The cars we loved.
The casual coupe business in the American market is a tricky thing. Getting the conflicting variables of price, performance and style just right to fit your target audience can be tough. On one hand cars like the Chrysler Sebring and Honda Accord anchor the mid-price near luxury end while other more aggressive offerings like the Infiniti G37 or BMW 3 Series lean towards the expensive sporty side. The sweet spot at a mass market price point is often where a car builder wants to be. In the case of Toyota, whose entire lineup seems to be golden these days (save for the occasional massive recall), a coupe version based on the Camry seemed like a no brainer.
There was actually a coupe version of the Camry built from 1994 to 1997. It looked very much like the sedan and shared its pedestrian looks. Humble and practical looking was good enough for one of America’s best selling cars, but the coupe version flopped. Toyota was not willing to give up, after all Honda had a rather successful coupe version of its popular Accord and people were still buying the Chrysler Sebring for some reason. So in 1999 Toyota introduced a completely new coupe based on the Camry sedan. Called the Camry Solara, and later just the Solara, it was an attempt by Toyota to add some excitement into the personal coupe formula where it had failed before.
The front wheel drive coupe came in hard top and popular convertible versions. There were two trim levels (SE, SLE) and depending on which one you got, it could be fitted with a 2.2 litre inline 4 or a 3.0 V6, both from the Camry sedan. There were two transmissions, a 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual, usually fitted to the 4 cylinder cars. Mechanically, there was nothing special about the Solara. The Canadian built cars had the same mechanicals as the sedan and was updated along with it, but at a delayed pace, usually lagging a few years behind.
The Solara came close to Lexus like comfort inside, as its cabin featured a wrap around console and leather seats, wood grain accents and a host of high-end sound systems. The Solara was very close to cars like the Chrysler Sebring in its overall mission: provide a comfortable driving experience with some style. As a personal luxury coupe, It was throwback to the Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds of the previous decade. There were two generations of Solara, starting in 1999 with an update in 2002. The redesign in 2004 resulted in a more Lexus SC300 like appearance. The second generation car was based on the redesigned Camry sedan of 2000 and was built-in Georgetown Kentucky.
With the redesign, the Solara spun off more on its own visually, not as dependent on the Camry development cycle. In addition to a more swoopy and organic design, Solara’s were more powerful now with 157 hp for the 2.4 litre four-cylinder and 225 for the new 3.3 litre V6. The V6 moved the somewhat portly coupe to 60 from 0 in 6.9 seconds. A new 5-speed Multi Mode transmission replaced the 4-speed automatic, improving response times. Even with the increased power and new transmission, the Solara would never be confused for a sports car or even a gran tourer. Options like Bluetooth and DVD navigation systems keep the Solara in the forefront of technology, but increasingly buyers were looking else ware.
The quality associated with the Camry just did not translate to a sales halo for the Solara. At it’s price point (mid 20’s to mid 30’s) buyers might have been expecting more powerful engines or even more pizzazz. Competitors like the 325ci, Sebring or even the V6 Mustang delivered at least one of those attributes, and still out sold the Solara. Sales of convertibles in general have been poor with many cancellations being announced recently. Toyota stopped coupe production after 2008 and sold only the convertible. In 2009 Toyota announced that all Solara production would end leaving the Lexus IS C as the least expensive Toyota built convertible in the US market. There was speculation that a coupe will be re introduced on a different platform in 2010.