- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

The nation's top-selling car has now entered its fifth generation, and the all-new 2002 Toyota Camry is designed to retain its No. 1 position.

While the Toyota designers boasted of the emotion people feel for the Camry, I wondered if we were on the same page. They bragged of the new Camry's stronger, bolder styling. To my eye, Camry sedans have a very modest, quiet appearance. The charm of this sedan is that the design doesn't overwhelm anyone. But I doubt that is the reason for Camry's success.

My attraction to a Camry is probably the same as others: the assurance that it is a safe, comfortable, quiet and reliable car. I've driven enough Camrys through the years to know that Toyota has built a car with an excellent safety record. Camry has been a smashing success when it comes to testing for crashworthiness. And there's every reason to believe the 2002 model will continue with its safety tradition.

Engineers have made even more safety improvements by creating a better body structure resulting from a completely new platform. This platform is not only lighter but is designed to reduce the interior noise level. The platform features 4,300 individual spot-welds for increased rigidity. The twofold benefit is a safer and quieter car.

The interior of the 2002 Camry is more alluring. One reason is that it is slightly larger than the previous models, yet the overall exterior dimensions remain about the same. This could be another reason for its success: Camry's size is very manageable.

Toyota offers the choice of two engines: a four-cylinder and a V-6. I drove a 3-liter V-6 over a 40-mile course and enjoyed the smooth engine performance. On steep upgrades, I noticed how easily the ECT-i automatic transmission dropped down into a lower gear and remained there while I was climbing. Some cars have an annoying up-and-down shifting pattern when on a grade. The Camry, however, was very stable.

Then I drove a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, five-speed manual transmission over the same roads. Here I was completely surprised because it performed better than the V-6. When climbing hills, I simply dropped into fourth gear and went up the grades with more zip. And the gearbox was very easy to shift.

I would choose the LE model with the four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission for about $18,970 compared to $22,260 for the LE model with a V-6 engine linked to an automatic transmission. There is also a sportier SE model plus a XLE model with a V-6 engine that sells for $25,405. That's about $820 less than the previous model.

The XLE model has all the bells and whistles, such as wood trim and upgraded interior finish. It also has power driver's and front passenger's seat, automatic climate control, an eight-speaker JBL audio system, garage door opener, security system, residential lighting, rear sun shade, trunk cargo net, anti-lock brakes, larger tires and additional rear air-conditioning ducts.

Like all manufacturers, Toyota offers a few options that make driving more pleasant. One is an exceptionally sophisticated DVD navigational system. There is no need to watch the display on the video screen. Simply set your destination and a voice tells when and where to turn with amazing accuracy.

Toyota will be including foot-pedal extenders later this year which doesn't surprise me. It is another safety feature that will make the Camry more attractive, more alluring and, of course, keep it the best-selling car in America.

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