2001 Toyota Camry Solara
Two-doors, coupe or convertible, and a sweet V6.
By Albert Hall
IntroductionThe Solara offers buyers all of the benefits of the Toyota Camry (smooth, powerful engines, quiet interiors, and rock-solid dependability) in a slick, two-door body style.
Opting for a Solara SE with the 200-hp V6 and available five-speed manual transmission gives the car a sporty edge. Or, the Solara can be ordered as a full-blown luxury coupe with leather upholstery, a concert hall sound system, and automatic climate control. Or, it can be a convertible, delivering top-down, fun in the sun.
Either way, the Solara delivers a blend of comfort, style and reliability that is tough to beat. It shares the Toyota Camry platform, offering solid value and Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability. This makes it a compelling alternative to expensive cars such as the Acura 3.2 CL, BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, and Volvo C70.
Model LineupThe Solara comes in three variants: an SE version with a base-level 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine; an SE version with a 3.0-liter V6; and the top-of-the-line SLE, featuring the V6, plus many standard luxury appointments (most of which are optional on the SE V6).
A five-speed manual transmission comes with the four-cylinder and SE V6 models (a four-speed automatic is an $800 option). Top-level SLEs only offer the automatic.
Solara convertibles add a rear spoiler and retractable power top with heated glass rear window. The manual transmission is not offered with the soft top models.
WalkaroundWhat prompted Toyota to build a high-profile coupe in an era when a classic like the Buick Riviera has long disappeared? Demographics. Baby Boomers who have paid off their mortgages and watched their kids graduate from college are now ready to splurge on themselves. They're nostalgic for big, long-hooded coupes and convertibles, but aren't ready to turn their backs on practicality. Toyota calls Solara "a well-deserved indulgence" -- exactly what it thinks these empty-nest Boomers want. Perhaps Ford shares this thinking, since a redesigned "retro-look" T-Bird is set to hit the showrooms next year.
Solara's styling is unique. With strong character lines and a wide, aggressive rear end, the Solara is more expressive than a Camry, and more interesting to the eye. Of course, Toyota doesn't want shoppers to completely forget the Camry, or its reputation for quality. That's why this car's official name is Camry Solara.
Solara is available with a 135-hp 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine or an optional 200-hp 3.0-liter V6, both offered in the Camry. (Horsepower ratings for the convertible are slightly less.) It's built on the same 105-inch wheelbase, although Solara gets extra bracing in the front end and behind the rear seat to stiffen the chassis. It has firmer suspension settings than Camry, and a recalibrated power steering system that delivers heavier, more direct feel at the wheel. It's all intended to make Solara drive more like a sports car, and to that end Toyota offers the coupe with a five-speed manual transmission with the V6. That combo isn't available on the Honda Accord coupe or Chrysler Sebring coupe.
The base Solara SE comes well equipped, and includes power windows, mirrors and door locks, air conditioning, and an AM/FM stereo with both CD and cassette players. The SLE adds leather interior, power adjustable driver's seat, alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, and a JBL sound system. Toyota's five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty is standard for both trim lines. Like the Camry, Solara is available with optional side-impact airbags.
Interior FeaturesSolara feels different from the Camry the moment you sit in the driver's seat. The dashboard hints at a cockpit-style instrument panel. It flows into the door panels, accented by a strip of tasteful faux wood trim.
In some color combinations, the plastic, vinyl and leather interior share the rich look and feel of Toyota's upscale Lexus cars. Still, there are things to quibble about. Shoulder belts are not height-adjustable. The storage bins on the door panels are a little too narrow to be really useful, and the center console could have used some of the faux wood that trims the dash.
The Solara driver looks at a crisp, legible, well-lit cluster of three gauges, with the speedometer in the center, tachometer left and the fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The stereo buttons are big and easy to find with minimal distraction; the volume and tuning dials sit closest to the driver, exactly where they should be.
Simple radial climate-control switches allow easy adjustments. The fan is a bit loud at full speed, but almost inaudible on lower settings. Solara has both a cigarette lighter and an extra power outlet. From the stalk-mounted wiper controls to the sunroof button overhead, switch placement and operation are first rate.
So are the seats. The optional leather is supple and perfectly tailored, while the seats themselves are soft enough to be comfortable yet firm enough to keep the driver from feeling lazy. The seatbacks have a memory feature, so they return to the same incline position when they're leaned forward. The front passenger seat has a toe-operated lever that slides the whole seat forward for easy access to the rear.
