Thursday, May 13, 2004

Toyota’s new-generation 2004 Camry Solara coupe sure generates a lot of compliments.

People who liked the original Solara coupe, introduced in autumn 1998, as well as people who seemed to be discovering the stylish Solara because of its new, sleeker looks for 2004, felt compelled to remark about the car during a test drive.

Not bad for a two-door auto with a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $19,635.

Named to convey the radiance of the sun, the 2004 Solara coupe is a bit larger and roomier than its predecessor. It has a more upscale interior, a new platform with improved suspension and a more powerful V-6.

There are three versions of Solara this year, with the addition of a new SE Sport that includes a sportier suspension, unique dark-charcoal interior and an exterior six-piece body kit for a racier look.

All Solaras, even the base model with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission, come with a good amount of standard equipment, including keyless remote entry, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, eight-way adjustable driver seat, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and side-mounted air bags — the kinds of things found standard on many luxury cars.

The new Solara’s styling on the outside seems to have a Camry-meets-Lexus-SC 430 philosophy. The Solara’s front end reminds me of the Camry, while the back end has teardrop taillamps and other styling cues that remind me of the Lexus SC 430 roadster.

Each element, on its own, is attractive, and the overall styling certainly caught the eye of lots of bystanders on the test drive.

The interior also shines. Indeed, the old Solara interior looks downright dowdy compared with the new Solara’s sweeping console, large, bright gauges, almost-Lexus-look controls and thoughtful touches, such as new seatbelt extensions that make it easier for front-seat riders to reach their shoulder belts.

The base Solara engine — a 157-horsepower, 2.4-liter, inline four cylinder with Toyota’s Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i), capable of 162 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm — is a carryover from the 2003 Solara.

It’s available even in the SE Sport model and provided a surprisingly decent performance in the under-3,200-pound test car, where the engine was mated to a five-speed manual transmission.

The Solara responded readily, accelerating from a stop quickly and merging into city traffic with confidence as I worked the gears. A quick downshift helped me pass others on country roads and highways with some zip, too.

Shifts were satisfying, though the throws from gear to gear were just a tad longer than I’d like.

Fuel economy is even more satisfying, with a government rating for the SE Sport model with manual transmission of 24 miles a gallon in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway.

The Solara’s uplevel engine — the same 225-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6 with VVT-i that’s in Toyota’s Sienna minivan and the Lexus RX 330 sport utility vehicle — offers even more performance and is available on all models of Solara.

Fuel economy drops, obviously, in these six-cylinder models. It’s around 20 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg or less on the highway.

The test Solara SE Sport with sport-tuned suspension rode with a poise and refinement that made it seem like a more expensive car.

Road bumps were decently damped and the ride remained mostly smooth, while the driver still felt well-connected to the road.

The SE Sport rides on 17-inch wheels and tires.

All Solaras have front and rear suspensions that are mounted to anti-vibration subframes for improved smoothness and interior quiet.

Drivers must look carefully around the front windshield pillars, as they’re sizable and can obscure pedestrians and even other cars from view when the Solara is turning.

Watch, too, when backing up as the rear-window pillar to the right can block views of oncoming traffic.

The 2004 Solara is taller than its predecessor, by 1.8 inches. But drivers still find themselves riding low and feeling dwarfed by high-riding pickup trucks and SUVs on the road.

This is the first Solara with standard side air bags. They’re for the front seats only and only provide chest protection, not chest and head protection, in a side crash.

Toyota also offers head curtain air bags as a $400 option on Solara coupes.

The fit and finish on the test car was excellent, inside and out.

Notice, if you can, that the 2004 Solara has smaller gaps between sheet metal pieces — down to 0.5 millimeter or less — than its predecessor.

And now the crease in the dashboard where the front-passenger frontal air bag deploys is no longer visible.

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