Toyota may build some rather plain, bread and butter cars - but as the Solara coupe proves, that bread and butter is pretty hearty fare, even if it's not exotic and artisanal.
Essentially a carryover for the 2008 model year, the Solara is the Camry's two-door fraternal twin. And though it doesn't get the higher-output 3.5-liter V-6 that the Camry received last year in its big makeover, the Solara feels richer and drives more expensively than you might guess.
It's built in the U.S.- in Georgetown, Kentucky, alongside the Avalon and the Camry - and it's more than a little coincidental that the Solara is the most American car Toyota builds, at least in feel. Like Thunderbirds and Monte Carlos before it, the leather-lined, quiet-gliding Solara is a two-door in the classic mold. It damps out the world around you, and cossets the body parts behind you, while giving you an easy grip on the road ahead of you.
The Solara - likely in its last model year - often gets lumped together with the similarly arranged Honda Accord Coupe. The Accord's new for 2008, though, and it's picked up traces of Acura RSX in its new style and demeanor. The Solara, meanwhile, hangs in a less ornamented, more feminine plane. Its soft shape echoes some of the Lexus SC, and its unfussy lines would fit across a wide range of prices - and would fit in at a wide range of car showrooms other than Toyota's. It's not quite anonymous, it just blends in well with the surroundings.
It shares its mechanicals with the older version of the Camry, but the Solara feels as contemporary as it can be, as the Camry itself has evolved in tiny, well-anticipated steps. It's front-wheel-driven, as if you didn't suspect, and there's a version of Toyota 's mid-size V-6 under the hood, in this case the 3.3-liter V-6 with 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Teamed up with a five-speed automatic, the Solara's drivetrain couldn't be creamier if it were served up at a Southern Sunday brunch. It whispers more than it growls, and serves up healthy doses of power absolutely devoid of torque steer or anything untoward. There's also a Solara with a 157-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, but as inexpensive as the Solara V-6 can be (from just under $28,000), it's hard not to justify the extra cylinders.
Beneath the sheetmetal the Solara rides on a typical control-arm and multi-link suspension, with a body still rigid enough to compare well against newer coupes like the Accord and the new Nissan Altima Coupe. Suspension settings are similar to the former Camry SE (circa 2006) but you'll have to order up the Solara SE with its body kit to make it look the part.
Amphitheater for four
Accompanying the Solara's substantial feel and unruffled-able ride is a cabin worth spending seat time in. Enthusiasts may shy from its plush seats and tightly grained faux-wood trim, but everyone else can find plenty of reason to buckle into the Solara's four seats, even if they won't fight for the driver's. All the controls are clearly marked and easy to use without diverting your eyes from the road ahead. The seating position is ideal for a wide range of frames - it's one of the few coupes my football frame will adapt to readily.
It's also trimmed out with Lexus-like audio and other standard equipment. A JBL audio system with a six-disc changer, iPod jack and a navigation system with Bluetooth all conspired to make a mad dash from LAX to San Diego tolerable, especially when the mystery traffic jam settled in at San Juan Capistrano and refused to dissolve until Del Mar. (Can everyone really be going to the races?) On top of those amenities, the Solara SLE also gets automatic climate control, a garage door opener, 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, and heated mirrors. All Solara SLEs come with anti-lock brakes and curtain
No, there's not a Publisher's Clearinghouse check inside the Solara's performance envelope. Its utter predictability turns out to be its biggest asset - and its flavor improves over time.
2008 Toyota Camry Solara SLE
Base price: $27,485
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 210 hp/220 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
Length x width x height: 192.5 x 71.5 x 56.1 in
Wheelbase: 107.1 in
Curb weight: 3440 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 18/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock
Major standard features: Automatic air conditioning; power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with auxiliary jack; Bluetooth; remote keyless entry; leather seating; 17-inch wheels; heated
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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