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Published: 01/03/2003 - by Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Paper or plastic? McDonald's or Burger King? Leno or Letterman? Every day, Americans make decisions on items that are surprisingly similar yet noticeably different. When it comes to buying a midsize family sedan, people are faced with an equally interesting choice: Honda Accord or Toyota Camry?
More so than the Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima or Volkswagen Passat, the Accord and Camry are aimed directly at the modern American suburban family. They paint broadly with attributes of comfort and reliability, hoping to appeal to as many people as possible. They are the "smart" and "sensible" choices. They are also, as an unfortunate side effect, rather bland. It's hard to feel spiffy in your 150,000-mile '91 Camry when your neighbors rumble by in rugged and stylish midsize SUVs.
It is this blandness that Toyota is hoping to avoid with its all-new 2002 Toyota Camry. The company wants the Camry to be "a mass-market car with a niche-market feel." Uh, no offense, Toyota, but the chances of the Camry's feeling like a niche market car are similar to a frozen Lean Cuisine meal tasting like dinner at Le Cirque. But the engineers' development targets bolder styling, larger interior packaging, better performance, reduced noise, more safety features and increased value are all core improvements that make sense for a family sedan that had little wrong with it to begin with.
There are three trim levels available for 2002: the entry-level (but not stripped down) Camry LE, the sporty Camry SE and the luxurious Camry XLE. We spent a week with a 2002 Toyota Camry SE V6 to find out whether Toyota was successful in its mission. We poked. We prodded. We drove it everywhere, from trips to Target (ooh, a Michael Graves toilet plunger!) to our test facility to determine how sporty the SE version really is. Our conclusion? The fifth-generation Camry is better than before and maintains its status as one of the best family sedans sold. And yes, it is dramatic pause here less boring. Huzzahs all around!
The Toyota Camry strikes a new pose this year, one that is firmer and less timid. It is still inoffensive and non-distinctive, sort of an automotive version of a Family Circle comic. But the shape will likely look nice in a driveway for years to come. The SE's blackout grille, masked headlights, foglights and rear spoiler are subtle changes that help identify the trim level, as well as give the car a bit more personality. The SE V6 also gets 16-inch aluminum wheels with 215/60VR16 tires as standard equipment.
In profile, the Camry looks a little heavy due to its tall beltline and roof. It has grown upwards, not outwards. Compared to the previous car, the 2002 Toyota Camry has a similar overall length and width but is 2.5 inches taller and has a significantly longer wheelbase. In many ways, the new car has grown enough to be compared to the Toyota Avalon, a car meant to compete with domestic full-size sedans. Though it is slightly shorter and narrower than the Avalon, the new Camry has a similar wheelbase, just 3 less cubic feet of EPA interior volume and a bigger trunk.
Interior room and design is critical for a family sedan, and the new Toyota Camry excels in this area. One of the few things we disliked about our long-term 1997 Toyota Camry was the uncomfortable nature of the thinly padded front seats. The '02's seats are certainly improved. Our test car came with the optional power driver seat that adjusts for height, tilt and lumbar support. Some of our drivers thought the seat cushion should tilt upwards more, and others noted that the headrest doesn't articulate forward, but overall we proclaimed the seat rather comfortable. If you want a power-operated passenger seat, the only way you'll get it is by ordering a Toyota Camry XLE.
The cabin has an open and airy feel to it and the instrument panel is clean and functional. Toyota has cleverly placed the smaller coolant temperature gauge and fuel gauge in the rarely utilized display areas of the tachometer and speedometer, thereby freeing up space and allowing the tach and speedo to be bigger. To the right of the gauges is the audio and climate control grouping. Our test car had the basic climate controls, the optional JBL sound system and the top-mounted clock and exterior temperature display. This setup isn't as extravagant as the XLE's (which comes with an automatic climate control system and a complete trip computer) but it's very easy to use. The three climate control knobs, in particular, have a pleasant tactile feel and are so simple to operate that even Inspector Clouseau couldn't muck it up.
Toyota uses soft-touch plastic in the places where occupants are likely to place their hands and arms, such as the tops of the doors and the dash. Above-average hard plastics are used elsewhere, and the switchgear has a typically solid feel. Camry SE models come with a unique sport cloth fabric, a leather-wrapped shift lever, a thick-rimmed three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and metallic finishes on the instrument panel and the door trim.
And since this is a family conveyance, it's nice to have places to put your cell phone, Starbucks coffee mug and your 3-year-old son's collection of Hot Wheels. The Toyota Camry answers with ample storage, including a big center bin and glovebox, decent-sized pockets on each door, a pullout drawer to the driver's left, an overhead sunglasses holder and a useful cubby ahead of the transmission shifter. Front passengers are given two fixed cupholders. The holders have rubber tabs to help secure smaller cups, but they are unlined (making spill cleanup harder) and don't expand to hold 1-liter bottles.
