2002 Toyota Camry First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
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2002 Toyota Camry Sedan

(2.4L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Blossoming Friendships

Commitment. What is it all about? It's little more than the knowledge that when you need something or someone, they'll be there.

For the past 12 years, I have been committed to a 1989 Ice Blue Pearl Metallic Camry. Or, rather, it has been committed to me. No, it's not the slickest ride in car-crazy Los Angeles, and no, my friends weren't clamoring for a ride in its blue velour interior, like I was when they got their fancy new wheels. But I've never had to call them to rescue me when the ignition didn't turn or wail despondently when a costly new transmission became necessary.

I haven't driven my Camry in the almost two years that I've been working at Edmunds. Rather, I've been traipsing in and out of press cars, fancy or not. Each time I pass by my Camry, I feel a twinge of guilt, having neglected it so. Yet I know that whenever I may need it, it'll fire up and provide me with the conveyance I require.

This is the appeal of a Camry. Utter dependability. Apparently, others feel the same. For the fourth year in a row, Americans have made the Camry the best-selling car, outgunning stalwarts Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. Look around you; like pod people, they've multiplied and infiltrated the ranks. You can barely look up without spotting a Camry on the road. Plus, by the sheer size and scope of their upcoming advertising campaign, the largest ever in automotive history, you won't be able to take the Camry for granted.

Affection can grow from such promising seedling, but Toyota wants to fertilize the field further by adding a heretofore lacking component: emotion. They want you to desire the 2002 Camry, rather than merely need it. "Sensual" replaces the prosaic "sensible."

Now the question remains, how do you improve on a bestseller? Simple — give the people more of what they like. And the engineers at Toyota have done just that, simultaneously retaining all the things that make a Camry great while imbuing it with a new feel.

This is the first all-new platform for Camry since 1992. You've probably heard about it before, though; its underpinnings hold up the Highlander and Camry's fancy all-new twin, the Lexus ES 300. In the future, it will be the basis of the Sienna, the Solara and the Avalon. Added room was a key goal with this redesign. The wheelbase has been lengthened by 2 inches, resulting in 1.5 more inches of legroom in back for a total of 37.8 inches. Its stance was widened by more than half an inch, and the overall height increased about 2.5 inches, depending on wheel size.

The trunk is cavernous, with 16.7 cubic feet of storage space, an improvement of 2.6 cubic feet. Although it's a bit hampered by high liftover, the gooseneck hinges avoid mangling luggage. Torsional rigidity has been increased with a multitude of spot welds, including various ones on the roof, that add to a battened-down, more stable vehicle.

Toyota also added a bit of flair without detracting from what made the Camry a best-seller in the first place: an inoffensive, clean-lined vehicle that appropriates "hot" styling cues of the moment. Third-generation Camry? Had that Puffalump roundness about it. Fourth? Crisp deckline, sharper edges. The new Camry sports triangular headlamps like those on the Celica and the ES 300, but lacks that "pulled-tight" look that's sometimes unpleasant to some sharp-tongued observers. It's swoopy and aerodynamic enough to reduce the coefficient of drag from 0.30 to 0.284. The rear still has a crease on the trunk, but the taillamps are D-shaped rather than a strip, reminiscent of those of a Dodge Neon, Nissan Maxima or Ford Taurus.

More changes grace the interior — for the better. It's all but shed its boring, generic center stack, and morphed into something decidedly more Lexus-like, with three rotary dials for the climate control in the SE and LE models. The XLE has automatic controls. FYI, they're all electronically controlled, which means no cables and wires. Why is that better? Less componentry decreases the chance of developing those annoying rattles and squeaks. Plus, it's easier to replace the dash. It also allowed engineers to dial in great "feel" in terms of engagement, and it worked. The flawlessly assembled controls felt substantial and hefty, as befitting a precisely engineered car.

Two engines motivate the Camry. The 194-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 is little more than tweaked; it now achieves ULEV certification (due to a new catalyst design that warms up faster) and improved acceleration times. According to Toyota, 0 to 60 miles per hour is reached in 8.3 seconds, a 0.4-second improvement over the previous engine, thanks to a revised induction system, increased intake manifold length and a mild supercharging effect at lower engine revs.

