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A Look Back at the Toyota Camry

While many cars take years, or even decades, to win the public’s loyalty, the Toyota Camry has been a sales success from its inception. Launched in the heyday of Toyota’s rise to power in the U.S., the Camry was the company’s first “big” car. Designed with the American family in mind, the Camry has evolved gradually over the years, but its multiple honors as the best-selling car in the country prove Toyota knows what it’s doing. More importantly, Toyota knows what American buyers want in a traditional family sedan.

Welcome to America

Introduced midway through the 1983 model year, the Camry was designed specifically for an American audience. Replacing the rear-drive Corona sedan, the 1983 Camry rode on a 102-inch wheelbase and was Toyota’s first successful front-drive model with a transverse-mounted engine. The Camry was nearly 6 inches longer than the 1983 Honda Accord, and it benchmarked such popular American sedans as the GM X-car (Chevy Citation, Olds Omega, Pontiac Phoenix, Buick Skylark) and Chrysler’s K-car (Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant) for interior room, features, ride and handling. The Camry was so large it nearly qualified as an intermediate, which was a bonus in the American market at the time. The car’s styling was typical of the day, with thin pillars and squared-off edges, yet the first-generation Camry was surprisingly aerodynamic. Toyota offered the first Camry as either a 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback.

The Camry derived its 92 horsepower from a 2.0-liter gas engine that could be paired with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic. Optional on the DX trim was a short-lived 1.8-liter turbodiesel good for 73 hp and paired exclusively with the 5-speed manual. The 2.0-liter engine was rated by the EPA at 31 miles per gallon in the city and 43 mpg on the highway and could propel the Camry to 60 mph in about 13 seconds. While the first Camry sold well, it didn’t live up to the quality hype that surrounded other Toyota makes. Chalk it up to a first-year learning curve.

The second-generation Toyota Camry was introduced in 1987 and ran through 1991. Although it too only had a 4-year run, the second-generation Camry saw a number of improvements over the original car, including the introduction of a V6 engine, a station wagon model and, for a limited time, the option of all-wheel drive. Toyota made vast improvements to the car’s quality, interior, suspension, engine and features. The design was so solid that Lexus borrowed the Camry platform to build the first ES 250 sedan. The 1989 Camry was part of another major milestone: It was the first car manufactured in Toyota’s new Georgetown, Kentucky plant.

Toyota Learns to Super-size

The year 1992 marked the introduction of the third-generation Camry, a car that was significantly larger than the previous model, moving it squarely into the midsize category. The standard engine was a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder good for 130 hp, while the optional 3.0-liter V6 bumped output to a healthy 185 hp. The Camry SE was introduced, offering buyers a sportier version of the popular family car. The SE added a beefed-up suspension, larger wheels and tires, and sport seats. Another new edition this year was the Camry coupe, which was introduced in 1994. After a short hiatus, the Camry wagon returned to the line with an optional third seat that increased passenger capacity to seven. During this time, the Camry would gain anti-lock brakes and a passenger side airbag.

With sales strong, Toyota didn’t want to rock the boat, so the fifth-generation Camry arrived in 1997 dressed rather conservatively. The wagon was dropped, as was the coupe, but in 1999 the 2-door Camry Solara was introduced as an all-new model under the Camry family umbrella. Both the 4-cylinder and V6 engines gained more power. A 5-speed manual was still available, although most Camry models went out the door equipped with an automatic. The Camry CE with the V6 and manual transmission had a reported 0-to-60 time of under 8 seconds, which was pretty quick in those days. In 2000, a collaborative effort between Toyota and ASC created the Camry Solara convertible. Due to the additional body bracing and power top mechanism, the Solara convertible weighed significantly more than its coupe counterpart, resulting in slower acceleration times.

In 2002, Toyota launched the sixth-generation Camry, a car that again saw an increase in size, power, features and price. Engine options included a 154-hp 2.4 liter 4-cylinder and a 190-hp 3.0-liter V6. Later in the model run, a 210-hp 3.3-liter V6 would be added to the lineup. This author remembers attending the media introduction of the ’02 Camry. A Toyota engineer described how he wanted the design of this car to say “WOW.” A journalist sitting next to me wrote the words “WOW” on a piece of paper and then slowly turned it upside down to read “MOM.” The 2002 Camry proved popular with the public and again set sales records, but it had definitely lost its edge, looking more like a conservative rental car than an edgy best-seller. During this time, the second-generation Solara and Solara convertible also debuted. The two cars ran with limited sales success from 2004-2008.

The Camry Gets Its Groove Back

Stung by critics who complained Toyota was playing it too safe, the 2007 Camry arrived sporting sleeker styling, more power, better handling and more trim levels. So good was this design that it won Motor Trend’s coveted Car of the Year award. Not only was this new Camry more sporting, but when equipped with the new 268-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine option it was also one of the fastest family sedans on the market. A 6-speed sequential-shift automatic further upped the Camry’s appeal, and even the base 4-cylinder model generated a healthy 158 hp, nearly equal that of the second-gen Camry’s V6. Along with the traditional sedan, the first Camry Hybrid was launched. Using the same technology as the Prius hybrid, the Camry Hybrid combined a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with a 40-hp electric motor to give a combined output of 187 hp. Initial EPA estimates for the hybrid were listed at 33 mpg city/34 mpg hwy, impressive figures when compared to the 4-cylinder gasoline-powered Camry, which was at 22 mpg city/32 mpg hwy.

The seventh-generation Camry launched in 2012 and ran through 2017. It was basically an extension of the sixth-generation car, adding more interior room, sportier styling and updated driver safety and infotainment options. The same 268-hp V6 carried over with little change, but the hybrid model saw a significant improvement, gaining a new 2.5-liter gasoline engine and a more powerful hybrid system for a combined output of 200 hp. A revised CVT automatic transmission helped the Camry Hybrid return impressive fuel economy figures of 43 mpg city/39 mpg hwy. In a nod to better driver safety, the 2017 Camry gained Toyota’s Safety Sense P system as part of its standard equipment roster. The system includes adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and automatic high beams.

New From the Ground Up

The 2018 Camry arrives touting an all-new chassis with a more rigid structure, more aggressive styling and performance on par with some of the best sports sedans on the market. The new Camry’s seating position sits an inch lower than the previous model, and SE and XLE trims get a sport-tuned suspension for improved cornering. The 2.5-liter engine is equipped with direct-injection technology and is rated at 203 hp; the V6 bumps power to 301 hp and the hybrid to 208 hp combined.

After 15 years as the country’s best-selling sedan, the new Camry looks to be on target to retain its title. However, time will tell if the new Honda Accord has the right stuff to finally knock the Camry from its lofty pearch. Stay tuned.

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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  1. A few errors. 1997 is the 4th generation Camry. 2002 is the 5th gen. For 2018, SE and XSE are the sportier models. The XLE is more luxurious and plush model.

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