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FIRST DRIVE

Solara offers more fun in a slightly longer package

The new '04 adds a nice kick with an upgrade to 225 horsepower.

November 26, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

Same old name, but not the same old look.

The 2004 Toyota Solara coupe has undergone a design and engineering remake and with it, an obvious focus on providing it with a personality catering more to youth and the youthful and less to their parents.

The staid 3-liter, 198-horsepower V-6 that delivered 212 foot-pounds of torque has been replaced with a much more muscular, 3.3-liter, 225-horsepower V-6 boasting 240 pound-feet of torque for livelier launches as well as far quicker response to pedal input when you want to pass or merge.

It's the same 3.3-liter offered in the Camry sedan (Solara is built off the Camry platform) and Highlander sport utility vehicle.

The new Solara also is a little longer, wider and taller for a better stance and the suspension has been tweaked to provide a smoother ride and more predictable handling for those who drive a bit more aggressively.

Although longer, it looks shorter. The old model had a slight wedge shape with a sloping front end; the new one is arc shaped, which leaves the perception it is smaller. A few years back, Ford Motor Co. redesigned the Taurus with dramatically rounded body panels and rear-end treatment, and although it too was larger, it looked smaller.

If you thought the look of the old Solara was meek and mild, you are going to be wildly excited with the redesign and its curves and fashionable jewel-like lamps in the front and rear and a back end that looks a tad like the SC 430 from Lexus.

But, if you liked the look of the old model, as we did, you are going to be sadly disappointed with the new design and its more rounded body panels and somewhat bulbous tail end.

You'll also find that the arc-shaped roof line means those designated to ride in back are going to have a tough time finding room to position the melon without having it bump the ceiling.

Toyota's goal was for Solara to offer more fun and not just function. It accomplished what it set out to do.

Solara is offered in SE, SE Sport and top-of-the-line SLE versions with a choice of the more staid 2.4-liter, 157-horsepower 4-cylinder with 5-speed automatic or 4-speed manual or the 3.3-liter-V-6 that comes with a new 5-speed automatic only.

We tested the SE with a V-6. Its soul is that 3.3-liter that delivers a noticeable kick when you stand on the pedal. The 5-speed automatic allows you to slip the lever off to the side of the shift gate so you can run from first through fifth by tapping the lever. It probably won't be used much by the masses, but it's there and it's the thought that counts.

The 2.4-liter is the choice for those who put fuel economy at the top of their list. It's rated at 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway.

The suspension has been performance tuned in all models to control body roll and pitch and allow for more precise response to steering input. The SE also gets an upgrade to 16-inch radials, rather than 15 inch, as standard, while the SE Sport and SLE go to 17-inch radials for optimum handling.

Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock are standard in the base SE, SE Sport and SLE, but only the SLE makes stability/traction control available as a $650 option.

All models offer front- and side-impact air bags as standard. Side air-bag curtains are a $400 option. A recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study concluded that those with air-bag curtain protection are 50% more likely to survive a side impact than those without. Good reason to make the $400 outlay.

Notable features include a multifunction digital display in the top center of the dash for things such as the clock, outside temperature reading and average mileage as well as driving range before need for a fill, though the gauges aren't always easy to see at first glance.

Like the old Solara, the passenger seat motors forward when you tilt the seat's back forward to make for an easier entrance in back, though, as noted, head room is at a premium back there. Cup holders are in rear-seat armrests built into the side wall, but, again, based on headroom, they'd best hold baby bottles than coffee cups.

The SE starts at $21,460 and includes power windows, mirrors and door locks, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, eight-way power driver's seat, keyless entry, digital clock, cruise control, rear window defogger, outside temperature gauge, two power outlets and split/folding rear seat backs for access from the trunk into the cabin for items such as skis.

Options, none of which was on the car that was tested, include a deck lid spoiler at $200, side air-bag curtains at $400, power moon roof at $900 and a convenience package that includes a JBL sound system upgrade as well as 17-inch tires and wheels and power lumbar support driver's seat at $1,205.

The coupe will be joined by a convertible, perhaps as early as next year.

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