Not to take anything away from Toyota‘s product planners, but they really screwed up this time: The Camry Solara is so refined that it ought to have been the coupe version of the Lexus ES300. It even looks like a Lexus-its tall-eyed shape seems simply a scaled-down version of the SC430 retractable hardtop. The only logic to keeping the Solara a Toyota may have been to keep it out of any number of near-luxury coupes’ gunsights, where, performance-wise, it would be smote. Currently, the only credible competition for the Solara is the coupe, and the Toyota outclasses the Honda in many important ways. It is more upscale, for one, with a beautifully crafted leather, chrome, and frosted-plastic interior. It is also remarkably quiet, with little of the coarseness that occasionally makes itself known in the Accord.
Like the Honda, the Toyota offers two engine choices: a carryover 2.4-liter four-cylinder (157 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque), mated to a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual, and a 225-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6 from the new Lexus RX330, with a five-speed automatic.
Solara trim levels are SE, SE Sport, and SLE. We drove the SLE V-6, which led to the impression of silky refinement, but no trim package can account for the way the SLE smoothed out the curviest road we could throw at it. In this case, it was Southern California’s Angeles Crest Highway, where the evenly matched brakes, steering, and body motions of the Solara’s sport-tuned suspension made us confident enough to push the tires and the skid-control system well past their thresholds. In really fast sections, it occurred to us that we’d be better off in the Sport version with its slightly grippier tires. At speeds more commonly associated with Camrys, the SLE V-6 delivers total sumptuousness. It belongs to a higher class of automobile, both luxurious and merciful (the V-6 starts at just $21,935). A convertible Solara is coming soon. Lexus had better hope it’s a softtop.