Take an nice, staid Toyota Camry. Jazz the styling up a little bit with the help of some California designers. Reduce the number of doors from a family-friendly four to a singles-bar two. Now slice off the roof–but remember not to sacrifice any of that legendary Toyota Camry reliability or quality in the process.
Sound like a good idea? Toyota certainly thought so. Hot on the heels of the successful Camry-based Solara coupe, launched in 1998, comes a convertible. It’s Toyota’s first-ever midsize convertible, and has been designed specifically for the North American market with cars like the Chrysler Sebring convertible in its sights. Unlike the Sebring, however, production of the Solara convertible will be limited to less than 10,000 over the next couple of years.
Convertible Solaras begin life as coupes, and have their tops removed during the assembly process by long-time convertible top makers ASC. Although the basic underpinnings are pure Camry, the Solaras have a more distinctive look thanks to a sportier design by Toyota’s Calty Design Research studio in California. Where the Camry is relatively anonymous, the Solara wears a triangular face that’s slightly reminiscent of the more expensive Acura TL. A black trapezoidal grille is bisected by a horizontal chrome bar and Toyota logo. A prominent crease running the length of the car to a faintly tapering tail gives the Solara convertible an overall look not unlike that of a speedboat when the top is down. It’s a more expressive look than the Camry’s, but not as extroverted as a Ford Mustang, or even the Sebring for that matter.
As far as having a family look goes, Toyotas can be split into “Toyo-mild” and “Toyo-wild” camps. Cars like the new Celica and Echo fit in the “Toyo-wild” category, while the Solara convertible stays solidly in the former. It’s got a very smooth, finished and upscale look that belies its sub-$30,000 cost.
As can be expected, the Solara convertible is very much Camry inside. And that’s not a bad thing. Light colors abound, with a strip of wood separating the upper and lower halves of the dash. White-on-black gauges are easy to read, and the seats are higher off the floor than in other convertibles of this size (the Mustang pops to mind again) making them a great deal more comfortable. The Solara convertible has space for four people, which is unusual for a convertible of this size. The back seat is actually spacious, even with the top up. Legroom is a little tight, but this is a coupe, after all. Top down, there’s space to take three friends on a sightseeing tour. The cloth interior found in the Solara SE convertible is especially nice. The large glass rear window is much appreciated as well. We found only one nit to pick: both rear windows drop when the top is put down, and they raise with a single switch, which is hidden high up and low on the console. It’s kind of hard to find. That’s our only complaint.
On the road, the Solara convertible’s V6 is sedate and silent. Like its siblings, the mechanical workings of the car are as subdued as they can possibly be. Toyotas never feel like the complex machines that they are because they work so smoothly, and this one is no exception. The four-speed automatic handles shifts seamlessly. The overall driving experience is pure Camry, except for all that fresh air. The car’s mood depends entirely on your own: if you’re happy, it’s happy. If you’re not happy, put the top down. That’s what convertibles are for. The Toyota underpinnings churn away unobtrusively, leaving the surroundings to create the mood.
The Solara is Toyota’s first midsize convertible. A great deal of effort has gone into keeping its structural rigidity similar to the Solara coupe’s, and after one set of railroad tracks it’s obvious that ASC and Toyota have succeeded. Cowl shake and twisting feelings which tend to plague convertibles larger than two-seat roadsters are all but nonexistent in the Solara. Raising the top is a one-button affair.
At the top of the Camry line, the Solara is of course well-equipped. It’s available in SE and SLE models, with a 135 horsepower four-cylinder standard in the SE. A 200-horsepower V6 is standard in the SLE and optional in the SE. Options on the SLE include a 300-watt JBL sound system that was designed just for the Solara convertible, side airbags, and traction control. Price-wise, it comes in at $28,008, just above the Chrysler Sebring and just below the BMW 3-series convertible, with quality on par with both of those cars. With the limited production, Solara convertible owners are less likely to see themselves at intersections than Chrysler Sebring owners. The Solara’s docile nature and seamless Toyota operation make it a perfect mirror for the driver’s moods. And with the top down, that mood’s usually going to be a good one.
All specs are for the Camry Solara SLE convertible, which we tested.
Length: 190.0 in.
Height: 55.1 in.
Wheelbase: 105.1 in.
Curb weight: 3485 lb.
Cargo space: 8.8 cu.ft.
Base price: $28,008
Price as tested: $29,613
Engine: 3.0 liter, 24-valve DOHC V6
Drivetrain: four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 200 @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 214 @ 4400 rpm
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gal
Est. mileage: 19/26
6/2009 update: Solara convertibles are similar to the Chrysler Sebring convertible in spirit and in outlook, though the Toyotas are more reliable than the Chryslers in the long run.