When was the last time you thought of the Toyota Camry Solara? Perhaps you’ve seen one on Facebook or blending in with traffic, but you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about Toyota’s practical coupe after it was discontinued in 2008. That’s not a dig on the car. Like most Toyotas, the Solara was a dependable form of transportation, just in a coupe and convertible form. Early in the Solara’s life, the Toyota Racing Development division pumped up the volume by adding a supercharger, body kit, and more to turn the coupe into a quick sports car. The Toyota TRD Solara is a forgotten enthusiast special.
Last week, we looked at the beefy diesel version of a pickup truck that started a styling trend. Today, we’re going to look at something that didn’t really change the course of cars that came after it. That’s fine, because what’s under the hood will make up for it.
Coupes were a hot commodity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Automakers of the era built numerous two-doors to cater to a market of buyers both high and low who wanted sporty performance from their favorite brands. In 1999, you could walk into a Ford dealership and drive out with an Escort ZX2. A few years later, you could ride in Ford’s swan song of personal luxury coupes with the retro eleventh-generation Thunderbird. Chrysler and its brands had the happy Neon, while Mercury wanted you to ride a Cougar.
Honda’s coupe lineup was pretty impressive during this time. In 1999, you could pick up a Honda Civic coupe, a Honda Accord coupe, a Honda Prelude, and if you were a bit nerdy, the Honda Insight. Wait just a little longer and you could drive home in Honda’s S2000 stormer.
Toyota was another brand with its own sporty hopefuls on different levels. For someone wanting a sport compact, they could scoop up a fresh generation of the Celica. Roadster lovers also got a new generation of the mid-engine MR2 Spyder. The Camry, which already had a coupe version for a while, took a two model year hiatus before coming back as something different. When it came back, America got the Camry Solara.
Toyota’s Other Crown
As Toyota UK Magazine writes, the Camry’s early years were some odd ones. The nameplate first appeared in Japan in January 1980 when the Celica Camry was launched as the four-door version of the Celica. For a bizarre twist, the Celica Camry shared just some components with the Celica. Instead, Toyota took the Carina and modified it to look like a Celica to create the Celica Camry.
This odd stew of Toyota was short-lived and as Toyota’s UK arm writes, that rear-wheel-drive car should be considered to be the origin of the Camry nameplate–Japanese for Crown–and not the first generation. Indeed, Toyota says the real first-generation Camry was released in 1982. This Camry was its own car, riding on a transverse front-wheel-drive platform and featuring a small lineup of gasoline and diesel engines. According to Toyota, the front-wheel-drive Camry was in development since 1977 and the mission was to create a vehicle for export that would compete with the front drivers made by General Motors.
To achieve this, Toyota’s engineers created a car that had the interior space of a mid-size sedan. Engine bay size was kept down with the transverse layout, which allowed for a bigger interior. This was in addition to what Toyota called “trapezoidal styling” which was supposed to convey a sense of stability to buyers.
Toyota also states that it created some innovations under the hood with the first Camry. The transaxle was mounted in line with the engine and the three shafts normally reserved for each gear were reduced to just one. All of this helped reduce size and complexity. Finally, Toyota says it decided to use automatic transmission fluid for lubrication. This became a blueprint for Toyota’s front-wheel-drive layout. Toyota achieved its goal of the first Camry being a global export, with the car dropping its tires down in the United States, Australia, and Europe. Here in America, the Camry became a best-seller in 1985 after 128,000 units found homes.
In 1991, the Camry line split with the launch of the widebody series. Toyota, which learned a few things about the American market from the launch of the Lexus LS 400, decided to create a different Camry than the ones you could buy in Japan. The XV10 was a Camry bulked up about six inches in length and two inches in width, enough to make it a mid-size car. Along with a bigger body, these Americanized Camrys had bigger interiors, more power, and differentiated styling.
For the 1994 model year, Toyota started producing a coupe version of the Camry. These coupes had roughly similar overall dimensions to the sedan and even featured similar styling, but were marketed as a more sporty option. Apparently, buyers weren’t really interested in a Camry with fewer doors, which led to it being discontinued after the 1996 model year.
The American Toyota
Even though the first Toyota Camry coupe wasn’t a hot seller, Toyota’s rivals, like Honda, were still selling coupes based on their midsizers, so Toyota gave it another go. Development for the Camry coupe’s successor commenced in the mid-1990s.
This time, Toyota decided to aim for what it called the “sport specialty” segment. According to Toyota, the Camry Solara was aimed at professionals “entering their peak earning years.” These prospective buyers were looking for a coupe that reminded them of the sports cars of their youth but wanted more interior space and comfort than those old sports cars used to give. The implication appears to be that the Solara buyer would be older.
