- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

REDONDO BEACH, Calif.

The exterior of the new Camry Solara, which is based on one of the best-selling sedans in the country, looks sleek, aerodynamic and more aggressive than before.

When I walked up to the test car in the parking lot of the Toyota headquarters in Torrance, Calif. I realized that there are two kinds of coupes: sporty and classy ones and the Camry undoubtedly belongs to the second category and not just because of its vague resemblance to the Lexus SC430. When I jumped into the driver’s seat, I felt myself embraced with the luxurious atmosphere of the roomy cockpit.

I have to admit that I am a sports car fanatic: long hoods, flowing lines, powerful engines and no-nonsense handling have an everlasting attraction. But I also appreciate the comfy coupes, such as the Solara and its competitors in Europe such as the Saab V70 Coupe and the French Peugeot 407 Coupe.

They are not pushing you to drive them to their limits; they make you feel relaxed, not enjoying the speed this time, but enjoying comfort. And that is exactly what I did with the Camry Solara SLE. I had a smooth drive up north from Los Angeles to Sonoma Valley, quite relaxed but fast enough to look out for speed traps.

With time to look at the sunset with the beautiful orange light on the mountains. With effortless steering along the Pacific Coast Highway and the availability of power from the new 3.3-liter V-6, forgetting a hectic summer and having just a very nice drive.

It has been the purpose of the designers of the Solara to add a bit more sportiveness and more refinement to the coupe. But comfort and value are its core business, a coupe with a broad appeal. Most buyers of the Solara are empty-nesters, more often female than male. Understandable, as the men have their business car and the women do not need to take the youngsters to school anymore.

Based on the improved platform of the new Camry, the Solara is somewhat sportier than the preceding model. It is stiff enough to provide a responsive feel and the suspension with its 17-inch wheels can easily handle the power of the new all aluminum 3.3 VVTi V-6. That engine replaces the 3.0-liter V-6 in the old Solara. The 3.3 has 225 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 240 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm, 27 horsepower and 28 foot-pounds more than the old 3.0-liter.

The V-6 is teamed exclusively to a new five-speed sequential automatic. Compared with the four-speed automatic transmission used previously, it has a broader gear-ratio for sportier shifting. A new gated shifter allows manual shifting too. But I soon realized that I hardly used it.

Like before, the Solara is also available with the 2.4-liter four cylinders with a five-speed manual. All Solara’s have a ULEV-II certification.

During my little holiday trip with the Solara I appreciated the interior of the SLE with its wood grain-style trim, good position behind the steering wheel and the excellent seat. The new dashboard and the standard equipment were also nice. And of course, anti-lock brakes and side air bags are standard.

When I look at the $25,995 (MSRP) price tag, I am convinced that this Solara has a real good chance to sell well.

Too bad Toyota does not sell the Camry Solara in Europe.

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