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Buying a Used Toyota Camry: Everything You Need to Know

The Toyota Camry is one of the best known, most reliable cars money can buy, which is why it makes such a great used car. A perennial best-seller year after year, the Camry may not offer the flash and performance of some other family sedans, but it is consistent in its ability to provide a comfortable cabin, miserly fuel consumption, and the ability to travel long distances with minimal problems. Over the years, you will discover variations on a theme, with some Camry generations offering coupes, wagons, hybrids, and even a convertible.

1st Generation: 1983-1986

The Camry was introduced to America in 1983. The stylish 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback were Toyota’s first front-wheel-drive cars and were designed with the American market in mind. Six inches longer than the rival Honda Accord, the Camry offered more interior room, a smoother ride, and more engine options. Power came from either a 1.8- or 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gas engine, and for a short time, Toyota offered a diesel engine option as well. Some early quality issues did arise for this model, but Toyota was quick to make changes, thus resolving many first-year issues.

Finding a good condition first-generation Camry is likely to be difficult, and any you do find might better be put into a car collection than pressed into daily service. Common issues included leaking oil pump gaskets and issues with the electronic ignition module.

2nd Generation: 1987-1991

Toyota proved it was a fast learner, making numerous improvements and upgrades to the second-generation Camry. This generation was more rounded, with a sophisticated interior bordering on luxurious in upper-level trims. The Camry sold briskly in these years, with improved quality and reliability. The hatchback version went away, but over its short four-year run, the second-gen Camry saw the introduction of a V6 engine, a station wagon variant, and even the option of all-wheel drive.

For the most part, owners had few complaints and the quality and reliability for this generation is really quite good. Finding a good used model may be tough, but if you find a low mileage example, maintenance should be fairly easy and routine as these cars didn’t have much in the way of advanced electronic systems or safety features. This was also the first Camry to be built in Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant.

3rd Generation: 1992-1996

If you’re looking for an inexpensive and reliable used Camry, try and find a well-maintained version of this generation. The 1992 Camry arrived much larger than its predecessor, making it a true midsize sedan. The wagon also made the transition, but didn’t sell well and may be difficult to find in the used car market. A new coupe was introduced, but AWD was dropped. Engine options were a 130-horsepower 2.2-liter 4-cylinder or a 185 hp 3.0-liter V6 mated to a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.

During this time, the Camry trim line expanded, introducing a sporty new SE trim and gaining new safety features such as a passenger-side airbag and anti-lock brakes. Many used buyers like this generation for its roominess, its reliability, and its not-so-subtle resemblance to certain Lexus models of the same time frame. Some common issues with higher mileage cars include troublesome automatic transmission issues and yellowing of the plastic headlight covers resulting in decreased beam strength.

4th Generation: 1997-2001

The 1997 Toyota Camry marked a trend toward more conservative styling, with thin pillars and a streamlined look that had a distinct Lexus feel. The fourth-generation Camry also makes an excellent used car choice, with a good history of service and repair. The wagon and coupe failed to make the transition, however, and power for these models was provided by either a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder or a 3.0-liter V6. A manual transmission was offered on base models, as well as some cars equipped with the V6. In 1999, the Camry Solara coupe was introduced, using the Camry platform but with different sheet metal and features. It was followed in 2000 by the Solara convertible. Because of additional bracing, the convertible weighed significantly more than the coupe and was, therefore, slower to accelerate.

From a reliability standpoint, these cars are nearly flawless with one exception. During this time, Toyota settled a class-action lawsuit relating to oil sludge buildup in the engines that caused some 4- and 6-cylinder engines to fail. Toyota blamed poor maintenance for the issue while some mechanics said the sludge was a result of Toyota narrowing the coolant channels in the block, causing temps to rise. The issue was covered by an extended warranty out to eight years from the original time of purchase. Overall, very few cars suffered from this issue, and by this date, those that did are either dead or repaired. But it is something to be aware of and maybe a good reason to have a mechanic check out any potential car before purchasing.

The Camry’s engines use a timing belt, not a chain, so owners must keep up with regular maintenance schedules that require the belt to be changed every 90,000 miles. Anti-lock brakes were standard on all but the base car, and safety and crash test scores were good for the time. Styling is simple and the ride soft. You won’t find this generation Camry much fun to drive, but it gets good gas mileage, is inexpensive to maintain, and holds its value fairly well, even for a 20-year-old car. Find a 4th Generation Toyota Camry for sale

5th Generation: 2002-2006

If you’re looking for an inexpensive used car with plenty of interior room, power, and features, the 20012006 Camry makes a good choice. This model grew in size and power, but the styling remained rather generic, as did the ride and handling. The tall roof offered more headroom, and the rear seat grew in size to comfortably fit two grown adults. Engine choices included a 154-hp 2.4-liter 4-cylinder or a 190-hp 3.0-liter V6. With the debut of the second-generation Solara came a new 3.3-liter V6 offering 210 hp.

