Fortunately, Toyota hasn't just stripped the Camry down to bare essentials and sent it out the door. Nor has it built a price leader that no one would buy. From the spacious passenger compartment to the storage space in the large trunk, the Camry is built for an active life style.
The Camry CE, which is the base model and the one we tested, is every bit a Camry. It drives well in a variety of conditions, offers Toyota's penchant for reliability and offers convenience and safety that car buyers look for today. This summer Toyota has stretched the dollar a bit farther by offering a $1,186 value package that includes air conditioning, cruise control, variable intermittent wipers, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. That represents a $1,000 savings over the retail price for that equipment. All this in addition to the $800 optional automatic transmission for less than $20,000. (Prices include $420 destination charge.)
The flagship XLE V6 ($25,418) is loaded with standard equipment. It's powered by a double overhead-cam 3.0-liter V6 that produces 194 horsepower and 209 foot-pounds of torque. Opting for the XLE provides you with standard equipment like air conditioning, a premium AM/FM, cassette/compact disc player sound system, cruise control, intermittent wiper, power door locks, windows and outside mirrors. A more elegant interior is also part of the XLE attraction as well as a vehicle immobilizing anti-theft device, coupled with remote keyless entry. XLE also is fitted with aluminum wheels.
The mid-range LE ($20,209) has proven to be the most popular of the three models as it has a wide range of options open to buyers. Like other models, it can be equipped with either the four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine. The LE is also equipped with air conditioning, cruise control, intermittent wipers, power door locks, mirrors and windows.
The 2.2-liter double overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine is standard equipment in the CE, and produces 133 horsepower and 147 foot-pounds of torque. Even though the four-cylinder does not produce the power of the V6, it performs quite well. Toyota's 2.2-liter inline-4 is smooth and relatively free of the noise and busyness normally associated with four-cylinder engines. It earns an estimated EPA city/highway gas mileage rating of 23/32 mpg when equipped with the manual transmission.
Very little has changed to the exterior of the Camry, and you would be hard pressed to differentiate among the three models. It takes a sharp eye to see the difference. The easiest way to identify the model is to stroll around to the rear of the Camry and check out the badge on the rear deck.
The front hood and fender contour remains all Camry. The design isn't breaking new ground, but then again it isn't offensive. Front and rear doors open wide, making entry and exit easier than many other sedans. The trunk offers a convenient low lift height and a more than adequate storage area. We had no problem getting four golf bags loaded into the trunk. The rear 60/40 split seat folds forward, increasing the load hauling ability.
Dual front driver and passenger air bags are standard on all Camrys, as are three-point seat belts for all passengers, even one in the center rear position. Front seat belt pretensioners cinch the belts tight upon sensing and impact and force-limiters reduce the belt's load on an occupant's torso helping reduce injury. Front side-impact airbags are available as an option on all Camrys. The side-impact airbags are designed to help reduce the likelihood of injuries to the driver or front passenger in the event of a severe side collision. Anti-lock brakes are standard on LE V6 and XLE models. They are a $610 option on CE and LE models. We'd prefer ABS was standard. Daytime running lights come on all cars equipped with ABS.
Like most Toyotas, the controls, switches and gauges are designed to be easy to use and read. In this case, one area needs some attention. The controls for the sound system are a bit small and difficult to manipulate while driving. The flowing dash is no-nonsense, yet pleasing to the eye. The interior design and trim are also pleasing, although edging on the ordinary.
The front bucket seats are supportive without being restrictive. The cloth upholstery feels built for extended use. In fact, the driver's seat was so comfortable throughout a number of long drives it made us question the expense of adding power adjustments and leather upholstery.
Granted, the Camry isn't a sports car, yet the front MacPherson strut and the rear dual-link suspension handled the twisting coastal roads admirably. Standard gas charged shock absorbers and stabilizer bars both front and rear play a significant role in the Camry's quality of ride and handling ability. It seems soft around town, but feels firmer in corners. This car is smooth and quiet, though a small amount of road vibration comes through.
Power from the 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine was quite adequate while tackling grades along the coast. Though our test vehicle was equipped with the 4-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, we didn't miss the available manual 5-speed much at all. Greatly assisting in this appreciation of the automatic is a little button on the gearshift lever. With a mere push of a button the driver can lock out overdrive. This keeps the transmission from shifting above third gear, providing much better acceleration performance. This ability is a welcome addition when winding your way up and down mountain passes or along twisting coastal roads. We also found it helpful on many occasions heading down city streets for a quick trip to the market.
Once you put behind the sense of regret for not having leather on the seats and the many bells and whistles that can take the price of a vehicle into the stratosphere, you will feel assured you made a wise decision. The fact that Toyota vehicles historically hold a resale value well beyond the competition will brighten your day even more. After all there is a reason why the Camry has been the most popular car in the land for so many years.