The '02 Camry's longer wheelbase pays the most dividends to rear-seat passengers. Rear legroom is up by 1.5 inches for a total of 37.8 inches, bringing the Camry in line with the Honda Accord and bettering the '02 Altima and the VW Passat. Toe room underneath the front seats is a little tight, but otherwise the back seat is quite comfortable thanks to a fold-down armrest, three headrests and good thigh support. The trunk is impressive, as well. It can hold 16.7 cubic feet of stuff and a full-size spare is located underneath. Although the loading of luggage can be a bit hampered by a high liftover, the trunk's gooseneck hinges are enclosed so that fragile items won't get squashed when the trunk lid is closed. If you need more space, the rear has 60/40 fold-down seats.
In terms of features, the Camry comes with the necessities of family sedan life along with some surprisingly gilded options. All models come standard with air conditioning with air filtration, power windows with driver-side auto down, power mirrors and locks, and cruise control. If you order an XLE, you are anointed with power front seats, heated outside mirrors, a driver-side auto up and down window, automatic climate control with rear seat vents, an engine immobilizer and alarm system, a HomeLink programmable transmitter, an auto-dimming mirror with compass and illuminated vanity mirrors. The XLE also comes with keyless entry and a rear sunshade, two items that can be ordered on the LE and SE.
Other highlights from the options list (depending on trim) include an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a power moonroof, leather-trimmed seats, front seat heaters and a GPS navigation system. We haven't sampled the touch-screen DVD-based nav system yet, but Toyota says the system's scrolling and route-picking speeds are faster than all of its competitors' in the U.S. market.
Safety equipment is comprehensive. Antilock brakes are standard on V6-powered cars, and available on all models for 2002 are front and rear passenger side-curtain airbags. Coupled with the front seat-mounted side airbags, the side-curtain airbags are designed to help protect the head of front- and rear-seat occupants and the torso of front-seat occupants in side impacts. The driver's front airbag can inflate at three different speeds depending on impact severity and occupant size, and the front passenger's front airbag has two stages.
Additional safety comes from ALR/ELR passenger seatbelts, a deformable footrest and an anti-intrusion brake pedal that help minimize lower limb injury for the driver, power-adjustable pedals (late availability) and upper and lower child seat anchors. Finally, Toyota's stability control system (Vehicle Skid Control) along with traction control and brake assist, is available on V6-powered models. All of this, along with a body structure the company says has been enhanced to absorb impacts better, should allow the Toyota Camry to earn excellent scores in government crash testing.
The Camry, while not quite like a spunky Toyota Celica, is pleasant enough to drive. There are two engines offered: a new 157-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder or a 192-hp V6. The V6 is a carryover from the previous car, but it has been tweaked to reduce emissions and earn ULEV status. Unlike the previous car, a manual transmission is no longer available with the V6; an all-new four-speed automatic is standard.
Around town and on the freeway, the V6 is smooth and quiet. So is the transmission, which provides prompt shifts. Wind noise and road noise barely register. For basic usage, the Toyota Camry acts so proper in what it does that it seems like a butler working unobtrusively in the background, making sure your life is as easy as possible.
According to our testing, the Toyota Camry V6 manages to brew up adequate acceleration for this class of car. Zero-to-60 mph takes 7.9 seconds and the quarter mile passes by at 16.1 seconds at 85.9 mph. From an enthusiast standpoint, these numbers are disappointing. A 2002 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE comes with 240 hp and can be had with a five-speed manual. So armed, the Altima blazes a 6.3-second 0-to-60-mph time and a quarter-mile performance of 14.9 seconds at 96.5 mph.
The Altima is also sportier when it comes to handling, but the Toyota Camry SE isn't left too far behind. This is certainly the best-handling Camry to date. The suspension is a simple setup of MacPherson struts up front and Chapman struts in the rear, but the SE gets sport-tuned springs, shocks and a strut tower brace to improve handling. So equipped, the car has a taut feel to it when asked to corner aggressively. Once the driver becomes acclimated to the car's limits, it's even tossable. Weight transitions from side to side progressively and predictably, and with a little trail-braking upon corner entry, it's possible to rotate the tail a bit just before the car digs in and takes a set. Body roll is evident, but not excessive. Squat and dive are also nicely controlled. Our only complaint, and something we noticed on the previous model, is that the suspension is unable to filter out harsh impacts, which can reverberate throughout the cabin.
