To some—inhabitants of Outer Mongolia, for example, or the car-starved citizens of Cuba—this Toyota droptop will look like a sports car. But that's a matter of context. In places where motorized transport consists primarily of trucks and decontented Fiats left over from the mid-20th century, a Camry Solara convertible would look very sporty, indeed.
That's not true here, however. Right? You don't think "sports car" when you look at this four-seat ragtop, right? You think quiet operation, you think solid durability and high resale, you think first-rate quality—all of which is true. You may even think stylish, although there we'd beg to differ. This convertible's updated exterior reminds us of a Lexus SC430 that got caught in a giant taffy pull. You'd expect a general stretch to mitigate the big booty look of the SC, but alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. It's the same bulbous bustle on a bigger scale.
But that's not the key issue. The issue is sports-car-ness, an element that is utterly absent in this convertible's genetic makeup.
Toyota doesn't see it quite that way, of course. Although the corporate publicity mill stops short of saying sports car, there are references to "significantly higher torsional rigidity" and "exceptional level of performance" and a "wholly dedicated convertible body, free of the conversion process of chopping the top and retro-fitting for structural integrity."
This is where we have a problem. Although the Solara family—a line of coupes and convertibles for slightly more adventurous Camry buyers—was born at the 1997 Chicago show with a ragtop concept, the Solara Speedster, Toyota has never established much of a track record for roofless rigidity in its four-seat sun chasers.
That unfortunate tradition is maintained in the latest Solara convertible. It feels solid enough on smooth pavement at a sedate pace, but driven hard through the rough sections of our 10Best handling loop, it has more quivers and jiggles—not to mention reluctance—than Anna Nicole Smith running the 100-meter low hurdles. The last time we tested a Solara convertible ["Sunshine Missionaries," C/D, May 2001], we reported there was "not a sporting bone in its body." Its makeover has done nothing to mitigate that conviction.
But if lateral g and brisk transitions aren't high on your list of fun-to-drive priorities, and you want to share the fresh air and sunshine with more than one other adult—or you've been tapped to provide a perch for a brace of winsome beauties in the annual homecoming parade—the new Solara softtop has much to recommend it.
For one, it's bigger—2.5 inches longer and about a half-inch taller and wider, which add up to more room in the rear seat for pals, beauty queens, or Anna Nicole. For another, there's more grunt—225 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque from a 3.3-liter DOHC variable-valve-timing 24-valve aluminum V-6, compared with 198 horsepower and 212 pound-feet from the previous 3.0-liter. The 3.0 was mated with a four-speed automatic, the 3.3 with a five-speed auto with manumatic capability, although the manual function, as usual, doesn't bear much resemblance to a standard transmission.
Nevertheless, the power boost pays dividends in the 0-to-60 department. The new Solara is heavier than its predecessor—3639 pounds versus 3500—but it delivers respectable hustle: 7.3 seconds to 60 versus 8.5 for the original. That's not quite as quick as the Solara coupe we tested in October 2003, but it's a whole bunch quicker than the sluggish 8.9 seconds we recorded for a Chrysler Sebring Limited in our "Sunshine Missionaries" comparo.
Still another improvement: Interior noise levels are down significantly from the best-in-test numbers we recorded for that '01 Solara, thanks in large measure to the sealing of its beautifully insulated top, and top-down turbulence has been reduced. At the same time, Toyota has whittled back the pricing. This loaded top-of-the-line SLE carries a base price of $29,965, a suggested retail that includes a broad range of luxo features. The only extra was a $650 stability-control system, but even with an as-tested price of $30,615, this Solara is $1272 less than the one we reviewed three years ago.
So, sports-car lovers need not apply. But on the limited menu of true four-seat convertibles—the Sebring is the only other entrée—the latest Solara is very tempting.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door convertible
PRICE AS TESTED: $30,615 (base price: $29,965)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 202 cu in, 3309cc
Power (SAE net): 225 bhp @ 5600 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 240 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic with manumatic shifting
Wheelbase: 107.1 in Length: 192.5 in Width: 71.5 in Height: 56.1 in
Curb weight: 3639 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 7.3 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 20.1 sec
Street start, 5-60 mph: 7.7 sec
Standing 1/4-mile: 15.6 sec @ 91 mph
Top speed (drag limited): 134 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
EPA fuel economy, city driving: 20 mpg