All the right stuff makes this wagon a winner
Since its total re-design three years ago, the Camry has been Toyota's bread-and-butter car, the all-around midsize family machine that is by far the company's biggest seller. Like its sedan and coupe siblings, the Camry Wagon is meant to meet the needs of a wide range of buyers, from those seeking solid basic transportation to the luxury-minded. That's a tall order.
The Camry faces some tough opponents. Honda, for example, offers the excellent Accord Wagon, similarly equipped, for about the same price as a Camry. It's possible to buy a Ford Taurus Wagon or Mercury Sable Wagon with more features for a little less. And there are a few other manufacturers that have wagons that compete with the Camry in terms of price, package and size, too.
But Toyota didn't earn its reputation with smoke and mirrors. The Camry Wagon has been given the virtues it needs - style, solidity and comfort, among them - to face head-to-head comparison with almost everyone else's wagons and not be found lacking.
One major Camry advantage is its use of major exterior, structural and mechanical components from the more expensive Lexus ES 300. In theory, a luxury car with a few amenities removed should be an impressive product. That's how it works in the Camry's case.
Toyota's mass-market cars are generally pretty conservative in appearance; they're well-designed but free of external features that might generate controversy.
The Camry Wagon is a little bit different. It looks conventional enough when viewed from the front: The nose is smooth, rounded and handsome in a restrained way. In short, it looks like a Toyota.
Detail changes to the headlights and the grille differentiate the 1995 Camry from previous versions.
From the rear doors back, however, the stylists have endowed the Camry with a shape that is, to say the least, unusual. Some call it ungainly. At the same time, others find it distinctive.
Nevertheless, there are no differences of opinion when it comes to judging the way in which the Camry is finished: Flawless paint; tight seams where the doors, tailgate and hood join the body; and trim applied with obvious care are Toyota hallmarks. It is obvious that no corners were cut in this area when the Lexus became a Camry.
And it should be said that the high roofline does have its benefits: All the doors, including the tailgate, are more than generous in size. Loading either people or goods into this wagon requires absolutely no contortions.
The only practical drawback to the Camry's shape is a small blind spot at each rear corner, something most drivers will be able to compensate for after some time behind the wheel.
Toyota offers the Camry Wagon in one trim level, called LE. Entry-level LEs are powered by a 2.2-liter, 125-hp 4-cylinder engine.
In many applications this engine would be a standout, as it delivers impressive power with smoothness and refinement unusual even among today's highly developed 4-cylinder units. But an engine that needs to be kept at fairly high rpms to be effective, as this one does, may not be what most people want or need in a decidedly non-sporty wagon.
To some extent, the same is true of the LE's optional 3.0-liter V6 - maximum power and torque peaks are nearly the same for both - but the larger engine does have more urge at low speeds, considerably more torque at all speeds and is thus quieter in all-around use. The V6 also requires premium-grade fuel (91 octane), a definite consideration for high-mileage drivers.
A 4-speed automatic transmission is standard with either engine, though the V6 version's electronic controls deliver smoother, more responsive gear changes.
The Inside Story
Toyota interiors have long been considered to be among the best in the industry in terms of appearance, function and finish. The Camry Wagon cabin is no exception. Every-thing looks right, from the shape of the dashboard and door panels to seats and center console. All controls are placed where they should be and are clearly labeled. Fabrics, carpeting and plastics are all of good quality.
Rated as a 5-passenger wagon, the Camry scores high marks for comfort. Sufficient space is available for the driver and passengers to stretch out, though the extra headroom suggested by the high roof isn't there. The Camry is no better in this regard than some of Toyota's competitors' low-profile wagons.
The front bucket and center bench seats are nicely padded and supportive. The rear-facing third seat, however, is best left to very small children and dogs; it's awkward to climb in and out of, and none too pleasant to sit on.
We'd suggest using the back as a cargo bay. There's 40.5 cu. ft. available in back for that purpose, and just under 75 cu. ft. of storage space when the center seat is folded.
Ride & Drive
Nothing emphasizes the Camry Wagon's solid-citizen image as effectively as a test drive. It matters not at all whether the trip is across town or across the country.
In any driving situation, the Camry is rock-solid, smooth and efficient. Most of the time it's quiet, too, though the engine (we're talking about the V6, mind you) gets noisy when asked to pick up speed quickly, as would be the case on freeway on-ramps.
On a long cruise, the Camry is thoroughly pleasant. Wind and mechanical noises are nearly nonexistent, as are any squeaks or rattles, leaving only sound generated by tire treads - more than we expected - to intrude. The Camry is a soft-riding wagon, one that won't jolt its occupants even when they're traveling over poor road surfaces.
The downside to the pillowy ride is a distinct shortage of driving pleasure. Despite its light curb weight, the Camry feels ponderous, floating over bumps and leaning heavily through turns.
The steering is light and not particularly precise. These are traits one might expect to find in an older full-size domestic wagon, but not in a Toyota.
A side benefit to ordering the V6 engine is the replacement of the rear drum brakes with discs. The all-disc system provides sure stopping power, and can be augmented with optional anti-lock brakes (ABS). Four-wheel discs are also supplied when ABS is ordered on 4-cylinder models.
In some respects, the Camry Wagon is an enigma. Finding fault with the basic package is difficult. Who would complain about a roomy, easy-riding wagon that is sure to be as dependable as the sunrise?
But there are areas in which the Camry falls short. Certain wagons - the Accord, for example - are more fun to drive, yet no less comfortable. Others deliver more performance, with little, if any, loss of refinement.
And there's the matter of what you get for what you pay. The Camry Wagon's base price is reasonable, and the list of standard features - including air conditioning, 6-speaker AM/FM/ cassette sound system and power assists - ensure that a low-price Camry isn't a stripped-out penalty box. But a V6 wagon with ABS, a third seat and the top-of-the-line sound system nudges the price up toward $25,000, and that's a fair chunk of change.
If you're looking for a good, traditional station wagon, the Camry definitely delivers.
But if performance and handling are right up there with space and practicality on your wish list, you should be prepared to spend some time comparison shopping before making that final decision.
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