Think again, all those who believe that transporting the kids -- or heading out for a weekend excursion -- in a mid-size station wagon means tolerating a boxy, lumbering vehicle. The 1994 Toyota Camry LE Wagon is superbly styled, excels in performance and offers plenty of room.

If you happen to be one of your household's more popular forms of public transportation, the Camry LE Wagon can carry as many as seven passengers with its optional third-seat package. And whether you're running errands or taking an extended road trip, there's plenty of storage space. With both back seats down, there's 74.8 cubic feet of cargo room. Up top, the adjustable roof rack lets you carry as much as 100 pounds of luggage.

The Camry LE Wagon comes standard with a four-cylinder engine, but we tested the transverse-mounted, 3.0-liter, 188-hp V-6 model.

The MSRP of our test wagon, including standard air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and cruise control, was $22,918. We added a jazzier sound system with eight speakers, an anti-lock braking system (ABS), the third rear-seat package, carpeted floor mats and a roof rack, and the price jumped to $25,398.

Walkaround

With its fine lines, rounded sides, and silky finish, it was hard to keep our hands off the Camry LE Wagon's smooth body. The hood was slightly raised with a delicate curve. Directly underneath was a metal sheet to protect the bottom from bouncing rocks. The sides of the LE Wagon were extremely clean in design -- from the subtle plastic strip that highlighted its platinum sheen to the recessed door handles.

The hood was easy to open with a flip of a lever, and the oil dipstick and reservoir were within easy reach.

In the rear, two windshield wipers suggested a seriousness about visibility. Really, who can see out the back of a one-rear-wiper window in poor conditions? The taillights wrapped slightly around the rear corners, adding to our impression that everything about this wagon fit together perfectly.

Overall, there wasn't a lot of decoration other than the chrome Toyota emblem and name. But we think the simple, elegant styling of this wagon will still turn a few heads.

The Inside Story

Our six-foot test driver slipped easily into the Camry LE Wagon when the steering wheel was raised. Once in the cockpit, he found a comfortable seat that provided good visibility and a surprising sense of spaciousness for a mid-size vehicle.

Overall, the dash looked well-engineered. Controls weren't jammed into comers or hidden out of sight. The only feature we did have a problem locating was the hood release. After consulting the owner's manual, we finally found it under the parking brake.

The driver's seat could be adjusted front to back with a lever, and there were knobs to adjust the lower torso support. The driver's seat reclined further than most wagons we tested. It also sat back a bit and offered plenty of headroom.

The back seat was comfortable enough for three people and, with 34.7 inches of legroom, a tall person wouldn't have to worry about feeling cramped. The 60/40 seat transition was easily accomplished with a touch of a button, leaving plenty of space for long, oversized cargo.

There were several well thought out safety features, such as hefty, velour-covered support posts, childproof rear door locks and back seat three-point seat belts.

The rear hatch was quite wide, and rear storage could accommodate 40 cubic feet of cargo. Our valuables were hidden by a retractable mat.

Ride & Drive

Our Camry LE Wagon started up as quietly as a sewing machine and remained rattle-free throughout our drive. On the highway, it accelerated quickly and smoothly to 70 mph with a peppy, throaty sound. Once up to speed, our test wagon was comfortable and handled responsively when merging into traffic. The cruise-control buttons were on the steering wheel itself, so we didn't have to worry about quickly locating a lever to activate this feature.

The LE Wagon offered a sporty, high-performance drive compared with the heavy handling of some other wagons. Shifting in and out of gear was simple, and the lever was ergonomically designed to feel good in our driver's hand. (Keep in mind that the LE Wagon won't shift into drive unless the brake is on.)

Control was never a problem, whether we were driving on ice or packed snow, or when we tried a 360-degree turn at 45 mph. We were even able to swing a U-turn on a normal-width side street. Braking on an icy road from 20 mph, we found the ABS worked as advertised but made a loud grating sound.

When going up a steep hill or pulling a load, we slipped out of overdrive, floored it and quickly reached 45 mph at 6000 rpm.

As for the ride, the high-tech suspension didn't prevent us from feeling bumps and irregularities in the road, but after a few days of commuting we probably wouldn't have noticed the slight bouncing .

One important standout: we found that our LE Wagon was so easy to park, it almost seemed to assist in the effort.

Final Word

Keeping in mind Toyota's reputation for fantastic fit and finish, the LE Wagon didn't disappoint us.

Nor can its flair for providing all-around comfort be overemphasized. The Camry's roominess, in particular, is one of the car's most pleasant features, which is surprising when you consider the tight wheelbase (103.1 inches). But lots of legroom is a splendid bonus on this vehicle that has touched all the bases.

However, enthusiasm about this wagon's overall package might be tempered a bit by its hefty price tag. After all, a few more bucks would get you an even roomier minivan -- but what you might gain in space you'd probably lose in styling and performance.

In the end, we found this to be a well-engineered utility vehicle that happens to be a station wagon. For those who feel that a wagon is a throwback to the old boat your mother schlepped you around in, there is no similarity. This is a performance car -- one that your kids might even ask to borrow.

 

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© 1994 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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