car. Among the updates, Toyota added double-seal weather stripping on all door openings and extensive sound deadening material. Opening the large driver door, I dropped down into the well-padded bucket seat to find an interior that doesn't feel confining and where controls are well-arranged.
Based on Camry sedan
The new Solara also is 0.5 inch taller and 0.4 inch wider than its predecessor. The rear seat is roomier and more comfortable for passengers. For example, headroom is a decent 36.9 inches in the back seat. This compares with 36.1 inches in the Accord Coupe and 36 inches in the Sebring Coupe.
But the biggest improvements in the Solara come in shoulder and hip room that help passengers feel as if they're not right on top of each other.
Shoulder room now is 56 inches in the Solara vs. 55.3 inches in the 2003 Solara and 52.4 inches in the Sebring Coupe and 56.1 inches in the Accord Coupe.
Hip room now is 54 inches in the Solara and compares with 49.5 inches in the Sebring Coupe and 54.2 inches in the Accord Coupe. The Solara's seats have been updated, too.
I still had to lower my head and clamber into the Solara's back seat. And once back there, I found the sloping roofline and rear window pillar pinching in on my views out. But Toyota added standard shoulder belt guides for front-seat riders to make it easier for them to reach back and grab their belts.
Trunk room remains at 13.8 cubic feet in the coupe, which is 1 cubic foot more than what's in the Accord Coupe but less than the 16.3 cubic feet in the Sebring Coupe.
I wouldn't call this a sporty car. The 2.4-liter four cylinder puts out 157 horses and 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, the same as last year's Solara. It was adequate for the car with me and one passenger inside, but it didn't exactly zip around traffic with gusto.
The uplevel, 3.3-liter V6 with 225 horses—up from 198 last year—and 240 lb-ft at 3600 rpm—vs. 212 at 4400 rpm last year—provides a more compelling ride and noticeable engine note on acceleration but is still not aggressively sporty. This engine also is used in the Lexus RX 330 SUV.
The fuel economy rating for the test Solara with four-cylinder engine is a decent 24 miles a gallon in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway.
The front-wheel-drive Solara SE Sport took curves and mountain twisties with surprising composure, while keeping most road bumps away from passengers.
Note the SE Sport includes grippy, 17-inch, performance tires.
But the Solara clearly is at its best when it's cruising.