Overall, we predict that previous Toyota Camry owners will love the new car. It is improved in nearly every way and will do just about anything a family requires it to do. The Camry is also supported by a reputation of reliability and durability. We do feel it is our duty to report, however, that our test car had a number of interior rattles and minor build-quality issues. As we've sampled only one car, we can't report authoritatively, but certainly it gives us a little pause.
As does price. Since the strippo CE is gone, the lowest price point for a 2002 Toyota Camry is about $20,000. Our test car lacked luxury features like leather seating and the nav system and it still rang up to more than $26,000. A loaded XLE will go even higher. For the money, though, you do get a lot of car. It's roomy, it's comfortable, it's safe and it's the most, umm, less-bland Toyota Camry to come down the chute in a long time. Do we recommend it? Most definitely.
System Score: 7.5
Components: You shouldn't expect a Camry to be exciting, and the same goes for the audio system. That's why it's nice to crank up the 3-in-1 JBL radio/tape/single CD player and eight speakers that come with the SE. Mid-tweets deep in the dash bounce sound off the windshield while medium-sized speakers in the front doors are devoted to bass. A pair of 25-watt full-range arrays in the rear deck do a good job of providing fill, and backseaters can also enjoy the reflected output from the dash, although speakers in the doors would be better. The head unit has a large display and is mounted high in the front console, which makes fiddling with the stereo a relatively safe affair, although steering wheel-mounted controls (such as those found in some Honda Accords) would help.
Performance: As mentioned above, the speakers in the dash do a great job of creating a full soundstage up top. The sound produced is clean and clear, only faltering when a lisp is given to female vocals and cymbals at high volumes. A good crossover keeps high-range notes away from the woofers in the front doors. That allows for a strong and accurate response of all but the very lowest tones, so the speakers probably won't get blown until 2017, when the Camry becomes a hand-me-down for the kids. Unfortunately, the burly response of these drivers causes the front door panels to buzz when you're bumping rap or hip-hop. The speakers in the back deck do a decent job, but max-out at 25 watts, so you don't have to worry about blowing out the rear window.
Best Feature: Mid-tweets for highs and separate speakers for bass just how it should be.
Worst Feature: Door panel rattles.
Conclusion: Surprisingly good. Trevor Reed
Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
Toyota's Camry was already a best-seller, so it was hard to believe the redesigned vehicle wouldn't be a perfectly capable people-mover, just like its predecessor. The concept of making a fully functional, if not particularly fun or passionate, sedan has proven successful, and nobody wants to kill the goose that is laying the "best-selling sport sedan in America" eggs (if you don't believe me, just ask anyone who worked at Ford in 1996).
What could Toyota do to fix what obviously wasn't broken? Well, more interior space is always welcome for the sedan buyer. So is more trunk capacity. Improved ergonomics never hurts, and better cabin isolation is certainly appreciated. Toyota addressed all these issues with the new Camry, but it didn't stop there. The new car also has improved steering feel and greater handling ability. The interior trim has been upgraded with faux metallic trim pieces, and the exterior manages to be creative without being offensive (unlike it's surly corporate twin, the 2002 Lexus ES 300).
With improvement all around, Toyota should have nothing to worry about in the midsize sedan market, right? Wrong! Despite the Camry's remarkable improvements, Nissan has managed to one-up the big "T" with its 2002 Altima. Even larger inside, even more powerful, even more fun to drive, the Altima has effectively done to the Camry what Kurt Russell's Tombstone did to Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp. It's not that the 2002 Camry is a bad car...it's just that the 2002 Altima is better.
Contributing Editor Erin Riches says:
As expected, the redesigned Camry is a serviceable car for the rigors and monotony of everyday driving. It gives little to the enthusiastic driver, but in turn, will probably ask for little in return, save for regular maintenance and an occasional set of tires.
The powertrain is ideal for this application. The smooth, silent V6 and the capable four-speed automatic ensure that there is plenty of torque whenever you need it whether pulling away from a stoplight or making a quick passing maneuver on the highway. And the power is delivered so effortlessly, so quietly who needs a Lexus?
The suspension is obviously tuned for a compliant ride above all else, but for the "sporty" SE model, Toyota wanted to tighten things up a bit. The result is still a smooth, comfortable ride overall. However, on uneven pavement (on L.A.'s crumbling freeways, for instance), there is an unCamry-like up-and-down jarring and I found it unpleasant, not sporty. When I pushed the Camry on canyon roads (or took a corner rather aggressively), the suspension stayed planted rather well, but body roll was immediately evident, and frankly, rather nauseating. As the car rolled through the turns, the tires thoughtfully provided early audible warning to the Camry driver who had apparently lost her wits. The Camry SE does come with a delightful steering wheel it's thick and feels blissfully weighted in your hands but of course, it's of little consequence where performance is concerned, as the turning effort is light and the wheel devoid of road feedback.
