- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Expectations can influence anyone's assessment of a new car or truck.

Climb into a $90,000 Hummer, for example, and you expect a brutish military-style vehicle, which is what you get. But because of that expectation, you're likely to be forgiving of comfort and convenience shortcomings that would be inexcusable in a luxury car.

On the other hand, the buyer of an $80,000 luxury car might be so taken with its name and reputation that there could be a tendency to forgive annoyances like ergonomically incorrect switches and controls.

So it is with the 2002 Toyota Camry, which is likely to continue its reign as the best-selling passenger car in the United States.

Because of its long-standing record of durability and reliability, along with styling that is perennially acceptable to the masses, you approach this Camry with an expectation that it likely will be better than its predecessors, which is to say very good.

You will not be disappointed. At the same time, you're likely to overlook the car's few minor blemishes because of the promise of an affectionate, long-term affiliation.

The 2002 Camry is all new, the fifth generation in the line. It comes only as a four-door sedan with a trunk and fold-down rear seatbacks for extra cargo the family-car configuration favored by the majority of American buyers.

The test car was an LE, which once was the top of the line but now is the entry-level model, replacing last year's CE. There's also a sportier SE with a tighter suspension system that makes for slightly better handling and a stiffer ride, as well as a luxury-appointed XLE model.

With a base price of $20,285 for the four-cylinder, automatic-transmission model (a five-speed stick shift is available), the LE is slightly below the average price paid for a new car in these times. A few options, including anti-lock brakes, remote locking, a power driver's seat, carpeted floor mats and an upgraded sound system, boost the suggested delivered price to $21,609.

Standard equipment includes power windows, outside mirrors and door locks, air conditioning, cruise control, a rear-window defogger, variable intermittent windshield wipers, tilt steering wheel, tinted glass and an outside temperature gauge in short, just about everything the modern motorist wants and expects.

One drawback is that the LE with the four-cylinder engine is not available with side air bags. They come only on the V-6 models as part of a package with anti-skid control and anti-lock brakes.

The four-cylinder engine is a new 2.4-liter design with variable valve timing that delivers 157 horsepower 21 more than the 2001 model's four. A 3-liter V-6 engine with 192 horsepower is optional on all models.

Although the four is not a screamer by any stretch it takes almost 10 seconds to propel the 3,142-pound Camry to 60 miles an hour it is strong enough to satisfy the vast majority of owners. The engine benefits from a throttle response and transmission gearing that makes it feel sprightly off the line. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively.

Though there's some engine noise under hard acceleration, along with modest road noise on rough surfaces, the Camry is a mostly quiet cruiser.

Though it's no sports sedan, the LE model has acceptable handling that inspires confidence as long as you don't push it too hard.

The first thing you notice about the all-new design is the styling. It resembles the bigger and higher-priced Avalon, but without the sharply creased look. It's slightly bigger all around, which makes for an airy interior and a huge trunk. At 17 cubic feet, the trunk is as large as those in some full-size cars. The Camry is classified as a midsize.

Up front, the bucket seats are nicely shaped and soft, but also supportive. Rear-seat passengers fare almost as well, with decent head- and knee room in the outboard positions. The center seating position, as is usual in most cars, is abysmal.

Thoughtful touches include sound system and climate controls mounted high up on the dash where they're easy to see and use, along with big open and closed storage bins, and the obligatory cup holders. The much-appreciated outside temperature readout is next to the clock on the top of the dash.

The blemishes are few, and include fixed outside rearview mirrors. They stand out but don't fold, which means if you smack something you're facing a replacement or repair bill. The other is the plastic wheel covers, which protrude from the steel wheels and are susceptible to terminal damage from errant contact with ordinary curbs.

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