2004 Toyota Camry Solara
2004 Toyota Camry Solara Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Stylish coupe and convertible join the popular sedan.
The Toyota Camry continues to be the best-selling passenger car in America, with more than 413,000 sold in 2003. Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability are a big part of the reason. The Camry is the perfect transportation appliance, flawlessly performing its duties, never annoying its owner. Its soft suspension smoothes out beat-up city streets. The interior is ergonomically excellent, with big climate and audio knobs that are easy to adjust. The seats are comfortable. What's not to like?
How about the sporty look of a two-door? How about being able to drop the top?
Enter the Toyota Camry Solara. The two-door Solara coupe gives its owner a sportier lifestyle, eliminating the stodginess of driving a four-door sedan. Yet it still offers the practicality of a truly useful rear seat. The Solara convertible puts the wind in your hair and brings a ray of sunshine into your life. At the same time, the Solara coupe and convertible are built on the same platform as the Camry sedan, and offer all the same quality, durability and reliability, while maintaining much of the practicality. Both offer easy, carefree operation. Both give their owners a sportier lifestyle without the cost and impracticality of a true sports car. Both are high-quality cars. If you want two doors, this is a safe, smart choice.
The Camry sedan was completely redesigned, and greatly improved, for 2002, and the Solara models have been completely redesigned and greatly improved for 2004. The Solara convertible was unveiled at the 2004 Chicago Auto Show in February.
And don't think the Camry sedan has been ignored for 2004. Sporty SE models offer a new 3.3-liter V6 rated at 225 horsepower. The new V6 comes standard on the Solara convertible and is optional on the Solara coupe. (Camry LE and XLE are available with the older 3.0-liter V6.) All V6 models come standard with a new five-speed automatic transmission.
Choose a Camry sedan, a Solara coupe or convertible, and you'll have a smooth, quiet car that will give you years of reliable service and will never annoy you.
The 2004 Toyota Camry sedan comes in three trim levels: LE, SE, and XLE. Each comes with a choice of four-cylinder or V6 engines. Only the four-cylinder LE and SE offer a manual transmission, and an automatic transmission is optional ($830). An automatic is standard on all other models.
The Camry Solara coupe comes in SE, SE Sport, and SLE trim levels. All coupes are available with a four-cylinder or V6; an automatic is standard on all except the four-cylinder SE and SE Sport, which come standard with manual.
The convertible comes only in SE and SLE trim, and only with a V6 and automatic.
The base four-cylinder Camry LE sedan ($19,045) comes with air conditioning; cruise control; power windows, mirrors and locks with remote keyless entry; AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo; a 60/40 split rear seat; and 15-inch steel wheels. The LE V6 ($22,260) adds ABS with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), an engine immobilizer, and 15-inch aluminum wheels.
The Camry SE ($19,875) is a sportier model, with higher-rate springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars, along with higher-effort steering and bigger (16-inch) wheels and tires. A three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and lots of bright trim add zing to the interior, and a power moonroof is standard. The SE V6 ($23,315) adds ABS, EBD, the engine immobilizer, and aluminum wheels.
The Camry XLE ($22,295) is the most luxurious model, featuring wood-grain trim, power driver and passenger seats, automatic climate control, JBL premium stereo with in-dash six-CD changer, driver information center, an alarm system with engine immobilizer, a cargo net, and a rear-window sunshade. Anti-lock brakes and automatic transmission are standard. The XLE V6 ($25,405) replaces the standard steel wheels with aluminum wheels.
The Solara SE coupe ($19,120) is the base level in the two-door lineup and comes standard with ABS, side-impact airbags, 16-inch aluminum wheels, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, mirrors and locks, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/cassette. The Solara SE V6 coupe ($21,450) is identically equipped.
The Solara SE Sport ($20,615) adds a sport-tuned suspension and steering, lower-profile summer tires on 17-inch wheels, and flashier trim inside and out. SE Sport V6 ($22,945) is similarly equipped.
The Solara SLE ($22,995) is the more luxurious model with automatic climate control, power moonroof, JBL stereo with six-disc CD changer, power seats and woodgrain interior trim. Choose the SLE V6 ($25,995) and you also get heated leather seats, and the same performance tires as the SE Sport.
Solara convertible models are similarly equipped to SE V6 and SLE V6 coupes. The sport-tuned suspension comes standard.
Leather upholstery is optional for the Camry SE and XLE and Solara SLE coupe ($1,220-$1,630). A navigation system is optional on the Camry SE V6 ($3,080) and XLE V6 ($2,670), and Solara SLE V6 coupe ($1,350).