Perhaps the best part about this Camry besides its V6 are the interior accommodations. In particular, the center stack is an ergonomic masterpiece: three giant-sized dials for the climate control and one large, high-mounted stereo head unit with a gigantic seek button. And the entire arrangement is canted toward the driver, such that it's incredibly easy to make adjustments while driving without diverting one's attention from the road. The aluminum-type accents are tastefully scattered about the cabin my favorite application is the instrument cluster. And comfort the power driver seat is supportive and covered in downy soft velour, and I found the perfect driving position. The rear quarters are equally wonderful ample seat height and depth, good back support, lots of legroom, adjustable headrests, pull-down center armrest with cupholders. The only weakness I noted was a possible shortage of toe room for taller rear passengers. There is an extensive array of storage compartments up front, and most of them are carefully lined in either rubber or felt. A high rear decklid (with spoiler) cuts down on rear visibility but allows for a large trunk (with a large opening, mind you).
In spite of its ride and handling weaknesses, the Camry SE is a comfortable, capable cruiser with a user-friendly cabin. Add in Toyota's reputation for reliability, and it's easy to see why people might reasonably choose it over the Maxima or Passat that I would select.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Toyota's new Camry is certain to remain the best-selling car in the country. Why? Because it's much like the old car in personality and demeanor, but improved in every way.
We tested the SE with the V6 engine. Lots of people are going to look at this smooth, silent 3.0-liter six's 192 horsepower rating and think Toyota has missed the power boat, what with 240-hp Altimas and 255-hp Maximas running loose. But one drive will convince any naysayer that this refined powerplant is perfectly suited to its task. The Camry isn't fast, but it is quick, and won't leave the average consumer wanting.
Comfort is dramatically improved. The rear quarters are positively cavernous; roomy and comfortable enough to make me question the viability of the larger Avalon in Toyota's lineup. The front seat, a sore point with me on the previous-generation car, still isn't perfect. I find myself wanting either more seat cushion tilt or more rearward seat travel. But let me make it clear that my discomfort in this redesigned model was barely perceptible compared to the old car.
Interior design, from an ergonomic standpoint, is nearly flawless. But I'm not a fan of the metallic plastic trim in the SE. Not only do I find this fad toward fake metal cabin trim distasteful, but the gauge cluster looks like molded aluminum foil with numerals written in black marker. I believe I'd much prefer the XLE's more subdued interior.
I'd also prefer the XLE's more compliant suspension. The SE rides tautly, seemingly incapable of performing the magic trick of soaking up road irregularities without compromising at-the-limit handling that Audis, BMWs and Volkswagens execute so effortlessly. But fling the Camry SE through some twisties, and you'll be surprised at how high the limits are. Nobody will call it a fun car to drive, but it is entertaining.
Styling is a subjective matter, but I think the new Camry, save for the strangely located Toyota emblem on the top portion of the grille, is a handsome piece of work. It looks more upscale and substantial than the bland design of the previous-generation car.
So, the new Camry is better looking, more comfortable, substantially refined and offers new safety technologies like side-curtain airbags for front and rear passengers as well as stability control. How could it fail to retain its crown?
"I bought a 2002 Camry LE V6 last week. I personally like the SE V6 but can't really justify the price difference between the LE V6 and SE V6. The options on the SE V6 are really cool, but are just 'luxuries' I can live without for now. I love the roominess of the Camry, especially with the manual seat height adjustment (I'm 5'2"), but I don't like the new back window, which seems to have shrunken and decreased my field of vision, and there is a bigger blind spot between the rear passenger windows and the back window. I don't think you can go wrong with the Camry it's a winner." luckystar, "Toyota Camry," September 30, 2001
"I was thinking Highlander until I saw the SE V6. Drove it and loved it. It is plenty of 'fun' to drive in fact as good as a '94 integra I used to have. I bought a black one with leather Toyo has a real winner here. Refined and comfy you will feel bumps on rough surfaces, but this car is great!" minster, Toyota Camry," September 23, 2001
"I didn't test drive the LE or XLE. I knew I couldn't afford the XLE and I knew the LE was a little 'too base.' I also had sworn I wouldn't buy a Camry because everyone has one here, but I did test drive it after the Highlander because I just wanted to make sure I didn't have any regrets later. I loved the SE's suspension because it doesn't feel 'too sedan-y,' and the interior was what sold me. I decided on the Camry, because in 10 years, I thought I might be tired of the Highlander and thought I could grow old more gracefully with the Camry. As I drive it now, though, other people have mentioned the spoiler. I can't see out the back very well so I'm very careful backing up. (I didn't back up during the test drive.) But the ride is very nice. I like it a lot." fickle, "Toyota Camry," October 1, 2001
Edited by Erin Riches
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