To achieve this goal, Toyota decided to give its American arm more influence than before. The Camry Solara would benefit from engineering from the Toyota Technical Center in Michigan and styling from Warren Crain of Toyota’s famed CALTY Design Center in California. Toyota admitted that the Solara was a joint project with the Americans and Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan, but the vehicle was marketed as being a darling of Toyota’s American branches.
As Autoweek notes, the Camry Solara was not the first Toyota to have American influence. Past models tapped into Toyota’s American talent, but the Camry Solara was the first Toyota to feature engineering and design done in America from the very beginning to the end of development. As Autoweek reported, the Camry Solara had an American body, but still had Japanese bones. Reportedly, engineers and designers had to move to California and Michigan. All of this was done as Toyota’s North American division was proving itself to be self-sufficient. The Camry Solara would even be built in North America at a plant in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.
Oh, and the Camry Solara name? Well, there’s a reason behind it. Toyota says Solara is a “name portraying the radiance of the sun.” As for the Camry part. Reportedly, Toyota was planning on letting the coupe go alone as the Solara. However, there was equity in the Camry name. Plus, the sale of each Solara could be counted as an overall Camry sale, helping Toyota retain the sales crown.
Production commenced in 1998 for the 1999 model year. Toyota did more than just build a coupe out of the Camry. Toyota shipped partially-finished coupes to the American Sunroof Company, where the roof was chopped off and replaced with a convertible top. The convertible Solara proved to be more popular than the coupe. Attention was given to the Camry Solara to give the vehicle its own styling. Toyota also made the Camry Solara legitimately sporty.
Take this review from the Chicago Tribune:
After testing the Camry Solara SE– hereafter to be called Solara since we don’t have to count ’em–the folks at Honda should cringe. Heck of a car, even if it has only two doors. Solara has what the Camry sedan lacks, a more distinct and sporty appearance. But what makes Solara a most pleasant machine is the combination of a 3-liter, 200-horsepower V-6 that is spirited yet quiet (same engine as in the Camry sedan), and a suspension system without jitters or jumpiness, lean or sway.
The suspension makes Solara a sports coupe, and not simply a two-door version of the four-door sedan. After driving Solara some distance, you want to get out and pat it on the fender and tell it, “Nice job.” Of course, the Solara suspension is so nicely designed and tuned, it also makes you want to give Toyota’s chief engineer a whack on the back of the head and ask, “Why couldn’t you do this in the sedan?”
Though it’s a Camry underneath, Solara has increased strut and spring rates as well as stiffer suspension mounts and tighter, quicker steering response than the sedan so it has more of a sports character, the sedan more of a family touring sedan flavor.As a bonus, the V-6 delivers 20 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway fuel economy, making it a peppy performer that doesn’t require frequent stops for an energy elixir.
At the same time, the Chicago Tribune noted that by removing two doors from the Camry, the Solara was less practical. The smallest engine available was a 2.2-liter 5S-FE four rated at 135 HP and 147 lb-ft of torque. The Camry Solara’s big engine was a 3.0-liter 1MZ-FE V6 making 200 HP and 214 lb-ft of torque. When equipped with a manual transmission, this was good for acceleration to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, slightly faster than the sedan, which dispatched the same speed in 7.8 seconds. In a period review, MotorTrend wrote that the Camry Solara had similar performance to the sedan, but managed to pair “fun-to-drive” and “Camry.” Its tester only wished for Toyota to do a little more.
Toyota must have been listening because it did just that. In 2000, Toyota Racing Development got its hands on the Camry Solara and tweaked it to turn down the comfort in exchange for sport. The result was the TRD Solara, which was recommended by our Thomas as a Holy Grail.
The TRD Solara wasn’t so much a standalone model as it was a concept to showcase the TRD parts you could buy to make your own quick Solara. TRD started by spicing up the looks. For $1,675, Solara owners got a seven-piece body kit to make the Solara look a bit more sporting. These were painted in every factory color available to 1999 and 2000 Solaras.
Of course, you have to upgrade the platform to match the looks. For this, TRD offered $278 sport springs. These are good for a drop of 1.25 inches up front and 1.75 inches in the rear. Next, TRD offered $1,230 sport struts and shocks. Wrapping up the platform upgrades is a $1,859 TSW aluminum wheel package with 225/45ZR17 Toyo Proxes T1 tires. This was called the Stage 3 TRD package and when all of the bits were tallied up, Toyota wanted to lift $4,220 from your wallet. Oh, and that wasn’t the end of the upgrades. If you wanted your engine to sound better, you needed the $390 sport exhaust. To shorten your throws, a $164 shifter was available. There were also $150 stainless steel brake lines, $70 performance brake pads, a $150 19 mm rear anti-roll bar, a radiator cap, and more little things such as air filters.