Even though the Solara only comes with two doors, the rear seat accommodates two 6-foot adults in reasonable comfort. Grab handles, a padded armrest and an ashtray are available for back-seat passengers. In short, accommodations are better than adequate for taking friends out for a night on the town. When it's necessary to carry oversize packages, the rear seat folds flat to expand trunk space.
The Solara convertible's headliner is covered in rich-looking fabric; it's so nicely finished that you'd be hard-pressed to know you were in a convertible.
Driving ImpressionsWhen the Solara idles, the driver feels almost no vibration through the steering wheel, seats or floorboard. The only hint the car is running comes as a faint resonance in the gas pedal. Pick up steam and that silky smooth quality remains. At freeway pace, there's little wind noise in the Solara's cabin even on the windiest days. As you'd expect, the convertible model is a bit noisier inside with the top up than the coupe.
Full steam in the Solara comes in short order. With healthy torque, the V6 delivers a steady flow of acceleration. The four-speed automatic, which most Solara buyers will choose, takes full advantage of that power. Downshifts are as immediate as a jab at the gas pedal, and passing maneuvers are a breeze. Off the line, a Solara V6 automatic coupe manages 0-60 mph acceleration runs in the low 7-second range, making it one of the quickest cars in its class.
When the road changes direction sharply and frequently, the Solara bears up well. The steering is less numb than that in the Camry sedan. It's more progressive in the effort required by the driver, a little bit sharper, and quick enough to keep up with rapid direction changes.
But the Solara is not a sports car. It's basic handling characteristic is understeer -- a pushing at the front of the car the helps keep drivers without racing experience from getting in over their heads. It has more body roll, or lean through the corners, than a sports car. But it is well controlled as the car's weight shifts from side. Solara is competent on all kinds of roads, and its supple ride keeps driver and passengers comfortable in all circumstances.
For entertainment value, the manual transmission gives Solara an edge on competitors. The five-speed adds another level of driver involvement, and it quickens acceleration performance.
However, we're not as enamored of Solara's optional traction-control system, available only on the SLE model. Traction control works by limiting engine power when the drive wheels slip, and the Solara's system might be useful in climates where slippery conditions are a constant problem. Yet managing power in a front-wheel-drive automobile is less demanding than in a rear-drive car to begin with. And the Solara's system is so aggressive that it turns the car into a turtle in conditions that aren't that difficult. Fortunately, a switch allows the driver to turn it off when it's not needed.
Does Solara have that intangible quality enthusiast drivers call personality? That's a hard thing to define. Certainly, it doesn't have the spirit of performance of favorites like BMW's 3-Series coupe. On the other hand, compared to some of the vanilla-flavored cars from staid Toyota, the Solara has personality. It doesn't beg to be driven like a race car, but it doesn't wilt under pressure, either.
Solara can get the blood pumping fast enough to more than satisfy most drivers. The Honda Accord coupe, Solara's most obvious competitor, has slightly more responsive steering, yet it doesn't feel as substantial as the Solara. And compared to the Chrysler Sebring coupe, or just about any car in the class, the Solara is smoother and quieter.
The Solara convertible's top operation is very simple. To lower the top, lower the sun visors, release two latches near the top corners of the headliner, and press and hold the "open" button on the center console. The front- and rear quarter-windows conveniently lower automatically when the top is lowered (but do not automatically go back up when you raise the top). A semi-hard plastic boot allows you to cover the retracted convertible top and gives the Solara a clean, finished look. Successfully attaching it, however, requires a fair amount of tugging and tucking it in and around the rubber seals near the back of the rear section of the passenger compartment. Most times we didn't bother with it.
SummaryThe success or failure of coupes and convertibles probably depends less on fads or trends in the auto market and more on how well a particular car is executed.
The Camry Solara is well executed. It's solid, roomy and reasonably fun to drive. Anyone seeking the mix of looks, performance and practicality that defines a good coupe or convertible should have Solara on their shopping list.
Of course, this ticket can be expensive. The Solara SLE we tested cleared $27,000, including preferred options like an in-dash six-CD changer, traction control and a power moonroof. A top-of-the-line SLE convertible with similar options (less the moonroof, of course) will set you back over $32,000.
It's up to the buyer whether Toyota's reputation for quality is worth the price premium.