Mid-winter fun in Toyota’s stylish Solara convertible
When the opportunity arose to head down to Phoenix for a little pre-Christmas climatic escape from Colorado – do remember to hit the Legacy Golf Resort if you’re looking for some impeccably groomed mid-winter greens – we were lucky enough to double up the experience with a half week in Toyota’s sleek, stylish and relatively affordable Camry Solara convertible. We had plenty of drop-top fun in 70-plus degree weather; we suspect that the Solara’s rugged, powerful presence and well-insulated fabric roof (featuring a heated glass rear window) would find a comfortable home in the sunnier stretches of Colorado’s Central Rockies.
Nine months into the auto review circuit and we’d been entirely shut out of the Toyota line so far – but if the Solara is a good example of what the venerable Japanese auto maker has been up to recently, we’re impressed. The second-generation Solara, introduced last spring, is a nicely crafted, agile and pleasant vehicle with room for four, adequate roof-up luggage space and a super-efficient and quiet roof mechanism. Add to that a mix of performance and high quality interior refinements and you have a fine package. Powered by a peppy 225 horsepower 24-valve 3.3 liter DOHC V6, the Solara’s got plenty of get-up and go. Not a true sports car, per se, but you’ll be more than impressed by the handling, ride and that glorious open-roof experience.And unlike many convertibles, the Solara emphasizes an absolutely quiet experience. Heavy-duty sound insulation in the body and firewall made the automobile seem almost as quiet as an electric car, even at highway speed. Top up, you’ll hear very little wind noise, and with the top down, driver and front passenger get a smooth experience. It can be a little windy in the back seat so passengers beware: there’s also no way to independently raise or drop the small shark fin-style rear windows, so you’ll have to use the central control button if you want to provide some wind resistance for folks in the back. An optional windscreen is also available for more wind protection.
The Solara’s convertible top design is just as good as the fully automatic rigs we’ve seen on German and British cars two or three times as expensive. Simply unclasp a couple of bars located just above the sun visors, hit the switch and the entire mechanism disappears into the trunk in 10 seconds. Rear visibility is a bit limited with the roof up.Looking for a chance to mix things up after all those many miles of urban driving, we enjoyed some great winding one-lane switchbacks in the cactus-covered surroundings of Phoenix’s South Mountain Park. The Solara performed admirably, with loads of pick-up, a smooth ride and steering that was just a tad loose – again, it’s not an MR2 Spyder, Toyota’s true sports convertible – but will serve more than adequately for regular use (the optional vehicle stability control system might make things a tad more precise). Four-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels and standard Bridgestone Turanza all-seasons made for quick stops and a comfortable ride.
The Solara’s slightly revamped looks give the car a gracious, rounded design, complete with a short, tapered nose and a V-shaped grille and large headlights (use a bit of imagination and the whole combination looks like the car’s got a permanent grin). Side views are pretty unadorned, with a smooth body line; in the back, the large, teardrop-shaped brake and turn light clusters stretch around to the Solara’s sides, set between a large, pronounced lip on the trunk and a large bumper. Inside, you’ll enjoy the attractive, checkered cloth surfaces on the seats and an interior finished in hard black plastic and leather (on the door inserts, steering wheel and center console). Broad, bucket-style rear seats with full headrests provide comfortable space for two back seat passengers; up front, the electrically adjustable driver’s seat is comfortable and provides good support. Access to the back seat is a bit clunky, especially with the roof up, but both front seats tilt forward and shoulder belts can be moved to the side to help in loading your passengers.
As is the case with many new automobiles, the Solara features metallic-tinted plastic on the mid-dash (this decade’s answer to wood trim, I gather) and silver-painted plastic on the center stack and console. Three large, easy-to-read analog instruments are complemented by three digital readouts on the center stack (displaying fuel consumption, a clock and exterior temperature); the three-knob heating and A/C system was easy to use.Our SE model came equipped with a nice JBL Audio system with an in-dash six-CD changer; full sound controls were also duplicated on the steering wheel. A green glass shiftgate helped round out the looks, with a five-speed manually adjustable mode at the ready.
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