2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE
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Story and photos by Greg Wilson

Curvy coupe stands out


If you were to ask a Toyota Camry customer why he/she bought a new four-door Camry sedan, they’d probably mention Toyota’s reputation for “reliability”, the Camry’s “roomy interior”, “competitive price”, and “fuel efficiency” – and maybe way down on the list somewhere would be “styling”, if mentioned at all.

But for two-door coupe buyers, exterior and interior styling are much higher on the priority list. Coupes, fastbacks and hatchbacks are more about lifestyle, image, and driving enjoyment than passenger roominess, trunk space and fuel efficiency.

Which explains why Toyota restyled the two-door Toyota Camry coupe in 1999 (which looked just like the Camry sedan) and created the more stylish Camry Solara. And why the new 2004 Toyota Camry Solara has taken this styling evolution even further.

The 2004 Solara’s new swoopy, fluid design is more like a Lexus ES300 or SC430 than a Toyota. The new Solara looks like it was designed in a wind tunnel. In particular, the elongated clear headlight and tailight covers follow the curvature

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE
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of the body as though they are a part of the bodywork. Prominent character lines in the hood merge gracefully with the grille, and well-defined fender lines stretch from nose to tail.

My “Absolutely Red” Solara test car, pictured here, also had a small rear lip spoiler, front spoiler tips, side skirts, rear valance, and 17 inch tires and alloy wheels – all part of the optional Sport Package ($2,400).

Despite its attractive curves, the Solara’s proportions aren’t quite right. The front and rear overhangs are long, and the optional 17 inch tires and wheels (16 inch wheels are standard) look rather small when viewing the car in profile. The Solara’s window ledges are high, tapering upwards towards the rear. And the optional tacked-on lip spoiler, front spoiler and rear valance look, well, “tacked on”. Much of this is in the eye of the beholder, but you see what I mean.

Something you can’t see unless you’re standing right next to the car is a clear plastic cover on the bumper and hood which is designed to protect the paint against flying stones and debris. This clear cover is so cleverly adhered, you may not even notice it. Only the edges are visible. Let’s hope it doesn’t start peeling off in a few years.

(Late note from the editor: apparently this clear “hood tape” is not available to the public – Toyota applies it to media vehicles to prevent paint chips before selling the vehicle. But maybe it should be an option! It’s a great alternative to those ugly black “bras”..)

Another feature you won’t notice until you open the doors is that the side windows have no frames. This design saves weight and complexity but it means the windows must seal out rain and wind by contacting a rubber door seal rather than resting within a steel frame. Over time, the rubber seal could develop leaks. When the car is new this is usually not a problem, and my Solara test vehicle had no air or water leaks around the window edges.


Solara’s available with 4 and 6 cylinder engines

For 2004, Toyota Camry Solaras are offered with two engines in three trim levels: SE 4 cylinder ($26,800), SE V6 ($30,900), and SLE V6 ($35,800). 2003 Solaras were available in SE 4 cylinder ($28,175) and SLE V6 ($34,290) versions – base 2004 Solara SE 4 cylinder models have gone down in price by $1,375, and SLE V6 models have also dropped $510.

Base 2004 Solara SE models have the same 157 horsepower 2.4 litre 4 cylinder engine as last year while SE V6 and SLE V6 Solara’s have a new 225 horsepower 3.3 litre V6 engine replacing the 200 horsepower 3.0 litre V6. Solara SE’s come with a standard four-speed automatic transmission, and SE V6 and SLE V6 models get a new 5-speed automatic with manual shifting mode. A traditional manual transmission is not offered.

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE
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Interior is roomy for coupe

As coupes go, the Solara’s interior is fairly roomy. It seats five passengers rather than four, and with a wheelbase that is 50 mm longer than the previous Solara, there is noticeably more rear legroom. Headroom and shoulder room have also been increased, but in the rear seat, headroom is limited to adults under 5′ 10″ tall.

Inside, there are no protruding dashboard bulges or other fanciful styling exercises found in many other sporty coupes. It’s a fairly straightforward, user-friendly design. The darker hue of the dash is offset by carbon-fibre-like dash trim and bright metal-like plastic trim on the centre instrument panel. With the optional Sport Package, you also get sportier seat fabric, leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather shift knob, and aluminum gas and brake pedals.

The Solara’s front sport seats offer excellent thigh and lower body support, and include a manual lumbar adjustment for the middle of the back. As well, the grippy leather-wrapped steering wheel (with Sport Package) can be adjusted manually for height and reach. I also liked the big “dead” pedal to the left of the brake pedal which provides a convenient resting place for the left foot.

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE
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Behind the steering wheel are three overlapping round gauges including a tachometer with a 6000 rpm redline, a central speedometer and a right-hand cluster including coolant temperature, fuel and transmission gear indicator.

On top of the dash are additional LCD readouts: an information display operated by a button on the steering wheel spoke; a digital clock; and an outside temperature gauge. There’s also a compass in the rearview mirror, and a sunglasses holder in the overhead console.

The standard AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers has extra-big dials for Volume and Tune and big, easy-to-read buttons for most other functions. You can also adjust the volume, Seek, and band with buttons on the steering wheel. The sound is good for a standard stereo system but not great – I’ll give it a seven out of ten. Below the stereo are three large dials for the heater functions. I found both radio and heater controls very simple to use. My only complaint is that the LCD displays can be hard to read under direct sunlight.