This engine was also offered on the Camry sedan, but only in the sporty SE trim. New features included a navigation radio option and an upgraded audio system plus more safety systems like electronic traction control and side airbags. Researching the blogs, owners found this generation to be nearly bulletproof, with many cars achieving 250,000 miles with only routine maintenance. When new, complaints were few and far between. As with all older cars, the plastic headlight covers tend to yellow, reducing the headlight range. This issue can be easily fixed either by a body shop or a do-it-yourself headlight cleaning kit. Models with cloth seats gathered lint and dust, and the material doesn’t hold up well over time. Find a 5th Generation Toyota Camry for sale

6th Generation: 2007-2011

The 2007 Camry flipped the script on the boring and bland, arriving with more style, a more sophisticated interior, and a lot more power. By this time, the slow-selling Solara was dropped, leaving only the Camry sedan to carry on. The sixth-generation Camry featured a longer wheelbase and a wider cabin and offered an impressive 268-hp 3.5-liter V6 that enabled the car to dash to 60 mph in less than six seconds, making this generation one of the fastest yet built. The 4-cylinder cars were adequately powered by a 158-hp 2.4-liter engine that would be swapped out in 2010 for a 169-hp 2.5-liter motor. During this time, the first Camry Hybrid appears, offering a gas/electric motor and an EPA estimated 33 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway.

On the gas-powered models, the previous timing belt was replaced by a timing chain, removing the need for routine replacement. The timing chain is an internal component that keeps the valves and cylinders in perfect timing. It is not the same thing as the rubber drive belt that can be seen outside the engine and that operates the alternator, water pump, and power steering pump. The drive belt is made of rubber and must be inspected and changed periodically.

Some earlier models had issues with the hesitant or slow shifting automatic transmission, but the complaints seem to taper off after 2008. Other common issues to look for on these cars include excessive oil consumption (2007-2009) and early failure of the water pump.

Standard safety equipment for this generation includes a driver knee airbag and side curtain airbags, with the optional traction and stability control, made standard on 2010 and newer cars. Find a 6th Generation Toyota Camry for sale

7th Generation: 2012-2017

The 2012 Camry again increased in size and sophistication, with more powerful engines and better fuel economy, especially on the hybrid models, which earned an EPA estimated 43 mpg city/39 mpg highway. In 2015, the Camry got a major makeover, with sportier looks, even more power, and improved handling. The interior also got a major upgrade, with more standard equipment and more luxury options such as wireless charging, adaptive cruise control, and automatic emergency braking. This Camry version carried over until 2018 when the current version of the Camry was introduced.

The seventh-generation Camry is the car you’re likely to find with low miles and in good condition. Some may still even have part of their factory warranty in place, while others may qualify for Toyota’s certified pre-owned program. CPO cars can be no older than 6 years and have no more than 85,000miles on the odometer. Each car gets a thorough 160-point inspection, 1 year/12,000 comprehensive warranty, and an extension of the original factory powertrain warranty out to 7 years/100,000 miles from the time the car entered service. CPO cars generally cost more than if you buy from a private party, but it’s a great way to get the same peace of mind that comes when buying a new car. Find a 7th Generation Toyota Camry for sale

8th Generation: 2018-Present

A modern new Toyota Camry was introduced for the 2018 model year. The 8th generation Camry has a stylish look, an efficient base engine, and an impressive list of standard safety tech features. The driving dynamics are more fun than you might expect from a Camry, especially with the optional V6 engine. In 2019, Apple CarPlay became standard and Android Auto joined the party in 2020. Find an 8th Generation Toyota Camry for sale

Which Toyota Camry is Right For Me?

If you’re on a really tight budget, like $3-5K max, try and find a low mileage 2003-2006 Camry, preferably from an original owner or at least an owner who has kept good maintenance records. For those in $10-15K range, you’ll do best with the seventh generation version that covers 2012-2017.

We like this model best as it offers a nice blend of safety, reliability and features, plus it’s still affordable and less likely to have really high mileage. The 2015 and newer models will offer more features including the all-important driver assists, but you’ll probably see the pricing moving further toward the $20,000 mark for the well-equipped XSE and V6 cars. Find a Toyota Camry for sale

Joe Tralongo
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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