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The 2004 Solara was available as either a coupe or convertible.

In 2004, Toyota overtook Chrysler as the third-largest car maker in North America. For both parties, this was huge, and Toyota's best-selling Camry was firmly entrenched as one of the most popular vehicles in Canada.

One of the offshoots of the Camry was the Solara, which replaced the two-door Camry in 1999. Available as either a coupe or convertible, it was aimed at drivers who wanted a slightly more interesting driving experience, but without getting too carried away: legendary Camry dependability with a sporty flair.

There were three versions: SE, SEV6, and SLEV6. The SE came with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder dual overhead camshaft engine that developed 157 horsepower at 5,600 rpm. It was equipped with Toyota's variable valve timing system and had a couple of counterbalance shafts for smoothness, both of which resulted in a lively, refined powerplant with a surprising amount of low-speed punch. It was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission only.

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The V-6 versions, meanwhile, were propelled by a 225-hp, 3.3-litre engine that was hooked up to a five-speed automatic transmission. But for around-town, point-and-squirt driving conditions, the four-cylinder SE was arguably the better of the two. The V-6 engine lacked the sharp revving ability of the four-banger, and had an almost leisurely power delivery, as though it was thinking things over, and all things considered, the four-cylinder SE came with a better co-ordinated drivetrain.

Whichever version you chose, the Solara was well equipped. Standard kit included air conditioning, power windows with automatic up/down for driver and passenger, power door locks, remote keyless entry, tachometer, AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, heated mirrors, front and side airbags, and 60/40 folding rear seat-backs.

The convertible featured a nicely insulated canvas top and a glass rear window. One caveat here: Rearward visibility was severely compromised by the ragtop, and backing the car up proved to be more challenging than one might have expected.

The Solara was, and is, a four-seater, and a couple of adults could squeeze into the back seat, but there wasn't a heck of a lot of room back there and it was a little tricky to get past the front seats. However, it was no worse than other vehicles of this kind. Toyota discontinued the hardtop version after 2008.

Then, as now, the key to the Solara's appeal was its willingness to please. The four-cylinder SE, at least, was an immensely driveable automobile, with no bad habits, questionable ergonomics, or complicated electronic gew-gaws. And if you wanted to drive with a little enthusiasm once in a while, it was more than willing to oblige. It came with four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment, and the MacPherson struts front and back were calibrated for a slightly stiffer ride than the Camry sedan, for example.Unsurprisingly perhaps, Transport Canada has no safety recalls on file for the '04 Solara - either coupe or convertible. Nor does the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, the NHTSA does have a seat-belt alert for Camrys of this vintage and, presumably, this would apply to the Solara as well. It concerns the front passenger seat belt, which may not disengage when it's pulled too tightly around an infant child seat. NHTSA also has one technical service bulletin. However, this latter item is just a service advisory that involves servicing the front airbags.

Predictably, Consumer Reports thinks very highly of this Camry variant. It gets top - or near the top - marks in virtually every category, and the only black mark seems to be in the area of "squeaks and rattles." Both the coupe and convertible receive this organization's "much better than average" used-car prediction, and the highest rating it can bestow when it comes to a used-car verdict.

Nothing on file for the '04 Solara with market research company J.D. Power but, again, the Camry fares reasonably well with this organization. A Camry of this vintage gets a better-than-average vehicle dependability score.

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Expect to pay around $11,000 to $17,000 for one of these desirable two-doors - if you can find one, that is. Both the coupe and the convertible are sought-after items - especially the latter - and weren't built in huge numbers to begin with.

***** ***** *****

2004 Toyota Solara

Type: Four passenger coupe/convertible

Original Base Price: $26,800; Black Book Value: $13,175-$17,100; Red Book Value: $10,925-$15,350

Engine: 2.4 litre four-cylinder/3.3 litre V-6

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Horsepower/Torque: 157 hp/162 lb-ft for four

225 hp/240 lb-ft for V-6

Transmission: Four- and five-speed automatic

Drive: Front-whee-drive

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km):

10.1 city/6.7 highway (2.2-litre ); regular gas

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Alternatives: Honda Accord Coupe, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Mustang, Saab 9-3 Convertible, Chrysler Sebring, VW Beetle Convertible

globeauto@globeandmail.com

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