Balance is an important aspect of a car company's product decisions. While there are some specialized automakers that focus exclusively on a small niche of the market, larger conglomerates cannot afford to ignore any segment of the market for too long without taking the risk of alienating buyers - especially those who might want to move up from an entry level vehicle into something a little more exciting. Car companies traditionally provide a clear upgrade path for drivers to progress through their automobile lineups from the very bottom to the top of the line.
Toyota has often been accused of concentrating so hard on producing well-built cars with strong engineering that they have squeezed out a lot of the fun that is normally associated with driving an excellent car. The word 'appliance' has been applied tongue in cheek to many of the solid but plain vehicles to have emerged from the Japanese manufacturer's assembly lines over the past couple of decades.
It is indeed true that for a time it seemed as though Toyota had moved completely away from providing an engaging driving experience in order to focus on their sedans and economy cars. However, at the turn of the millennium Toyota surprised the industry by reviving one of their spritely drop top designs from years past, the MR2, following it up a few years later with a fully featured, mid-size convertible version of the Camry called the Solara. Rag tops provide some of the most exhilarating, carefree driving available and Toyota hushed many of their critics with these two machines. As the years went on, these vehicles began to attract a following on the used car market as their excellent reliability made them the favorite choice among sports car fans looking for a street and track car in the case of the MR2, or the average mid-size buyer interested in fun summer transportation like the Solara.
This article takes a look at these used convertibles from Toyota, discussing the driving experience and features of the two most compelling and enjoyable vehicles to have worn the Toyota badge in the last decade.
2000 - 2005 Toyota MR2 Spyder
The MR2 is a unique vehicle when it comes to affordable used roadsters. With a mid-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive, the MR2 combines an uncommon drivetrain with extroverted styling that recalls the bug-eyed look of early British open-top two-seaters. Intended to appeal to those looking for a fun toy with excellent reliability and great driving dynamics, the MR2 found itself competing against the Mazda Miata in the quest for import roadster dominance.
Powering the diminutive MR2 is a 1.8 liter, 4-cylinder engine that generates 140 horsepower. When paired with a 5-speed manual transmission (upgraded to a 6-speed in 2003) and a low, 2200 lb curb-weight, the MR2 displays a delightful willingness to scream up to the redline and blast through the tightest of s-curves and switchbacks. By relying more on poise and driver feedback than overwhelming power, the MR2 is capable of keeping up with some of the more serious sports cars on today's roads. The engine being mounted behind the passenger compartment helps to keep the vehicle balanced, and it displays none of the twitchiness at the limits associated with some of the more exotic offerings from Porsche.
The no-frills manual top matches the pure feel of the vehicle itself, which directs the driver to focus more on the thrill of the vehicle's performance than luxury. While leather was made available on later models, along with a sequential manual transmission, most MR2's come with a basic interior, a decent stereo system and standard cruise control. A leather-wrapped steering wheel and a wind deflector to help reduce cockpit noise with the top down round out the list of features.
There are few used vehicles against which to compare the 2000 - 2005 Toyota MR2, as nothing in its price range provides the same flavor of sporting performance. It makes a good option for those interested in a mid-engine vehicle but who don't want to pay for the extra accommodations found in more upscale vehicles like the Porsche Boxster.
2004 - 2007 Toyota Camry Solara
While large, front-wheel drive convertibles have long been a staple of domestic automobile lineups, imports have largely stuck to smaller, compact-car based drop tops. The 2004 - 2007 Camry Solara is unashamedly big, matching the Camry sedan in length and width and providing a fun platform for top down cruising in a comfortable setting. The re-designed for 2004 body shape translates well into convertible form, with vehicle lines preserving their excellent flow and grace.
A vehicle the size and weight of the Camry Solara convertible needs a powerful engine to keep it from feeling sluggish, and Toyota acknowledges this by offering a 225 horsepower, 3.3 liter V6 engine as the only choice under the hood. With 240 lb-ft of torque and a 4-speed automatic transmission, the Solara is able to pass at will on the highway and merge with ease even in heavy traffic. A 5-speed automatic takes the place of the original transmission in 2006, adding extra smoothness into the driving equation. The vehicle's suspension is well sorted when dealing with the extra weight of the convertible's frame, and the body holds together well while cornering, but when pushed the Solara will complain with understeer, making it more suited to relaxed driving than high speed slaloms. When driven prudently the Solara convertible rewards drivers with excellent comfort and a minimum of harshness.
The 2004 - 2007 Toyota Camry Solara is an excellent vehicle, all things considered. It is also a vehicle which has substituted the drama and passion of an involved driving experience to create a reliable but somewhat bland vehicle which is much more practical than some of the other used convertibles available. The Camry Solara convertible is perfect for drivers who are interested in a used vehicle they will never have to think about, and one that will always answer their call when it comes time to drive off into the summer sunset.