Polishing the gold standard. by Marcia Ruff
Among ordinary cars, sales leap after a redesign and then gradually decline as the new becomes familiar and other, more exciting models catch the public's eye.
Not so the Camry. Last year -- the final year for a five-year-old design -- Toyota sold more Camrys than ever before. Thanks to its status as the benchmark among family sedans, the Camry manages to sustain ever-increasing sales, even with a comparatively steep pricetag.
The Camry's virtues have included bulletproof reliability, excellent fit and finish, and a comfortable, quiet interior. Its performance has never stirred the soul, but it has been predictable and precise. In redesigning the car, Toyota had no interest in tinkering with the formula. Its goal was to enhance the car's features without changing its fundamental nature.
In this, the company has succeeded. The new Camry is slightly bigger and slightly more powerful, with an all-new exterior and interior, a longer list of safety and convenience features and more refined ride and handling.
The 1997 Camry comes in any shape you want, as long as you want a sedan. The low-volume Coupe and Wagon models have been dropped. The trim levels have also been tweaked. The base model is now called the CE instead of the DX; the mid-level LE, which makes up 60 percent of sales, and top-of-the-line XLE remain the same.
The new Camry is less than an inch longer than before, but it looks bigger and more substantial, thanks to smart design. The car's lines are more angular, and angularity generally lends a larger appearance. Toyota also stretched the wheelbase two inches and chopped the front and rear overhang. This puts the wheels closer to the corners, which gives the car a sportier stance and a fuller look overall.
The car's aerodynamics have been improved significantly (from a coefficient of drag of 0.33 to 0.30), thanks to a sharply swept-back windshield and a squared-off tail with wraparound lights. The aerodynamic new tail design does double-duty by also changing the trunk opening, which is an inch and a half wider and has a lower liftover, making loading easier. The simple gooseneck trunk hinges are unchanged, however, and still intrude into the cargo area.
The interior of the trunk is slightly wider (it can hold golf clubs crosswise) and fully lined for a nicer appearance and less noise. The rear seats can be folded forward (in a 60/40 split) to increase cargo capacity even further.
To jazz things up even more, Toyota has added five new exterior colors, some of them positively exotic, such as Sunfire Red Metallic, Blue Velvet Pearl, and Frosted Iris Metallic.
The Inside Story
The interior of the new Camry was designed at the Toyota Technical Center in the U.S. and it displays a welcome Americanization. You notice the first difference as soon as you sit in the car: the bottom seat cushion has been lengthened to better fit long American legs. Plus the seat and seatback can be adjusted to more positions, fitting a wider range of people.
The Camry LE we tested had a clean, simple dashboard with a low cowl for good visibility. The white-on-black gauges of the instrument panel are larger and brighter this year. A low washer fluid light and odometer with dual trip-meter have been added. The most helpful change has been to invert the audio and temperature controls, with the more frequently used audio controls on top.
Several thoughtful amenities have been added. A second power outlet is located at the bottom on the front console, next to the new built-in tissue dispenser. The sun visors have extension panels. The front cupholders now hold 20-ounce bottles, and new rear cupholders can take either juice boxes or cans. There are numerous new storage cubbies, and the glovebox is almost 30 percent larger.
Interior dimensions are slightly larger, particularly in rear leg room, thanks to the longer wheelbase. The amount of sound-deadening material has been increased, making an already-quiet interior luxuriously quiet. The radio antenna has been replaced on all but the CE-level cars by a new in-glass antenna at the rear that improves reception and reduces wind noise and carwash damage.
Safety is important to family sedan buyers, and the Camry has received several improvements in this area. Body structure has been strengthened thoughout, as have been the rear seatbacks to resist intrusion from objects in the trunk. The lap belt in the rear center seat has been replaced with a safer, three-point belt. An integrated child seat is now available on all cloth-seated models ($125).
Antilock brakes are now standard on all but the four-cylinder CE models, which is a good deal considering they were an $1100 option last year on all but XLE models. Traction control is also an option for the first time on a front-drive Toyota car, available on six-cylinder LE and XLE models ($300).
Ride & Drive
The standard engine for the Camry is a 2.2-liter four-cylinder that is a remarkably smooth piece of work. Horsepower this year has been boosted from 125 to 133, a small but noticeable increase, particularly since the car is 33 pounds lighter than before.
A four-cylinder engine in a car this size is usually a dismal choice, but not here. The 2.2's acceleration is acceptable, and once up to speed, it rolls along nicely. It has to downshift more frequently, and passing on two-lane roads requires more planning than with a larger engine. But the 2.2 is a refined engine, with none of the roughness typical of a four-cylinder. It's economical to buy and operate, which is why 85 percent of Camry buyers opt for it.
The optional 3.0-liter V-6, generally recognized as one of the best in the business, is a significantly more powerful engine, but it will set you back an additional $2300. For the money, you get a family sedan that will go from 0 to 60 in 8.7 seconds, as opposed to 10.9 seconds for the four-cylinder. It passes with ease, and accelerates briskly away from stoplights. Horsepower is improved here, too, from 188 to 194. However, the uprated V-6 now requires premium fuel for optimum performance.
An intriguing new combo this year is a CE fitted with a V-6 and a manual transmission, to satisfy sporty tastes (base price $19,668). It's the fastest of them all with a 0-to-60 time of 7.6 seconds. Take note, though, that the CE V-6 is a little short on standard equipment; air conditioning, power windows and locks, and a cassette player are all optional. (The same limited equipment list is true for the four-cylinder CE models.)
In terms of ride and handling, the Camry has always had the poise of a far more expensive sedan, thanks to the underpinnings it shares with the Lexus ES300. Steering is more precise this year, giving greater maneuverability. Though the car is no sports sedan, it is smooth and competent, giving the driver a confident sense of control.
The Camry redesign had a secondary goal of wringing cost out wherever possible. The yen strengthened dramatically during the car's development period, and saving money was imperative to keep the Camry within reach of American buyers.
Surprisingly, we can't see any cheapening. Many changes are even improvements. The new bumpers, for example, are cheaper to build and install yet protect up to 5 mph instead of 2.5 mph, as before.
However, it's not easy to see the savings on the Camry's window sticker. The company says new Camrys are three to four percent cheaper than comparably equipped 1996 models. That may be technically true, but it is largely because anti-lock brakes are now mostly standard instead of mostly optional at a relatively high $1100.
Nevertheless, the new Camry is just what Toyota set out to achieve: more of everything but still a Camry. It is more refined, better handling, roomier and better equipped. The Camry holds its resale value well, and its reliability means you probably won't have to see much of your dealer until it's time for a new one.
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