We highly recommend ABS ($300) for models that don't come with it, along with side-impact and side-curtain airbags ($650) or, better still, a package for V6 sedans that includes the full set of airbags plus electronic stability control (VSC), traction control, and brake assist ($1,300). Side-curtain airbags are available as a stand-alone option on any coupe ($400), but electronic stability control ($650) is offered only on the SLE V6.
The Toyota Camry presents a sculptured appearance, with slightly flared wheel arches and a distinct dual crease line in the hood, the latter leading nicely into the grille. To some extent the smooth lines of the sedan camouflage its height; the current car stands 2 inches taller than the pre-2002 model. Overall, it's a solid-looking car, stylish yet conservatively so.
The new Solara looks rounder and more massive than the previous-generation Solara, and it is larger. Solara shares the Camry sedan's 107-inch wheelbase. It is 3.3 inches longer overall than the sedan measuring 192.5 inches from bumper to bumper.
The Solara coupe looks like a stylized version of the sedan. It's a more adventurous design. The roofline is sleeker and the rear is totally different from the Camry sedans, reminding us of the Lexus SC 430. The arc-shaped theme features a continuous line from the front bumper, over the roof, and down to the rear bumper. Just below the beltline, a character line flows in a gentle S-curve from the teardrop headlamps to the teardrop taillights. The Solara looks aerodynamically efficient, and it is, with a Cd of only 0.29, making it slip through the air much more easily than the previous Solara, good for wind noise, gas mileage, and speed. The outside door handles are easy to grab, much better than lever-style handles.
The Solara convertible features a glass rear window. The power top folds down in just 10 seconds. One touch of a button lowers all four windows. Toyota says the convertible's body structure was designed from the ground up for topless motoring, unlike the previous generation convertible, which was adapted from the then-current coupe. Toyota tells us to expect improved torsional rigidity, which should translate into a more solid feel and a quieter ride. The design, styling, engineering of the Solara was completed in the U.S. and it is built in the U.S.
The Toyota Camry has a comfortable interior with controls that are simple and easy to operate. Everything is laid out simply. Optional power-adjustable pedals ($120) help shorter drivers find a more comfortable and safer driving position (farther from the airbag-armed steering wheel).
Radio and climate controls are mounted high in the center of the dash for easy access. Three big knobs mounted prominently in the center of the dashboard are used to manually control heating, ventilation, and air conditioning on SE and LE models. XLE models get automatic climate control with a smooth tactile feel that reminds us of Lexus, which set the modern standard. The stereo uses big tuning and volume knobs and big buttons that make it easy to operate, whether scanning for radio stations or moving between songs on a CD. We found the audio quality on the available JBL sound system a bit lacking, however.
The instruments are located in a relatively small pod right in front of the steering wheel, with a large half-moon tachometer and matching speedometer. The fuel and temperature gauges are located within the two larger instruments. Lights and windshield wiper/washer controls are on stalks on the steering column, leaving the left lower edge of the dash free of switches.
The sedan's dashboard is relatively plain, with no large curved surfaces, and it is set relatively high. The dash blends nicely into the door panels, but the cover for the passenger-side air bag is noticeable as the seams show clearly. Many other manufacturers have managed to make the passenger-side air bag invisible.
A wide center console separates the two front bucket seats and contains useful storage areas. The parking brake on the LE and SE is located in the center console, whereas the XLE gets a foot-operated parking brake.
Rear-seat passengers will find the accommodations quite pleasant for a mid-size sedan. Head- and legroom have increased compared to the previous Camry. The rear seat splits 60/40, allowing long objects to pass through from the trunk, although the opening is smaller than it might be. The trunk itself is a decent size and shape. Gooseneck hinges steal some space, but are hidden under a cover, reducing the chance that they will damage trunk contents as the lid is closed.
Inside as well as out, the Camry Solara adds a dash of panache. The sweeping console invokes the intimate atmosphere of a sporty coupe. the seats are relatively flat, which makes sliding in and out easy, but they could use a little more side support. The cloth is nice, though it's a bit bland. All in all, it's a very nice interior.
In sharp contrast to the sedan's flat dash, the Solara's shapely instrument panel suggests separate nacelles for driver and passenger. Instrumentation is divided into three pods, with a five-function trip computer sharing the left pod with the tachometer. Another futuristic multi-function display dominates the bulging center stack. The separate HVAC (heater) controls are easy to operate. Silver painted trim around the center stack and center console looks tidy. On V6 models, a gated shifter for the automatic transmission allows easy manual gear selection.
The rear seats are surprisingly roomy, though less so than the Camry sedan. Compared to the Honda Accord coupe, the Solara provides significantly more rear-seat hip room (50.3 inches vs. 46.1) and leg room (35.4 vs. 31.9), and a bit more rear-seat headroom. The convertible is roomy as well. With the top up, there's actually 2 inches more rear-seat headroom than in the coupe.
