A dependable, ordinary car with outstanding quality and history of reliability for people who greatly prefer function over driving excitement.
This midsize family sedan was acquired as a rental vehicle with ~19,000 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for two days. We drove approximately ~1,200 miles. The test route included the flat and boring I-5, & I-99 from the Bay Area to Bakersfield, then thru the Mohave Desert passing some 4,000ft high mountain passages, and ended up in the traffic congested Las Vegas strip where cars tend to out accelerate another at the stop lights. The entire trip in the Camry was with 2 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 26.8 mpg.
Toyota released this completely redesigned Camry in late 2001 as a 2002 model – the fifth generation Camry. The midsize family sedan segment has been dominated by Honda Accord and Toyota Camry for decades. With Mazda 6, Nissan Altima in the import midsizer mix. Toyota consistently revises and improves the Camry to stay attractive and competitive in this diversify segment. The tester has been revised in late 2004 from exterior and interior cosmetic changes to the addition of a new trim level. The tester is manufactured by Toyota in Georgetown, Kentucky. It equipped with an aluminum block and cylinder head, 2.4L 16valves DOHC engine (2AZ-FE) with VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence), pumping out 160hp@5,700rpm and 163Ib-ft of torque@4,000rpm. This same engine can be commonly found in Toyota’s Camry Solara, Highlander, and Scion Tc. Engine is transversely mounted driving the front wheels via a 5 speed electronic automatic transmission with overdrive. Traction is provided by a set of P205/65R15, Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tires. Fore and aft of the chassis is supported by independent MacPherson strut suspensions with stabilizer bars. Stopping power is generated by front vented discs and rear drum brakes with ABS.
The first impression on the car is that – this car has a very spacious interior, and it doesn’t drive like it is awfully huge. It gave us an impression similar to driving a Lexus LS430 in which it is large in size, but the driving dynamics of the LS seem to be a car size smaller. A size smaller in driving feel is a good attribute for a larger size car compare to some that offers “Big Boat” feel – Cadillac Deville. Despite the Camry’s 70.7 inch width, and 189.2 inch in length, the Camry drives as if it is a Corolla with more interior space and refinement. The Camry, at least in the LE trim, is the ideal midsize family sedan that offers comfort, dependability and quality. However, the driving dynamics of our tester is lacking the car enthusiasts’ performance requirements. It also lacks of individuality and uniqueness due to the Camry’s over popularity. But are those really needed in this type of family sedan?
The suspension setup on the Camry further reflects its comfort instead of sportiness. Pavement imperfection is nicely absorbed thanks to the suspensions that were tuned for the soft, and soothe ride which in turn diminished some of the needed proper road feel. Accurate and proper road feel that transmitted to the driver can often provide the connected feel between the driver and the vehicle. There was some body motion over bumps that threw passenger around a bit. Perhaps, the suspensions could be calibrated for its full size capacity – with 5 occupants.
In speaking of road feel via the chassis, the steering is on the same page as well. The power assisted rack-and-pinion steering is a bit too light to operate. Road feel transmitted to the driver thru the steering wheel is minimal. The steering response is not razor sharp but it is ideal for a family sedan and it offers accuracy and on center feel. At corners, during spirit driving, the Camry felt isolated, and disconnected with obvious body roll – a perfect but rare scenario that made the LE’s 3,200Ib curb weight apparent. However, the car is easy to maneuver and willing to take corners at speeds faster than we expected without too much of a drama. Lateral weight transitions are progressive and predictable. Near the cornering limit, the Camry exhibited moderate understeering with the equipped tires gently squeal as a warning. The tires provided outstanding traction and fairly quiet at the corners when not pushed hard.
Brake pedal has 2 inches of freeplay, and it feels squashy but it doesn’t seem to affect its braking ability to stop the Camry’s nearly 3,200Ib curb weight. Braking distance is within our expectation. ABS involvement is smooth and offers extra confidence at emergency situations. Heavy nose dive under heavy braking can be easily achieved in the Camry. Despite its basic vented discs and drums configuration, there weren’t noticeable brake fade.
Engine operates smoothly throughout its rev range with redline at 6,000rpm. A slight touch of harshness near the engine’s redline, but it is the upper part of the rpm range that we don’t spend a lot of time upon, and the type of harshness is very common on larger displacement 4 cylinder engines. At cruising speed, engine is buttery-smooth. Good midrange power with the help by the Toyota’s VVT-i that further spread out the torque output. Engine seems to be peppier at above 2,500rpm. Although the horsepower and torque rating on paper doesn’t seem that attractive, but the engine offers adequate off the line acceleration, passing power, and doesn’t seems to labor when pushed hard. The fuel consumption ranged from 24.9 to 27.8mpg, which is somewhat within our expectation. Thanks to the coefficient of drag at 0.28, the constant 80 -90mph freeway travel didn’t increase the fuel consumption significantly. We would assume a slightly better fuel consumption can be achieved with some more conservative driving style. Overall the engine is average in its class.