Finally, you can’t have all of these changes without touching the engine. The pièce de résistance of the TRD Solara was the addition of the roughly $3,700 Eaton Roots-type 62-cubic-inch blower. When bolted to the 3.0-liter V6, power gains are a kick of up to 70 HP and 62 lb-ft of torque. Reportedly, this supercharger, which was similar to the one used on earlier Buick supercharged V6 engines, spun at two times engine speed for 4.5 pounds of peak boost. MotorTrend‘s test TRD Solara was making 262 HP and 268 lb-ft of torque. Car and Driver also got to test one, and theirs reportedly made 247 HP and 242 lb-ft of torque. In Car and Driver’s hands, the TRD Solara hit 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. MotorTrend went faster, delivering the goods in 5.6 seconds. Yep, that’s an early aughts Camry laying down a legitimately fast time.
Car and Driver gave the TRD Solara high marks:
Although it had been thrashed by other motoring writers for 25,000 miles before we got our hands on it, the TRD Solara was a sweet car to drive. The moderate blower whine and resonant exhaust add engaging mechanical character to a car that had very little in the way of zoot, while the suspension modifications stiffen up a chassis that had mush to spare. Our souped-up Solara ripped from standstill to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds and turned the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 95 mph. The stock Solara runs the sprint in 7.0 and takes 15.6 seconds at 90 mph to complete the quarter-mile (Car and Driver, September 1998).
What’s remarkable is how well-mannered the mechanical package remains. We never experienced detonation, the power was seamless, and the ride, although stiffer than stock, was within the boundaries of comfortable. The wider tires greatly improve initial turn-in, and the additional rear roll stiffness gives the car a more neutral cornering attitude.
The Solara has always been a big, comfortable two-door, and TRD has added the performance edge it deserves. It feels like the car Chevy’s Monte Carlo SS should be. And as a good hot rod should, it leaves us wondering why Toyota doesn’t build them this way in the first place.
By Car and Driver‘s tally, all of the TRD equipment added around $9,000 to the price of a Camry Solara. Car and Driver‘s TRD Camry was $31,134 after the base price of the car plus the entire catalog of upgrades. Perhaps the best part is the fact that you got all of these go-fast parts but still kept your factory warranty. Fast, but you wouldn’t be furious when something broke.
In 2003, the Solara got a second generation for the 2004 model year. Still based on the Camry platform, the new Solara was a bit heavier, but featured more curvaceous styling. The four-cylinder and a V6 returned, with the V6 pumping out 225 HP and 240 lb-ft of torque.
Notably, the V6-equipped cars did not have the option of a manual transmission. By 2007, revised SAE testing methods resulted in the V6 being downgraded to 210 HP and 220 lb-ft of torque. Doubly unfortunately for second-gen Solara owners, TRD did not grace the vehicle with a supercharger option.
Thus, if you wanted the best Toyota had to offer with a Solara, you had to buy a first-generation and fill it with TRD parts. The Solara was also a bit of a letdown for Toyota as well. To give you an idea of how the Solara was selling, in 2004, Toyota sold 388,107 Camrys. In 2005, Toyota moved 356,516 Camrys. In the same span of time, Toyota sold just 49,174 and 43,993 Solaras, respectively. Now, those wouldn’t be bad sales numbers for a small brand, but this is Toyota we’re talking about here.
According to WardsAuto, Solara production dropped to “more than 40,000” in 2006 before falling off of a cliff to just 29,834 units in 2007. Sales dropped even further to 23,091 in 2008. Toyota called it quits later that year, citing falling demand for vehicles in the Solara’s segment.
From 1998 to 2001, Toyota sold about 175,078 Camry Solaras. I could not find data for later first-generation years. Toyota also didn’t drill those numbers down by engine or transmission, but enthusiasts estimate that around 15 percent of first-generation Solaras have manuals. That’s about 26,261 cars, of which we don’t know how many were V6. Of those cars, we also don’t know how many owners slapped the supercharger on top.
What I can tell you is that finding one of the Solaras is like trying to find Nessie, or a unicorn. I found just a couple of archived ads. None of my usual classifieds sites produced anything even close. Perhaps another $3,700 to $9,000 on top of the base Solara was too much for many buyers. A Solara with this supercharger appears to be another example of an uncommon version of a car otherwise sold in healthy numbers. If you have one, hold it tight, for you may never know when you may find another.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
(Images: Toyota, unless otherwise noted.)
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