But, many decades ago, the Chrysler Valiant outsold all others, including the VW Beetle, for three years running (from 1966 to 1968). Moving on another decade, we find the Toyota Cressida making an appearance and selling strongly. Then the Camry took over the mantle and also featured regularly in the top 10 until the mid ‘90s, when the market switch to more compact models gained momentum. The Camry is now in its third guise and, due to government’s MIDP programme and the modest sales volume expectations compared with the all-conquering Corolla, it is fully imported from Toyota’s factory in Melbourne, Australia.
Styling of the latest Camry is a hefty improvement over the previous model, with a more European touch as opposed to the American ambience of its predecessor. Due to the sheer size, the car looks mildly intimidating, while the shape of the rear end, combined with the test car’s silver livery, did a fair job of impersonating a certain German marque’s prestige range. The large body makes the wheels look much too small, with a large gap between arch and body. This is a pity, because it spoils what is otherwise an agreeably styled package.
The new all-aluminium engine is 21 kg lighter than the previous 2 164cm3 unit, but power increases by 19,1 per cent from 94 kW at 5 200 r/min to 112 kW at 5 600, with torque up from 187 N.m at 4 400 r/min to 218 N.m at 4 000, an increase of 16,6 per cent. Counter-rotating balance shafts ensure smoothness. The engine bay is particularly spacious. Consequently, engine accessibility is good, an important consideration for long-term ownership, when maintenance costs start to become a major expense.
One of the key reasons for the Camry’s success is mechanical reliability and longevity, and we have no reason to expect anything less from this new powertrain. The four-speed autobox is a basic fuss-free unit, which gets on with the job without complaint. When towing a caravan, it might be advantageous to cut out the overdrive top gear in order to reduce hunting between third and fourth. Five- and six-speed gearboxes sound impressive but are only useful if they enhance the performance and driving experience.
The gearshift has no gate to hold it in drive, i.e. the button does not have to be pushed to move from “D” to “2”, although there is a detent to prevent dropping to “L”.. This means that one is often inclined to move the lever from park, through reverse, neutral and drive, and unintentionally select second gear.
The interior effect is not quite as convincing as the exterior. To start with, the smell of the interior was rather odd, described by some as “sick” or “wet blanket”.
Obviously built to a price, plastic quality is not nearly as good as we find on the Corolla, but more in line with the American approach, where the objective is to be functional rather than classy, and to save expense on “frivolous” trim cosseting. The theme of the interior can be summed up in a parody of Henry Ford’s famous phrase: “You can have any colour you like as long as it’s grey”. The upholstery is finished in a very plain looking two-tone velour.
Seats are not overly form hugging but, in the back, this provides more comfort for three passengers with the retractable armrest, incorporating dual drink holders, folded away. The car is so large that the driver’s door armrest is a bit far away, and the centre armrest would be more useful if it could be moved forwards a few centimetres. The steering wheel is finished in a plain plastic and, like the rest of the interior, is… well, grey! But the driving position is otherwise excellent, with the pedals especially well placed. When carrying lengthy objects, the rear seats can be tumbled forward but the cut-out in the bodywork is not big and so larger items may be difficult to fit through the gap.
Sensibly, an alarm is fitted in addition to the immobiliser, which includes a panic feature. The programmable horn chirp is very welcome, mainly because it can be switched off, thus eliminating the annoying noise and rather relying on flashing indicators for locking status confirmation. Instrumentation is a new design consisting of 180-degree speedometer and a smaller rev counter with inset fuel and coolant temperature gauges. They look neat. We did find it unfortunate that there was no standardisation of instrumentation displays.
The radio/CD and temperature read-outs use a black liquid crystal, backlit in green, the facia mounted clock and fuel consumption display uses a green LED style read-out, and yet another combination is used for the odometer, this time a black liquid crystal display with whitish backlighting. Perhaps the items are bought in from different suppliers, but some uniformity would add considerably to the interior ambience. The radio/CD sound system makes use of large buttons, apart from the volume control knob, which is too small and too far from the driver, and extremely irritating to use.
A satellite control on the steering wheel would do wonders to alleviate this problem. The handbrake is positioned for left-hand drive but is easy enough to use, so no real complaint here. Performance felt quicker than the figures reveal, thanks to lively thrust from the variable-valve-timed powerplant, but the zero to 100km/h time of 10,84 seconds is more than adequate for a vehicle this size.
Slight wheelspin is allowed by the gearbox on full throttle acceleration, and progress is always silky-smooth and effortless. Steering feel is just right, with good old-fashioned hydraulic assistance providing reasonable feedback. Handling is acceptable for a family car, with little body roll and the ability to soak up the bumps on poor surfaces. Small bumps make their presence felt through the tyres and bodywork, which is unexpected, because of the general quietness and insulation of the cab.
We can’t blame low profile tyres, as they are 205/65 on 15-inch wheels. Headlamps are impressive, especially the high beam spread that lights the way on poorly illuminated, fast, winding roads. Luggage capacity is the largest we have measured for a three-box saloon, at 456 dm3, beating the runner-up Audi A6 by 16 dm3. Utility space is 1 248 dm3, second only to the Peugeot 607 and better than some MPVs, and station wagons.