Made in the USA

Friday, April 1, 2005

srobertson

A popular Japanese family sedan is made in America

Here's a puzzle: What's made in America, has been called a "Japanese Buick," and routinely outsells all other mid-size American and imported sedans? It's the Toyota Camry, built in Georgetown, Ky., and available in four different flavors -- the Standard, the LE, the sport-tuned SE and the luxurious XLE, with prices ranging from $18,195 to over $30,000 for a well-optioned XLE.

When I showed up at the dealership to pick up my test vehicle I did not have a high pulse rate. In fact, I felt rather mellow. Camrys, after all, are known more for their reliability, smooth ride and unremarkable styling, than for their "wow factor." I was anticipating a rather boring jaunt up the interstate and a casual drive down a few winding country roads, thinking that the soft Camry suspension would be more suited for a home economics teacher than a spirited test driver like me. But the dealer handed me the keys of a sporty SE, and a few minutes behind the wheel erased most of my misconceptions.

I'm not saying the SE is going to win any sport sedan contests. BMW 3-series drivers need not lose any sleep. But the Camry SE has effectively banished the word "boring" from this reviewer's Camry vocabulary, thanks to its more powerful V-6 engine, sophisticated 5-speed automatic transmission, larger, grippy tires, and nicely tuned independent suspension.

Like all Camrys, the SE is roomy, comfortable and quiet. It is equipped with plenty of safety and luxury features, and because of its strong reputation for reliability, it is blessed with high resale value. And that's a good thing, because a Camry costs more than most of its competitors to begin with. Not only that, its base V-6 isn't as powerful as others in the class, its track numbers aren't as impressive, and its styling in the past has left a lot of observers cold.

What's new for 2005

But Toyota is trying to make the Camry more affordable by adding the entry-level Standard model to the lineup this year. All models are freshened up with new headlamps, taillamps, grilles and wheel designs. Inside are new gauges, steering wheel audio controls, a rear center headrest and improved seat fabrics. The XLE V-6 now includes leather seating.

Even the Standard is well equipped. Included are a tilt steering wheel with audio controls, air conditioning, power outside mirrors and door locks, remote trunk and fuel-filler door releases, multi-adjustable front bucket seats with seatback pockets, manual driver's seat with vertical seat height adjuster and lumbar support, 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, overhead console with maplights and sunglasses holder, illuminated glove box, cruise control, power windows with driver's auto down, rear window defroster, tinted glass, intermittent wipers and a raft of safety features including front and rear crumple zones and side-impact door beams. According to the Camry brochure, ABS is not included on the Standard, but the Toyota website says every new Toyota has it. A new Toyota is probably going to be around for two decades and a couple of hundred thousand miles, and ABS should be included on every one of them. Let's hope it is just a typo in the brochure. ABS is standard equipment on the LE, SE and XLE, however.

Speaking of the SE, my test vehicle had an excellent ride, despite its sport-tuned suspension. I don't recommend every vehicle that has been jazzed up with bigger tires, stiffer springs and more active shocks. Sometimes these features make a perfectly nice family car ride like an old truck. But Toyota got it right with the SE. The suspension is compliant over rough pavement, whether cruising the interstate or negotiating rough city streets. Throw the SE into some tight curves and it hardly ruffles a feather. There's no body lean, no screeching tires. And the suspension is quiet. Hit a bump and all you'll hear is a bit of tire noise.

Three engines are available in Camrys. The Standard engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 157 horsepower. It's mated to either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission, and judging from the sales numbers, is powerful enough for the majority of buyers. Next is a 3.0-liter V-6 that generates 210 hp and is available on the LE and XLE. My SE had a more powerful 225-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 that is not available on the other models. Six-cylinder Camrys come with the automatic transmissions only.

The Camry's interior offers excellent build quality, high-quality materials and a straightforward design. It is a roomy vehicle, with perhaps the largest back seat of any midsize family sedan.

My test vehicle, adorned with leather seats and the premium package, carried a sticker price of $27,727, and should get 21-mpg/city and 29/highway.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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