Toyota Camry

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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!"

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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.

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