It results in smooth, linear power and quiet, effortless operation while somehow slightly improving fuel mileage estimates by a couple of miles to the gallon. While throttle response is perfectly adequate for most driving situations, we feel that there is room for improvement, especially considering that the 2002 Nissan Altima will be roaring with 240 horses.

But 75 percent of Camry buyers opt for the inline four engine, and this is where the engineers chose to concentrate. The 2.4-liter I4 is all-new, and now makes 157 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of twist, besting the previous engine's numbers by 24 and 14, respectively. This should take a full second off the 0-to-60 acceleration time. The unit is now all-aluminum, which results in lowered noise, harshness and vibration levels. It's also more compact and 19 percent lighter than the previous engine.

Indeed, the Camry offers a smooth, refined ride. No, it doesn't inspire you to test its limits or take the long route home, but the four-strut suspension design results in a quiet, solid and stable drive. Steering is direct and well proportioned; Toyota tightened up the turning circle by about a foot, giving the larger vehicle a more nimble feel. It gives little feedback from the road and, as with most front-wheel-drivers, is subject to a bit of understeer.

The brake pedal offers plenty of linearity and great stopping power, although the four-cylinder LE model still sports rear drums. The rest of the lineup features discs at all four corners. We see that Toyota still isn't offering ABS as standard equipment on the LE model; "Some of our customers don't want ABS," Toyota officials maintain.

The engines are mated to any of three brand-new transmission units. You can get an SE or an LE with the four-cylinder and a five-speed manual tranny for row-'em-yourself thrills. Both engines have new four-speed automatics, as well, with an Electronically Controlled Transmission system with intelligence (ECT-i). They feature an uphill/downhill shift logic system, which holds a lower gear during both ascents and descents, reducing that annoying lag when you're driving up a curvy road.

Toyota has also increased the feature content; dropped is the base-model CE, which means that you can't get a no-frills Camry for under $19,000 (prices for other models have slightly dropped, however). In its place is the LE, which offers electric windows with driver-side auto down, power mirrors and locks, air conditioning with particulate filtration, cruise control and ambient temperature gauge. We think that keyless remote entry should be on the standard features list, but Toyota doesn't.

Three trim levels for the Camry are on the plate, all available with either engine, which Toyota claims is now more taste-driven than price-driven. Step up to the pleasure dome of the XLE and get power driver and passenger seats, heated outside mirrors, faux wood, climate control with rear-seat vents, steering wheel-mounted controls for the trip computer and the clock display, a compass in the electrochromic mirror, rear sunshade and 16-inch wheels. Oddly enough, the XLE has a foot-operated emergency brake, whereas the other two have handbrakes.

Toyota now offers a sporty SE model (Camry and sporty were previously contradictory terms, but somehow this works). Included in this subtly distinctive trim level are foglights, a blackened grille, rear spoiler, headlamps with black insets, a three-spoke steering wheel and lovely silver-faced gauges. Most importantly, the SE also rides on 16-inch wheels and a sport-tuned suspension with firmer springs and shock damping. It results in a tauter ride, enjoyable on twisty roads. No, it's no sports car, but that's not the raison d'etre of a Camry, now is it?

Optional for all V6 models is a Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system, which corrects understeer and oversteer deviancy. Side and, for the first time, side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers are also available. Next year, power adjustable pedals that can move 3 inches up and down, allowing shorter drivers to find the perfect driving position, will be available. Make sure your kid is strapped in his seat with the proffered LATCH anchors.

Other add-ons to keep the Camry up-to-date include Toyota's excellent navigation system and an in-dash six-disc changer. Fully loaded, a top-of-the-line Camry XLE is a few hundred dollars more than a stripped-down Lexus ES 300. Unless your day depends on being the owner of a luxury marque car with real wood trim, we can't imagine that anyone would forego the Camry.

Toyota wants to engineer an image shift from being the "most respected car company in America" to being the "most loved car company in America." Isn't that romantic?

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