by Dan Carney
Sensual. It isn’t the word most people would use to describe the Toyota Camry. Toyota’s goal when developing the 2002 Camry was to go “from sensible, to sensual.” The new car is better than the old one in every measurable aspect, and is more exciting as well. But “sensual” remains absent from even the improved Camry’s vocabulary.
Toyota has repositioned the various trim levels for the Camry, in the hopes of helping customers feel they have chosen something just a little more exclusive than the old plain vanilla Camry. Where the company previously offered three trim levels, CE, LE, and XLE, that represented the Sears catalog “good, better, best” approach, the ’02 Camry is equipped in the LE, XLE and SE models. Rather than a linear approach, the new models target family sedan, near-luxury and sporty sedan markets. Each model offers its own set of features, and interestingly, each has a different interior treatment and dashboard, to help engender the feeling among the huge number of Camry buyers, that well, they aren’t just another member of a huge group.
Market positioning nonsense aside, the Camry really is better than the previous best-selling model. It is faster, roomier, more fuel efficient, and cleaner (ULEV-compliant). Crash protection is improved, as are ride and handling. Buyers have a choice between two engines, a 157-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (basically the same engine that debuted in the Highlander SUV), and the same 192-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 from the outgoing model, but equipped with a new intake system and throttle-by-wire system.
The four-cylinder’s power output is very competitive for this category, but the six-cylinder’s power is well short of that available from the Honda Accord and the new Nissan Altima. The shortfall is not apparent when driving the car, which responds respectably to a flattened gas pedal. But Toyota offers a more powerful version of this engine in the Lexus ES300, and Honda and Nissan have given up the ploy of emasculating engines for use in their mainstream brand vehicles. So, it seems likely that Toyota will have to bring the Camry up to full power before long.