America's top-selling Toyota Camry first turned into a two door—the Toyota Camry Solara—in 1998. For 2000, Solara adds a 2-door convertible model that's more attractive and a bit showier than the hardtop. Still, the emphasis here is on comfort, not sportiness

It was just a matter of time before a car whose name, Solara, refers to the brightness of the sun would become a convertible.

Introduced in fall of 1998 as a coupe, the Toyota Camry Solara, not unexpectedly, added a convertible model just in time for summer 2000. What better way to make the most of sunny, warm-weather travel? And what better way for Toyota to continue to expand sales of the Camry, which already ranks as America's best-selling car?

Camry derivatives
Don't expect the open-air Solara to be an exotic, fussy or startling driver, however. Don't think of the 2-door Solara hardtop as a real sporty coupe, either.

Rather, think of the convertible as a topless Camry and consider the Solara coupe a 2-door Camry and you'll begin to get the sense of the dimensions and cushioned ride, the smooth V6 drivetrain and the predictable, rather mainstream steering feel of the Solaras.

Attractively styled ragtop
Personally, I think the Solara's 2-door body style looks better as a convertible than a hardtop. It's sleek and attractive, if not real showy. But note the Solara Convertible comes at a price premium of about $5,000 over the Solara hardtop.

The mid-$20,000 retail price for a base Solara Convertible with a 135-horsepower 4-cylinder engine also is about on par with the manufacturer's suggested retail price for a Chrysler Sebring convertible with more powerful V6. It's a few thousand dollars above what Ford asks for a Mustang convertible with more powerful V6, too.

Decent room inside
The Solara is Toyota's largest convertible for the United States, capable of carrying four people plus two golf bags. And like its hardtop Solara sibling, the Solara Convertible emphasizes comfort—from its cushioned ride to its fully lined, power drop top.

The same spacious interior of the Solara coupe is found in the convertible, save for rear-seat shoulder room, which is scrunched from 52.9 inches in the coupe to 45 inches in the convertible. Room is needed in back for the soft-top mechanicals and storage. This also explains why the coupe has seats and safety belts for five riders—three in the back seat—but the Solara Convertible has maximum capacity of four people—two in the back seat.

Still, front and rear seats are comfortable in all Solaras, though the seats aren't sporty or sculpted. Legroom in the back seat of the coupe and soft-top is at least 35 inches, which is a bit better than what you find in the Honda Accord coupe.

Rear side windows in the Solara Convertible are understandably smaller than they are on the coupe, so the side view out of the car for rear-seat riders in the convertible is curtailed when the top is up. And these rear windows in the soft-top can only be operated together—not separately—all by a switch up front on the center console.

But I was glad to see that the Solara Convertible comes standard with a glass rear window that's decently sized.

Rear seatbacks in the Solara coupe split 60/40 and fold down to allow long items to stretch from the trunk into the interior. But the seatbacks don't lie flat, and the opening between the trunk and interior is pinched in and not as large as you might expect.

Trunk space alone is competitive for this class of car, though it shrinks, as you'd expect, from the coupe to convertible to provide room to stow the soft-top when the top is down. Specifically, the Solara coupe has 13.8 cubic feet in the trunk. In the convertible, there's 8.8 cubic feet of room.

This is still more than the 7.7 cubic feet of the Ford Mustang soft-top, but it's expected to be a tad less than the trunk space of Chrysler's redesigned 2001 Sebring convertible.

Easy-to-read gauges
The interior of all Solaras is typical Toyota, with well-placed, sizable gauges, dials and buttons. In fact, the radio display in the Solara SE coupe is so large, it reminds me of the clocks with the big numbers that older folks often use. The up-level SLE coupe includes a 200-watt JBL sound system that has a more normal-looking display.

The Solara Convertible gets JBL treatment, too. An up-level JBL sound system not only produces rich sounds with a depth and quality that I appreciate, it includes a special audio equalization system that automatically adjusts bass and some sound frequencies when the top goes down. This means stereo sounds are not degraded during open-air driving. The system automatically returns to its original equalization settings when the top goes back up.

Easy ride
The front-wheel-drive Solara Convertible drives just like the Camry Solara coupe, which is to say it's a mostly mainstream feel but a bit sportier than a regular Camry sedan.

Toyota officials said they didn't even need to change the suspension tuning to develop the convertible. Up front, there's a MacPherson strut arrangement, while an independent dual-link configuration works in the rear.

But the convertible is some 200 pounds heavier than the coupe because of all the structural reinforcements needed in the body to help alleviate body shake. Even with the reinforcements, however, I detected some shake up front at the cowl in the test Solara Convertible. It didn't occur at every bump, but it was noticeable on some uneven road surfaces.

V6, transmission work smoothly
The Solara Convertible uses the same 4- and 6-cylinder engines of the Solara Coupe. Only a 4-speed automatic is offered in the convertible, and on the test convertible, it did a great job of smoothly managing the 200 horses from the 3.0-liter 4-cam V6.

There was never any jarring or noticeable shift points—I just pressed the accelerator and the car effortlessly moved forward.

Yet this engine, with 214 lb-ft of maximum torque at 4400 rpm, is rated at 27 mpg on the highway, which equals the rating of the Sebring and Mustang competitors.

A 5-speed manual is available for the Solara coupe—with either the 2.2-liter four or the 3.0-liter V6.

Final thoughts
You do hear more road noises in the Solara soft-top than you do in the coupe, even when the fabric top is up. I heard a good bit of the semi trucks as I passed them on the highway, for example.

And the one-piece tonneau cover takes practice to use. I fumbled for a good while, trying to fit it correctly behind the back seat and over the folded roof without covering the tops of the rear-seat shoulder belts.

Still, you don't have to look far to see that the usual Toyota quality is built into the Solara, even the convertible. Body panels on the tester were evenly aligned all around on the test car and interior buttons and knobs had the familiar Toyota look and feel.

Note that there are no rear-seat head restraints in the Solara Convertible.

And don't expect to see a lot of Solara Convertibles around. Just 3,500 sales were expected for calendar 2000, with 6,000 being the sales target in full year 2001.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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