- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Running at the front of the pack is perhaps the most difficult place to compete. Not only do you set the pace, but you have to keep performing better than anyone else. And you know that there are hungry competitors waiting to pounce if you falter.

That’s where Toyota finds itself with its familiar Camry sedan, which has been the best-selling car in America for the past four years, as well as eight of the past nine years. In 2005, American Camry sales totaled 431,703. Moreover, the Camry consistently receives top ratings for dependability and long-term reliability.

The only rap on the Camry has been that its overall design and styling has been, well, frumpy. That likely sits well with the majority of its conservative customers, who are not ostentatious and value the Camry’s low-key competence.

But in today’s cutthroat marketplace, with an abundance of high-quality machinery, Toyota deemed that the Camry needed sharper styling and, in some cases, a more sporting personality to continue its dominance. The result is the 2007 model, which has been completely redesigned.

The overall length is unchanged from the 2006 model, but the wheelbase — the distance between the front and rear axles — has been stretched more than two inches. That places the wheels closer to the corners of the car and results, with other design changes, in an interior that has a more spacious and airy feel.

That’s the first thing you notice about the new Camry. It seems to have grown, with a feel like a car bigger than its midsize classification.

In fact, it now is nearly as commodious as the Toyota Avalon, which resides in the full-size class. At 15 feet 9 inches, the Camry is nine inches shorter than the Avalon. But its passenger volume of 102 cubic feet is just five less than the Avalon’s. And the Camry’s 15-cubic-foot trunk is actually larger than the Avalon’s 14.

In the redesign, the Toyota mavens gave the Camry aggressive new styling and a model lineup that includes sport versions that offer more than mere cosmetics.

The sport models, labeled SE, have 17-inch wheels, stiffer springs and bushings, retuned shock absorbers, and stabilizing braces to make the body more rigid, all of which combine for quicker handling responses.

That, of course, results in a harsher ride, which may not find favor with some customers.

For the folks who like softer responses and a better ride, there are plenty of other choices. The base CE model, with a five-speed manual gearbox and a 158-horsepower four-cylinder engine, starts at $18,850.

It’s a decent performer, with enough power and features to appeal to the masses.

At the other end of the scale is the luxury XLE model, at $28,100, and the gasoline-electric hybrid, which starts at $26,480, but becomes more expensive as you add options.

The hybrid is the third in the Toyota lineup. It follows the popular Prius, which is a nameplate by itself and offered only as a hybrid, as well as the hybrid version of the Highlander, a crossover sport utility vehicle. Powering the Camry hybrid is a 45-horsepower electric motor that works in conjunction with a 147-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that delivers 43 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city cycle and 40 on the highway.

Like other Camrys, the tested SE V-6 sedan has a long options list. It had a starting price of $24,895, which included the aforementioned suspension system modifications, sporty appearance items such as a black mesh grille, 17-inch alloy wheels, dual exhausts and special black on white instruments.

Also included are side air bags and side-curtain air bags, antilock disc brakes, a driver’s knee air bag, air conditioning, remote locking, an audio system with MP3 capability, a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, and power windows, locks and mirrors.

The test car also had more than $5,500 worth of options, including perforated leather upholstery, XM satellite radio in an upgraded sound system, traction and stability control, and a motorized sunroof. All of that brought the suggested sticker price up to $30,378.

The 3.5-liter V 6 engine gets 268 horsepower to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode for enhanced driver involvement. In practice, most people likely will simply leave it in “drive,” which delivers smooth, almost imperceptible shifts. However, the manual mode remains for more control, especially in mountain driving.

There’s not much not to like about the V 6 SE Camry. The engine delivers plenty of urge for merging and passing, the interior is quiet and serene at highway cruising speeds, the front seats are deep, supportive and comfortable, the controls are simple and user-friendly, and the instruments are lighted even for daylight driving.

Minor shortcomings include the lack of automatic climate control, trunk lid hinges that intrude into the interior space and could scar luggage, rear seatbacks that do not fold down for extra cargo (although there’s a pass-through for long items), and a center-rear seating position that is barely adequate for a fifth passenger.

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