The Solara also carries a bit more luggage than the Honda, 13.8 cubic feet vs. 12.8. The rear seats fold down to reveal a big passthrough.
Toyota knows how to build quiet cars with a comfortable ride. Toyota's Lexus division has excelled in this area and this expertise appears to have worked its way into the Camry. Engines are quieter than in pre-2002 models, while an innovative engine mounting system further reduces vibration. Stiff body structure and asphalt sheet insulation assures that even when the four-cylinder engine is driven hard, engine noise is quite subdued.
The sedan is an easy car to drive. There is nothing untoward or strange about the Camry; it does everything just right. An enthusiast driver would complain that it lacks character, but for the average driver that's a plus. No one driving a Camry has to think much about what's going on.
The Camry's ride is pleasant, verging on luxurious, with enough cushioning to make passengers feel comfortable. The steering is light but not sloppy. Enthusiast drivers find it a bit soft, but that same tuning makes for a smooth, soft ride on bumpy pavement. Those who like sportier, more precise handling will notice that the different suspension setup and tires on the SE sedan do make the car feel crisper, though it's still far from a sports sedan.
The Solara is sprung softly as well. The suspension filters bumps and noise yet it doesn't isolate the driver from valuable road feel. It's no sports car. It corners fairly flat, but the tires start squealing when driven hard.
Camry's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is a 16-valve dual overhead-cam unit rated 157 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 162 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. More than two-thirds of all Camrys are sold with the four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission. This is an inexpensive and fuel-efficient combination and it provides plenty of power. Computer logic controls the automatic transmission; the car can tell when it is going up hill or down hill and the transmission shifts gears accordingly. It can hold a lower gear longer when necessary to avoid the annoying shifting up and down that occurs in some automatics. And the automatic transmission exacts a penalty of only 1 mpg in fuel economy.
Optional in the Camry LE sedan and XLE sedan is a 3.0-liter V6 that develops 210 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 220 pounds-feet at 4400. But order a V6 in the SE sedan, or in any Solara model, and you get the new 3.3-liter V6 rated 225 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 240 pounds-feet at 3600 rpm. Those are better numbers, indicating a more flexible, more powerful engine that's more responsive in any given situation.
For 2004, both V6 engines come with an all-new five-speed automatic transmission. Five-speed automatics generally offer better response and better fuel economy than four-speed automatics.
All three Camry engines are equipped with Toyota's VVT-i system (variable valve timing with intelligence) for optimum power and efficiency and lower emissions. All are cast from lightweight aluminum, and all achieve an ultra-low ULEV II emissions rating. Four-cylinder models sold in California produce only 151 horsepower, but meet Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) standards.
You'd never know from driving the car, but the gas pedal is a drive-by-wire affair: Instead of being connected to the engine by a cable, the gas pedal activates a sensor connected to a computer, just like the controls in modern aircraft. One advantage of this arrangement is that the optional Vehicle Skid Control system can take over the throttle in an emergency and apply just the right amount of throttle and braking to keep the vehicle on a more stable path.
The Toyota Camry is the ultimate transportation appliance. It's a safe buy, a good vehicle to recommend to your friends. It pleases many buyers by offending none. It is in many ways an unremarkable car. What's remarkable about it is its lack of identifiable flaws. It does not have the personality of, say, a Nissan Altima, but it's much more refined. It will transport its occupants from A to B and back without any drama, nor any worries about reliability, year in and year out. It's comfortable, smooth and quiet. Its controls are very easy to operate. You never have to try to figure out how to work something.
The Solara adds some style to the equation. It offers all the benefits of the Camry sedan and has a genuinely useful back seat and a good-sized trunk. The convertible offers the freedom of being able to drop the top.
Toyota Camry LE 5-speed ($19,045); LE auto ($19,875); SE 5-speed ($19,875); SE auto ($20,705); XLE ($22,295) LE V6 ($22,260); SE V6 ($23,315); XLE V6 ($25,405); Solara SE 5-speed ($19,120); Solara SE auto ($19,950); Solara SE Sport 5-speed ($20,615); Solara SE Sport auto ($21,445); Solara SLE ($22,995); Solara SE V6 ($21,450); Solara SE Sport V6 ($22,945); Solara SLE V6 ($25,995); Solara SE V6 convertible; Solara SLE V6 convertible.
Georgetown, Kentucky, and Toyota City, Japan.
Options As Tested
side-impact and side-curtain airbags ($650).
Toyota Camry LE automatic ($19,875).
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