The 5 speed automatic transmission mated to the engine also benefited the fuel economy by having a relatively long 5th gear. At cruising speed at 65mph, the engine rpm is at about 1,500rpm. Transmission upshifts at ~6,000rpm and offers no automanual mode. Transmission is silky smooth in shifting but lacking quickness – smoothness and quickness may not always co-exist in an ordinary transmission without extensive programming or engineering revision. There are obvious delays from application of throttle to the actual kick down of the transmission. We wish the transmission is more active on shifting and we would prefer the automanual feature to further take advantage of this 5 speed transmission. It seems the programming has been set that, 2nd to 1st gear kick down is harder to achieve. During our braking test, when we slowed down the vehicle to about 15mph then rapidly applied the throttle for full acceleration, the transmission would only accelerate in 2nd gear. We suspected that the reduced 2nd to 1st gear kickdown occurrence is to lessen the drama of downshifting into the relatively short 1st gear that can cause successive vehicle shudder by spooling up the engine rpm too quickly. But the transmission allows adequate off the line acceleration and passing power thanks for its shorter 1st gear ratio with shorter ratio than the 1st gear in the available 5 speed manual transmission, and close gear ratios.
The LE trim of the Camry line up provided basic but sufficient amenities for its occupants. Visibility around the car is excellent. The gauge cluster is extremely easy to read. Controls on the center console are self explanatory and easy to use, but the buttons can be a little long to reach. The combination switches on the steering column, and all of the interior buttons operate with quality feel. The stock AM/FM/CD player with 6 speakers sound system provide good quality detailed sound with decent bass output. The front seats are a bit broader than we would like, there aren’t much side support on the lower cushions but are sufficient for long journey and ease of entry and exist. The desired driving position is a bit difficult to find initially from its 8-way powered seat that allows wide range of fine adjustments.
Workmanship is good, not that it is in the same league as its big brother Lexus’ but it seems to be nicely built. However, there are slight rattle in the interior mainly from the front door panels and the deck behind the rear seat. Wind noises are muted. Road noise intrusion can be annoying for long road trip. We are not sure if the equipped tires tend to be noisy or this LE doesn’t have the same sound isolations as the ES330 to reduce cost and make a more obvious differentiation between the two. Engine note is evident in higher rpm but proper in sound.
Overall, the Camry is a solid, and dependable family sedan that offers buttery-smooth control mechanisms, roomy interior and extremely easy to drive. The lacking in driving excitement and uniqueness may not be a critical factor for some of its potential buyers. Statistically, majority of the Toyota Camry buyer are not car enthusiasts and with average owner age at about 50 years old. As an interesting note, Camry’s success in North America market doesn’t reflect it’s less popularity in the European and Japanese market where the Camry is considered to be bland and incompatible with those driving habits. However, the number of sales as one of the best selling vehicles in the United States confirmed the Camry matches the American expectations on how a family sedan suppose to be like. With the invoice on the LE at ~$19,000, we considered as a bargain as a long term investment based on the Camry’s exceptional reliability, and quality. With a wide range if model trims, from the striped CE to the sportier V6 SE, to select from, the Camry can surely capture a wider range of the family sedan market segment. With the relatively newer Mazda 6, Mitsubishi Galant, and Nissan Altima, each with different philosophy in design to join the already over aggressive family sedan market segment, we will see how our leader in sale volume react to stay more competitive.
Performance & Acceleration: 6.5
Comment: Adequate off the line acceleration and passing power. Ease to modulate.
Comment: Silky smooth, with proper engine note. How a drivetrain suppose to be like – at least in a family sedan perspective.
Handling & Cornering: 7.5
Comment: A rather light and soft setup for comfort but lack of the car and driver connection as the trade off.
Brake Feel: 7.5
Comment: Only complain on the first few inches of freeplay. Confidence in emergency braking.
Ride Characteristic: 7.5
Comment: Supple soft ride that offers smoothness but with occasional bounciness.
Interior Comfort: 8.5
Comment: Nicely done with the $19,000 price tag.
Comment: Outstanding quality as domestic built, but with some minor interior rattle.
Comment: Very user friendly. Spacious.
Comment: Nothing extraordinary, with ordinary technology to achieve a solid engineered piece.
The mainstream Japanese family sedans marketing strategy and design philosophy have been presented in an interesting arrangement. The Camry is on the softer side of the spectrum where driving excitement isn’t critical for its buyers, and they probably view driving as a daily routine as long as the car can take them from point A to point B with comfort and ease. They topically don’t have emotional attachment to their vehicles – non car enthusiasts. The Nissan Altima or the Mazda 6 on the other hand, offered what car enthusiasts would prefer in a car – powerful engine, stiffer suspension for more road feel and nimble handling with some trade off in comfort. The Honda Accord however, with number of vehicle sales extremely close to Camry, is slotted between the soft Camry, and the sporty 6 and Altima. The Accord offers slightly better driving dynamic than Camry and slightly more comfort than the 6 and Altima. It is perfect for the buyers who have some idea and connection about cars and thinks the Camry is too boring but not willing to take on the stiffer rides. With more and more new or redesigned midsizer sedans in the mix in the recently years -“ Chevrolet Malibu, Mitsubishi Galant, VW Jetta…etc. It seems more like, we as the consumer, would be the winner due to the number of family sedans that we can choose from to suit for our specific preferences.