The sleek front-driver slotted seamlessly into Toyota’s line-up, comprehensively displacing the boxy rwd Cressida. Roomy, economical and impeccably behaved, in the wider market the Camry also changed a few perceptions about what constituted good value. In the absence of direct competitors, it did spectacularly well: at its peak it regularly featured amongst the top 10 selling passenger cars, clocking over 1 000 units a month, in a not particularly buoyant market.
Belatedly, a successor has arrived (see Generations) and the 220 GX auto model featured here is the first of the now fully imported new crop supplied for testing. Visible differences between the newcomer and its curvy predecessor are striking. At first sight it seems significantly bigger; in fact, it is 50 mm longer, all of that having gone into the wheelbase.
Nevertheless, to the eye at any rate, the front overhang seems greater than before and this accentuates the aggressive wedge profile. Viewed head-on, it might be taken for a grown-up Corolla. The sharp-edged rear with its ritzy tail-light cluster has a distinctly American look about it. Overall, Camry 4 has a fair degree of road presence, but its styling is less harmonious a design than the previous model’s balanced look, and is beginning to show its age already, our team agreed.
The import arrangement does limit numbers and options, to an extent, so there are just two engine types and four specification levels. The 220 GX auto is the highest-spec four-cylinder, one rung below the flagship 300 GLX. These engines are, incidentally, not the same as in the early Camry 3, but were updates fitted as a running change to later versions. The unique-to-SA two-litre has been dropped altogether. In addition to this, as Toyota has settled on automatic transmissions as the way forward, only the entry level model 220 gets a manual ‘box.
The interior is simple and functional, with just a bit of woodgrain trim on the centre hangdown section of the facia to break up the pale grey vinyl. Upholstery is the familiar grey patterned velour. With the increase in specification, the 220’s overall “value equation” has remained competitive in real terms and there is a substantial features list. Interior highlights include climate control, power windows, cruise control and a six-speaker sound system. The latter, a CD frontloader/tape deck/radio, returns some versatility lost previously when Toyota opted for CD frontloader/radios.
Distinct strides have been made in ergonomics, with user-friendly rotary controls for the radio/CD and air-con. The facia also has a cleaner look thanks to the sound system head unit being integrated into the design. It’s not as if the previous model actually needed the extra 50 mm between the front and rear wheels. Stretch-out space, never a problem before, is simply tremendous, and accommodation front and rear is more than generous. Exceptionally tall drivers may not find enough seat adjustment, but for most the tilt, fore/aft, lumbar support and new “stepless” tilting backrest will be ample, in conjunction with the tilt steering.
At 448 dm3, boot space in the new car is roughly the same as before, give or take a couple of nooks and crannies, as measured by our ISO block method. With the lockable 60:40 split rear seatbacks folded down, total utility space available is 1 140 dm3. However, the small hole in the centre bulkhead, although presumably good for body rigidity, inhibits through-loading. Under the carpeted boot floor is a full-sized alloy spare.
Vehicle security measures include a transponder key immobiliser/alarm, combined with remote central locking featuring selective unlock. New to the Camry is a programmable headlight-off delay to light your way for a short period after leaving the car. One other unusual feature is a programmable speed limit warning chime with a maximum setting of 130 km/h.
The 2 164 cm3 5S-FE four-cylinder engine produces 94 kW at 5 200 r/min and 187 Nm of torque at 4 400 r/min. Technical features include twin contra-rotating crankshaft-mounted balancer shafts, four valves per cylinder, Toyota’s TDIS direct ignition system utilising bi-polar platinum-tipped spark plugs, exhaust gas re-circulation and a catalytic converter – consequently, unleaded fuel is mandatory. Transmission is a four-speed type with lock-up torque converter and engine torque control for smoother shifting.
Not a recipe for road burning performance, but even so, 12,01 seconds to 100 km/h is sluggish. Reaching the kilo-metre takes a moderate 33,69 seconds, and top speed is limited to 181 km/h, at which point the engine is turning over at a relaxed 4 301 r/min. The combination of good torque spread and tall gearing (42,32 km/h per 1 000 r/min in top) results in fairly economical running. Steady-speed consumption is 8,19 litres/100 km at 100 km/h. This gives a fuel index of 11,46 litres/100 km, the kind of consumption one can expect in normal use. Cruising range, then, should be better than 600 km on a tankful.
According to the designers, this Camry features more global input and enjoys development spin-offs in the field of ride refinement via Toyota’s prestige Lexus marque. Comparisons with sound levels recorded during the test of a manual-transmission Camry 3 in May 1993 bear this out. Noise levels are now significantly lower from idling right through to freeway speeds – an outstanding achievement, considering that the previous Camry was already superbly refined.
At low speed the new car whispers along, with a stab on the accelerator pedal evoking a rather lazy response – a noisy one, too, with a surprisingly vocal engine note if you push it hard. The transmission is not exactly leading-edge, but four-speeders aren’t uncommon either in this bracket, and the shifts are acceptable. If there’s one place where the drivetrain definitely struggles, it’s on twisty mountain passes, where the wide gaps between ratios inhibit rapid progress and highlight the relative imbalance between power/torque and mass.
Toyota has standardised on 15-inch wheels across the range, and the 205/65 Bridgestones are clearly chosen with an eye on comfort rather than all-out grip and handling. Subjectively, the previous Camry seemed to have more of a balance between these two conflicting requirements, and the current model does seem more ponderous. Steering feel and precision are good, and initial turn-in positive. There is certainly no sense of disintegrating poise and no lack of stability as the cornering forces load up, but neither is there any great degree of responsiveness via the seat of the pants. Overall, the Camry hallmark of plush ride, irrespective of speed or road surface, has been maintained.
Suspension is four-wheel independent with MacPherson struts all round and stabiliser bars front and rear. Both front and rear suspensions are mounted to the body on insulated sub-frames for reduced noise and vibration transmission.
Despite having managed to pare a substantial amount of weight from the new Camry, Toyota has designed the car to comply with its new safety benchmarking system, based on the highest expected standards in global markets. Side protection has been beefed up by comparison with previous models, there are adjustable head restraints and three-point seatbelts for five occupants, and dual front airbags are standard.
Lighting is also part of the improved safety scheme, with a high-mounted brake light and new multi-unit headlights that provide an excellent spread and quality of beam. The all-disc ABS system provides excellent retardation in emergency situations. We recorded an average of 3,07 seconds in our simulated panic-braking routine from 100 km/h to zero. However, in normal use the dead-feeling brake pedal action can make modulation problematic.