Toyota Camry

Ojai, California Kosaku Yamada has been picking Camry nits for ten years now. As chief engineer of America’s most popular car, he is bedeviled by more than just the obvious things that give Japanese engineers sleepless nights.

The obvious: “All the nuts-and-bolts considerations so neatly arranged on the left side of the brain were obvious,” he said of this fifth-generation Camry. “The Camry would need to be bigger, quieter, cleaner, and more powerful, with better handling, steering, and fuel economy and an even higher level of crashworthiness. Logic,” he added, “dictated an all-new chassis.”

Automotive journalists have grown used to this sort of obsessiveness from the Japanese, who already build cars with the fewest defects, the highest levels of consumer satisfaction, and the best resale values. It’s why we’ve called the Camry the best car built in America. It’s why Honda sells more Accords than Ford does Tauruses and Chevy does Impalas. It’s what makes Nissan’s new high-performance Altima a car to watch closely. It’s why Toyota grabbed the number three car-sales spot from Chrysler, racking up some of its best sales months in history while the domestics crashed and burned.

The not so obvious: “Camry has been called ‘an unspectacular car that does everything with precision and grace.’ And ‘balanced to a fault, the car that has single-handedly raised conventionality to an art form.’ And my personal favorite: ‘the car that few will lust for but everyone will recommend.’ I chose these comments because they capture a feeling of frustration with a great car that could be even greater. A car that targets the Big Middle, whose broad appeal could be even broader were it not for a deficiency in one very important area that is difficult to define and even harder to measure. It is all about emotion.”

He wants us now to say “Wow!”

Well, it can’t all be about emotion, or Alfa Romeo would have the number one car in America. And even if it were just 50 percent about emotion, Volkswagen Passats would be riding the biggest wave in the family-sedan ocean.

But we’re not going to say that Yamada can’t have it all; he’s awfully close to his dreams. He’s made the Camry big enough for six-footers to sprawl in the back seat or lie down in the trunk–and that’s without flopping down the rear seatbacks. It is much cooler-looking outside and just as practical as ever inside, with tasteful trim, great fabrics, perfect gauges, and big, fat buttons and switches. The Camry’s hip point has been comfortably raised (a nod to its overwhelming majority of aging baby-boomer owners). You shorties will be able to order adjustable pedals midyear, leaving only one good reason to buy the aging Taurus: There’ll be no more entry-level Camry, because no one was buying it anyway.

The new strategy is to offer an extremely well-equipped LE model (which should account for about 65 percent of Camry sales) at a price lower than last year’s equivalent, a more luxurious XLE version, and a brand-new, sporty SE model meant to address that “Wow!” deficiency. We zeroed in on that SE model with the optional 192-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6, as Toyota hoped we would, and found a highly refined engine and automatic transmission combo mated to a nearly perfect suspension benefiting from much stiffer front and rear springs, firmer shock damping, a brace added to the top of the strut mounts, and low-profile sixteen-inch tires.

As much as we enjoyed the V-6 SE, though, the base LE’s 157-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to the five-speed manual is surprisingly responsive, although marred by a lack of low-down torque that will have you smoking the tires to get it going from a stop. (The manual is not available with a V-6, by the way, but we’d suggest trying an SE version with four-cylinder and manual.) Both are ULEV engines, and the four (measurably lighter and quieter) is expecting EPA fuel-economy stats of 24 city/33 highway, this despite a huge improvement of 21 horsepower over last year.

Side curtain air bags and ABS are standard only on the XLE, but all three rear seating positions get three-point belts. ISOFIX baby seats will snap into the two outside rear positions. The wonderful (optional) DVD-based navigation system calculates routes in about five seconds, more than twice as fast as last year’s system.

As it is, the Camry draws in more first-time and conquest buyers to Toyota than any other model, and it is also better than any other passenger car in the industry at bringing its people back for more. Last year, more than one-third of all new Camrys sold went to . . . Camry owners.

It all adds up to a “Wow!” from us, but we have to admit that once Yamada checks out the Altima’s amazing 180-horsepower four-cylinder and optional 240-horsepower V-6, there’ll be more sleepless nights.

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