- Attempts to look sportier.
- Interior space rivals that of full-size sedans.
- Smooth and torquey ultra-low emission V6.
- Legendary reliability and build quality.
- Decent handling.
- Attempt to look sportier fails.
- SUV-like proportions.
- Needs manual gearbox to take advantage of newfound oomph.
- Some harshness in ride quality due to sportier SE suspension.
- Handling is behind sportier mid-size competitors.
Press Coverage :
Toyota keeps attempting to push the new Camry into a market filled with powerhouses like the V6-powered Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. For 2004, Toyota reduced the gap between the Camry and those powerhouses, by packing a larger-displacement V6 into the sporty SE trim. The all-new 3.3L V6 is unique to the SE trim, and shared only with the all-new Solara V6 coupe, Lexus ES330 and RX330. The original 194 hp 3.0L V6 engine for the 2002 model year was a carryover from the old generation model. A five-speed automatic gearbox and a jump in horsepower to 210 came in 2003. The new 3.3L V6 produces a respectable 225 hp, with a torque figure of 240 lb-ft, bettering the Honda Accord's 212 lb-ft. All this torque peaks at only 3600 rpm. However, a manual gearbox is not offered to take advantage of its impressive output.
Exterior updates for 2005 include redesigned headlights, new taillights, redesigned grille with a unique grille and smoked 17-inch alloy wheels especially for the SE V6.
The SE's blackout grille, masked headlights, foglights and rear spoiler are subtle changes that help identify the trim level, as well as give the car a bit more personality. The SE V6 also gets 16-inch aluminum wheels with 215/60VR16 tires as standard equipment.
In profile, the Camry looks a little heavy due to its tall beltline and roof. It has grown upwards, not outwards. Compared to the previous car, the '02 Camry has a similar overall length and width but is 2.5 inches taller and has a significantly longer wheelbase. In many ways, the new car has grown enough to be compared to the Toyota Avalon, a car meant to compete with domestic full-size sedans. Though it is slightly shorter and narrower than the Avalon, the new Camry has a similar wheelbase, just 3 less cubic feet of EPA interior volume and a bigger trunk.
The cabin has an open and airy feel to it and the instrument panel is clean and functional. Toyota has cleverly placed the smaller coolant temperature gauge and fuel gauge in the rarely utilized display areas of the tachometer and speedometer, thereby freeing up space and allowing the tach and speedo to be bigger. To the right of the gauges is the audio and climate control grouping. Our test car had the basic climate controls, the optional JBL sound system and the top-mounted clock and exterior temperature display. This setup isn't as extravagant as the XLE's (which comes with an automatic climate control system and a complete trip computer) but it's very easy to use.
Toyota uses soft-touch plastic in the places where occupants are likely to place their hands and arms, such as the tops of the doors and the dash. Above-average hard plastics are used elsewhere, and the switchgear has a typically solid feel. Camry SE models come with a unique sport cloth fabric, a leather-wrapped shift lever, a thick-rimmed three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and metallic finishes on the instrument panel and the door trim. The Camry has ample storage, including a big center bin and glove box, decent-sized pockets on each door, a pullout drawer to the driver's left, an overhead sunglasses holder and a useful cubby ahead of the transmission shifter. Front passengers are given two fixed cupholders.
The new Camry's longer wheelbase pays the most dividends to rear-seat passengers. Rear legroom is up by 1.5 inches for a total of 37.8 inches, bringing the Camry in line with the Accord and bettering the '02 Altima and the VW Passat. Toe room underneath the front seats is a little tight, but otherwise the back seat is quite comfortable thanks to a fold-down armrest, three headrests and good thigh support. The trunk is impressive, as well. It can hold 16.7 cubic feet of stuff and a full-size spare is located underneath. Although the loading of luggage can be a bit hampered by a high liftover, the trunk's gooseneck hinges are enclosed so that fragile items won't get squashed when the trunk lid is closed. If you need more space, the rear has 60/40 fold-down seats.
In terms of features, the Camry comes with the necessities of family sedan life along with some surprisingly gilded options. All models come standard with air conditioning with air filtration, power windows with driver-side auto down, power mirrors and locks, and cruise control. Other highlights from the options list (depending on trim) include an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a power moonroof, leather-trimmed seats, front seat heaters and a GPS navigation system. We haven't sampled the touch-screen DVD-based nav system yet, but Toyota says the system's scrolling and route-picking speeds are faster than all of its competitors' in the U.S. market.
Safety equipment is comprehensive. Antilock brakes are standard on V6-powered cars, and available on all Camry models for 2002 are front and rear passenger side-curtain airbags. Coupled with the front seat-mounted side airbags, the side-curtain airbags are designed to help protect the head of front- and rear-seat occupants and the torso of front-seat occupants in side impacts. The driver's front airbag can inflate at three different speeds depending on impact severity and occupant size, and the front passenger's front airbag has two stages. Toyota's stability control system (Vehicle Skid Control) along with traction control and brake assist, is available on V6-powered models.
Around town and on the freeway, the V6 is smooth and quiet. So is the transmission, which provides prompt shifts. Wind noise and road noise barely register. For basic usage, the Camry acts so proper in what it does that it seems like a butler working unobtrusively in the background, making sure your life is as easy as possible.
The Altima is sportier when it comes to handling, but the Camry SE isn't left too far behind. This is certainly the best-handling Camry to date. The suspension is a simple setup of MacPherson struts up front and Chapman struts in the rear, but the SE gets sport-tuned springs, shocks and a strut tower brace to improve handling. So equipped, the car has a taut feel to it when asked to corner aggressively. Once the driver becomes acclimated to the car's limits, it's even tossable. Weight transitions from side to side progressively and predictably, and with a little trail-braking upon corner entry, it's possible to rotate the tail a bit just before the car digs in and takes a set. Body roll is evident, but not excessive. Squat and dive are also nicely controlled. Our only complaint, and something we noticed on the previous Camry, is that the suspension is unable to filter out harsh impacts, which can reverberate throughout the cabin.
The V6 engine feels quite strong on the bottom end, and has plenty of midrange, but power tapers off rapidly in the upper reaches of the rev band. But even being pushed hard, the V6 feels almost Lexus-smooth, as does the automatic transmission.
Like the last Camry, the new model uses an all-MacPherson strut suspension, but adds rear toe control. So where last year's car suffered from almost terminal front plow, the new platform has a light, more nimble feel. Rather than simply pushing through a corner, the tail lightens about halfway through, drifting out in a controlled, predictable manner. The power rack-and-pinion steering was very quick as well, but offered little feel. Vehicle Skid Control is available in all V6 Camrys, and even when switched off, will engage under hard maneuvers like our emergency test, quickly slowing and settling the car. A new Camry SE provides a bit stiffer suspension tuning and more aggressive 16-inch tires for even more handling security, and a modest amount of driving fun.
2002-2003 Toyota Camry SE V6
2,988 cc / 194-210 hp / 209-220 lb-ft / 3350 lbs / 0-60 mph 7.9 sec.
1997-2001 Toyota Camry LE V6
2,988 cc / 194 hp / 209 lb-ft / 3175-3241 lbs / 0-60 mph 8.0 sec.