A covered storage bin at the bottom of the centre console is roomy enough for a camera, PDA and cell-phone, and there’s a 12 volt powerpoint inside. The armrest between the front seats also has a roomy storage container inside. And there are two covered cupholders just behind the shift lever.

Standard safety features include dual-stage front airbags for driver and passenger, and side airbags mounted in the front seats. The front passenger airbag will not deploy if a sensor in the front passenger seat determines that the occupant weighs less than 34 kilograms (75 pounds). All Solaras include five three-point seatbelts with front pretensioners and force limiters, and four height-adjustable head restraints. A new pivoting guide for the front shoulder belt assists front occupants in reaching their belts. The Solara is also equipped with a tire pressure warning system that alerts the driver when tire pressure falls below 21.8 pounds per square inch.

To assist passengers getting in to the rear seat from the passenger side, the front passenger seat automatically slides forward when the seatback is folded down. However, the driver’s seat does not have this feature, so it’s more difficult to get in to the rear seat from the driver’s side than the passenger side.

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE

2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE
Click image to enlarge

Unlike in many coupes, the Solara’s rear seat has seatbelts for three rear passengers – but it’s more comfortable for two. Rear passengers have cupholders and armrests on the side walls, but there isn’t a central folding armrest, and the rear side windows do not roll down. Also, there are two outboard height-adjustable head restraints, but no centre head restraint.

The Solara has a relatively big trunk (390 litres/13.8 cu. ft), and it can be opened remotely with a button on the key fob. In addition, standard 60/40 folding rear seatbacks increase the trunk’s usefulness. The folding seats can be locked from inside the trunk to prevent access from the passenger compartment to the trunk by thieves.

For a base price of $26,800, the Solara SE is well-equipped – the list includes air conditioning, power windows with automatic up/down for driver and passenger, power door locks and remote keyless entry, tachometer, AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, heated mirrors, front and side airbags, and 60/40 folding rear seatbacks. Curtain airbags are available on the SLE V6, but not on the SE and SE V6.


Driving impressions

The 2004 Camry Solara SE is not a performance coupe like the Celica. For starters, it’s bigger than most sporty coupes, and it doesn’t offer a manual transmission. And though it can be ordered with a Sport Package, the Solara’s emphasis is more on comfort and ride quality than performance.

The SE’s 2.4 litre twin cam 24 valve 4 cylinder engine with variable valve timing is generally very quiet and smooth – not racy-sounding like a Celica. With 157 horsepower @ 5600 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque @ 4000 rpm, it’s not a real powerhouse, and acceleration times are modest but acceptable. On the freeway, the engine is very quiet, doing only 2,200 rpm at a steady 100 km/h. Fuel consumption is good for a mid-sized coupe: 10.1 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg) on the highway. That’s slightly better than the previous 4 cylinder Solara.

From the driver’s seat, the driver has a clear view ahead and to the sides, but the height of the rear deck makes backing up difficult. The driving position is comfortable aided by the tilt-telescoping steering wheel which can compensate for longer arms or shorter legs. I found controls easy to reach and simple to operate.

I’m not a fan of gated shifters, but the irregular pattern of the shift gate has one useful feature – the driver can slap the lever left and right to go from fourth to third.

The Solara’s progressive-rate rack-and-pinion power steering has a very light feel at low speeds, and a firmer, and fairly quick feel at highway speeds. It’s certainly sportier than the Camry sedan.

The Solara’s fully independent suspension (MacPherson struts in front and dual link/gas-filled MacPherson struts at the rear) is a bit stiffer than the Camry sedan, and although the stiffer shocks cause some “bobbing” on the highway, it’s not firm enough to make the ride uncomfortable. Cornering ability is more competent than I expected in a fairly large sporty coupe – due in part to my test car’s optional Bridgestone Turanza 215/55R-17 tires.

Four wheel disc brakes with standard ABS replace last year’s front disc/rear drum setup. The Solara’s braking system includes electronic brake distribution which adjusts front to rear braking differences and side-to-side braking differences when cornering.

Though I wouldn’t describe it as “fun-to-drive”, the Solara is “enjoyable-to-drive” with the added bonus of a roomy interior, big trunk, and a comfortable ride.


Competitors

There aren’t many other mid-size, front-wheel-drive, four cylinder coupes on the market. The Solara’s closest competitor is the Honda Accord Coupe which starts at $25,100 for the LX model and $28,800 for the EX model. In terms of equipment, the Solara SE is closer to the Accord EX than the LX. Remember that the Accord Coupe resembles the Accord sedan, so it doesn’t offer the distinctive styling that the Solara offers. But the Accord Coupe is available with a five-speed manual transmission.

The 2004 Camry Solara is built in Georgetown, Kentucky plant alongside the Camry sedan.


Verdict

A stylish, five-passenger coupe that’s comfortable, easy to drive, and quiet with acceptable performance and good fuel economy at a reasonable price.

Technical Data: 2004 Toyota Camry Solara SE

Base price $26,800
Freight $ 1,110
A/C tax $ 100
Options $ 2,400 (Sport Package)
Price as tested $30,410
Type 2-door, 5 passenger mid-size coupe
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 24 valves. VVT-i, dual balance shafts
Horsepower 157 @ 5600 rpm
Torque 162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Tires P215/60R-16 (full-size spare)
Curb weight 1465 kg (3230 lb.)
Wheelbase 2720 mm (107.1 in.)
Length 4890 mm (192.5 in.)
Width 1815 mm (71.5 in.)
Height 1425 mm (56.1 in.)

Trunk capacity 390 litres (13.8 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.1 l/100 km (28 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg)
Fuel type Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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