Reviews

2004 Toyota Solara Convertible Road Test

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Convertibles stir your soul and add a new dimension to driving, creating a sensation almost like riding a bike or a scooter. Your forehead feels the heat of a sunny day, and your nose tingles with the smell of newly mown grass as you drive through the neighborhoods.

In an age of climate-controlled everything, convertibles certainly aren’t for everyone, but for those who do like the open air, no substitute will do.

Source: Toyota Newsroom
Category:$25,000 – $32,000 Mid Size Convertible
Who
should buy
this car:
A person looking for a flashy open-air ride that is quiet, comfortable and has room for 4 adults
Comparable
cars in
this class:
Chrysler Sebring Convertible

Most convertibles are sports cars, and that makes sense, but a four-seater is nice so you can have a back seat for the grandkids or to take another couple to dinner. And it’s nice to have a trunk that is big enough to be useful.

There arent many four-seat convertibles from which to choose, so it’s news when a new one comes out. It’s even bigger news when the new one is a quantum leap in quality and has a lower price.

When was the last time you got something better for less?

Toyota’s all-new Camry Solara convertible went on sale with a base price of $25,950, a price that’s more than $2,000 less than last year’s Solara. Even the loaded SLE has a base price of $29,450. That includes a JBL audio system with six-disc in-dash CD player, anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control and heated leather seats.

“For the first time ever, the Solara convertible has a wholly dedicated convertible body,” Don Esmond, Toyota senior vice president and general manager, said at the car’s introduction at the Chicago Auto Show last February. “It is a body styled as forethought, not an afterthought.”

Solara, which uses the chassis and powertrain of the Camry, looks a bit like a Lexus SC 430 coupe that was widened and elongated.

Because the roof of a coupe or sedan is an integral part of the unibody structure, removing it lets the body wiggle, twist and shake especially over bumps. Engineering a tight and solid open-air car is tricky. The Solara convertible has a MIG-welded frame and thick body panels for greater torsional rigidity. It is considerably tighter on bumpy roads than the old one, and right up there with the more expensive convertibles. The convertible top is installed offline at the Georgetown, Ky., plant by workers who ensure the accuracy of window seals and use ultrasound to check for wind noise and water leaks.

Toyota, which also makes Lexus, does an excellent job of building cars and trucks that are exceptionally quiet, and the Solara is one of the quietest convertibles I have driven. When you twist the key, the engine starts so quietly you have to listen carefully to be sure it’s running. Throughout the cabin, the fit, finish and feel are much closer to a Lexus than the price would suggest.

Wind and road noise are never intrusive, in part because noise suppressing, vibration-damping material is used in the passenger compartment, dash, trunk and wheel wells. Wind buffeting is moderate, too. I was quite comfortable driving 70 miles per hour with the top down and the side windows up. The wind seemed to scoot over the top of the cabin. The optional wind blocker would lessen buffeting even more.

The test car was an upscale Solara SLE, and its cabin was as plush as a high-end luxury car. The rose-colored woodgrain trim was handsome. Brushed silver, clear plastic and bright chrome surround the audio and climate-control panels and sweep down into the console. The look and feel is closer to a home audio system than a car. The thick plastic panel that encircles the shift gate looks especially slick.

The convertible has two more inches of rear-seat headroom than the Solara coupe. The power top goes down in 10 seconds. When the top is folded behind the rear seat it leaves plenty of room in the trunk and does not obscure the view out the back.

With the top up, rear three-quarter vision is a bit dodgy. The glass back window is somewhat small as well, so you have to be adept at using the outside mirrors.

Toyota’s 3.3-liter V-6 engine drives the front wheels through an automatic transmission that also has a sport-shift feature. I found that the 225-horsepower engine needs to be prodded for brisk performance, probably because the convertible is heavier than the coupe.

Handling is luxury-car smooth instead of sports-car aggressive, but the Solara is most comfortable in that mode anyway. Standard 17-inch wheels look nice and provide good grip.

It’s not often that a car company makes a better product at a lower price, but that is precisely what Toyota did with the Solara. The convertible has a tight body structure, Lexus-like build quality and a cabin that is big enough for four adults. The padded power top goes down in 10 seconds and keeps out wind and road noise when it is up.

The Solara convertible is probably going to be a relatively low-volume vehicle and I suspect demand will be high. When a carmaker improves the product and lowers the price, everybody wins.

2004 Toyota Solara Convertible

Engine Type3.3L double overhead cam (DOHC) 24 valve V6
Horsepower225 @ 5,600
Torque240 @ 3,600
Fuel RecommendedRegular  Unleaded.
Transmission5-speed shiftable Automatic
Drive TypeFront Wheel Drive
TiresP215/55R17 all-season tires
Overall Length192.5″
Wheelbase107.1″
Width71.5″
Turning Diameter35.4 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight3,549 lbs.
Fuel Tank18.5 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon20 mpg City, 29 mpg Highway
Base Sticker Price$25,950.00   Plus $515 Destination Charge.

Standard Equipment
(partial list)

SLE also includes…
(partial list)

Major Available Options
(partial list – depends on model)

For more information on the Toyota Solara, visit www.toyota.com.

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Author

Tom Strongman

Automotive Expert

Tom Strongman began writing about automobiles for The Kansas City Star 20 years ago. He was the full-time Automotive Editor from 1991 to 2001. Now he is a Contributing Editor who works on contract for the paper. His syndicated column also appears in The St. Louis Suburban Journals and The Columbus Dispatch. He writes a bi-monthly column for AAA's Home and Away Magazine. Strongman's "Behind the Wheel" segment airs weekly on KSHB Channel 41 in Kansas City.

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