Toyota Camry

Front Dashboard View

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.

Rear Folding Seat View

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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