CARMEL, CA - Yes, Toyota Camry was America's bestselling car in 1997. But Toyota

marketing officials won't be entirely satisfied until the "buff" magazines stop referring to their impeccably competent flagship as an appliance.

Now, with the introduction of the Camry Solara coupe, Japan's largest automaker has a chance to prove it hasn't submerged styling and driving passion to the dictates of market research.

Testing Solara through the hairpin turns and rugged inclines throughout these coastal foothills, one quickly discovers that there is more here than the automotive equivalent of a Maytag washing machine.

Make no mistake: the underlying architecture is shared with Camry; indeed, it will be marketed as the Camry Solara. But to differentiate it, Toyota engineers have tweaked the exhaust to squeeze a few extra horsepower out of both the 2.2L DOHC 4-cyl. (135 hp vs. 133 hp in Camry) and 3L DOHC V-6 (200 hp vs. 194 hp ).

Where Camry often projects the feel of being in cruise control all the time, Solara stimulates and rewards driver participation. By reinforcing the front strut towers and strengthening the transom between the trunk and rear seats, Solara offers a stiffer body. And front and rear suspension mounts are stiffer than those of Camry sedans.

Where I wish Toyota had pushed the envelope a little farther is on Solara's exterior design. The folks at Toyota's CALTY design center have successfully distinguished this coupe from its sedan sibling. Consequently, the sales target (40,000 to 50,000 a year) is more ambitious than the 25,000-a-year best for the "me-too" coupe of the previous-generation Camry.

But for a car aimed at what Don Esmond, Toyota Div. vice president and general manager, calls "empty-nest boomers," it seems they may have underestimated how daring such buyers' visual tastes may run.

The wide-mouthed, V-shaped grille projects a more aggressive stance from the front. A long horizontal crease stretches from a couple of feet ahead of the A-pillar to just beyond the C-pillar. It's height is meant to project a sense of motion.

The more I looked at this car, the more conservative it seemed. It was almost as if CALTY designers were thinking about an accountant whose idea of a fun time was loosening his tie and undoing the top button of his button-down Oxford all-cotton shirt. But the guy who wants to ditch the tie altogether and crank up his Springsteen CDs (my definition of an empty-nest boomer) would probably be looking elsewhere.

The sophisticated buyer, though, might be predisposed to judge Solara from the inside-out - and from that perspective it will not be found lacking. Prices will range from $18,638 for the 4-cyl. manual SE to $24,988 for an SLE V-6 with Toyota's excellent 4-speed auto. That seems to be decent value.

It's just that those hoping Toyota might roll the dice won't find much gambling here.