When it comes to reputation for quality and reliability in the automotive world, every manufacturer is chasing Toyota. In fact, for a time Toyota's quality lead was so great that Detroit must have thought they were built by aliens. While that gap has narrowed and in some cases has even been matched, no one can argue Toyota products are anything but top shelf.
The Camry has been a big part of Toyota's success, and was first introduced as a compact in 1983. Sales grew over the years, and at times the Camry was America's best selling car. Today, the Camry is larger and much more powerful than the original. This had been an ongoing trend through every design change, but apparently ended with the version reviewed here, as later models are about the same size.
The lineup started with the entry level LE model. Motive power was provided by a 157hp 2.4L 4-cylinder engine coupled with a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission. This was a big improvement over the previous year's 2.2L/136hp powerplant. Standard features included power front disc brakes, stereo with CD player, cruise, tilt, full power and manual air conditioning.
The mid range model was designated the SE. This was intended as the "sporty" version of the Camry. As good as the Camry is, it's pretty boring and the SE tries to inject a little excitement into the Camry's DNA. The SE utilizes a suspension dialed toward the handling/performance spectrum and replaces the LE's 15-inch wheels with 16-inch wheels with covers. You also get the obligatory "sporty" rear spoiler, which functionally is worthless, blocks rear vision and is generally a waste of plastic! Equally worthless is the gold tinted trim that comes with the SE. Over time, it fades and looks terrible. Not that it ever looks good in the first place!. Rounding out the package are fog lights and a leather wrapped steering wheel. .
XLE trim designates the top of the line model. It listed at $2,495 more than an LE, but came with a enough extra equipment to justify the price. Added to the standard equipment lister were automatic air conditioning, ABS, keyless remote entry, illuminated vanity mirrors, heated outside mirrors, dual power seats, garage door opener, 16-inch wheels (still with wheel covers, though), and a JBL stereo with CD and cassette. The XLE gets a little extra bling inside and out and some fake wood splashed around the cabin, too. The 5-speed manual transmission was not available on the XLE.
Optional on all models was a 3.0L-V6 with 192 horsepower. 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS were part of the package, but the manual transmission was not available with the six. The V6 also got you alloy wheels on the SE and XLE models.
The 2002-2005 Camry grew a bit from the previous version and presented a softer, more rounded design. In typical Toyota fashion, it's conventional and conservative, but easy on the eyes. It's hard to not be OK with it, but equally hard to get very excited about it. There were the usual slight design tweaks during the model run, but the look was the same.
Toyota is exceptionally good at making everyday materials look and feel richer than they are. This talent is evident inside the Camry, as mundane plastics are given pleasing textures, heft where needed and everything that's touched feels like quality. The instrument panel is simple, logical and attractive, although we can't warm up to the white faced gauges of the SE. The large center pod declares that this is a substantial car, and the controls provide excellent tactile feedback to back that up.
The Camry is a comfortable car for four, and does better than most in this class with five. The seats are comfortable, although the seat bottoms might be a little short for drivers with long legs. The legroom itself, though, is very good.
The Camry has a long list of comfort and convenience options. There are, of course, the major ones such as power moonroof, leather seats and navigation system. These could be ordered separately or as part of a package. Keyless entry was standard only on the XLE, an oversight that was remedied in the 2003 model. New, adjustable pedals also arrived as standard equipment in 2003.
The base 2.4L 4-cylinder is smooth, quiet until pushed, and provides adequate power. The automatic is equally smooth, but a little sloppy in it's shifts. That's dialed in, as it fits the seamless nature of the the Camry. The V6 is is exceptionally quiet under all conditions and provides good acceleration. The six got a size and power boost in 2004, when a new 3.3L-V6 with 225 horsepower was made optional in the SE model in place of the 3.0L, which also saw a power boost to 210hp. Both got a new 5-speed automatic.
The suspension gives up a little control for a smooth, almost (but not quite) floaty ride. The SE dials up the control just a notch. While not a performance setup by any stretch of the imagination, it does firm things up a bit while maintaining ride quality.
Fuel economy is very good with the 4-cylinder, regularly achieving 26-28mpg in mixed driving. The V6 delivers 22-26mpg in the same mix, pretty good for it's size and power. These numbers are a bit above average for the class at the time.
Camry's trunk suffers the same short deck handicap of most modern sedans, but to a lesser degree. There's good room back there, and the split fold-down rear seatback helps with larger items.
Like almost all Toyotas, the Camry is a supremely reliable vehicle. It's mechanical systems are robustly engineered and built, assuring long lifetimes. Our reliability survey, bears this out.
You may want to take note of a specific condition that afflicted 1997-2002 V6 Camrys. Toyota settled a class-action suit in 2007 that covered about 2.5 million Toyota and Lexus 1997-2002 vehicles. The suit alleged that abnormal sludge buildup in the motor was causing engines to fail. Often the vehicle would simply stop running. Toyota agreed to repair afflicted engines for up to eight years from the time of purchase. While Toyota blamed the problem on owner's poor maintenance habits, after much pressure (and evidence to the contrary) it set up a mechanism to repair or reimburse owners with these symptoms. If you are looking at a 2002 model, you may want to have this looked checked out.
The 2002 model experienced a few other glitches as well. These included poor performance of the fuel delivery system in cold weather, a faulty engine control module, and defective belt tensioners. These symptoms by no means afflicted all 2002's, but enough that Toyota implemented a standardized fix procedure.
Front wheel disc brakes without ABS were standard on 4-cylinder LE and SE models, with ABS standard on V6 and XLE models. This changed in 2005, when all Camry's received ABS. Four-wheel disc brakes were made standard on V6 models and all XLE's in 2004.
Camry's scored poorly (2 star out of 5) on drivers side impact crash test, but performed well in all other crash tests. It performed better when equipped with the optional side-curtain air bag system.
Assuming it's been maintained properly and not abused, purchasing a used Toyota is one of your safer bets in the used car market. While 200,000 miles are not uncommon on most cars these days, it is quite common on a Toyota Camry. As a bonus, they usually still have some residual value left in them, providing you with a little extra money towards your next car.
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