Despair And Joy Dance Their Pavane

Dark blue really flattens a car’s form. In all but the best light the shapes are concealed. Let us try and look past that colour.

1996-2001 Toyota Camry

Rather annoyingly I saw the same model in more photogenic metallic light grey yesterday while on the move. I couldn’t get a snap. We will have to make do with this image.

For a car sold in so many countries and in such large volumes, the limited engine choice is a puzzle. You could only get these with a 2.2 litre four or a V6 of 3.0 litres capacity. I’d expect another two engines for this, or even three: a 2.0, a 2.5 and a diesel of some sort.

1996-2001 Toyota Camry.

The styling does not offer very much to hold onto. It’s mostly a collection of contemporary manufacturing methods smoothed into a homegenous whole. The integrated bumpers are from the period when bumpers were still a separate volume, blended into the rest of the body. A little chrome lifts the windows – thin strips similar to what Lancia and Mercedes used around the same time.

At the front we find large, broad lamps and little to catch the eye.

1996 Toyota Camry.

With this kind of design Toyota sought to offend nobody and, I think, managed to do so by being so remarkably bland. That undersold what was in fact a smooth-riding and capable mile-muncher. I remember being a passenger in one of these as it covered some winding country roads at a remarkable clip, with little disturbance from the asphalt or from wind.

Added to that Toyota reliability and there are the makings of a very good saloon for the serious driver (as in one who drives a lot). Toyota neglected to put down some bait for customers who could find similar talent from Ford, Opel, Renault and Peugeot, nearly all of whom offered more attractive vehicles – Renault stands out here as providing a car of equal timidity in the form of the sales-disaster Safrane.

Most people buying outside the “prestige” class went for the handsome 607 and equally elegant Opel Omega (with lots of engines), depending on which wheels they wanted driven. The RAC thinks this generation of Camry is okay: “As a second-hand upper/medium sector buy, the Camry offers excellent Japanese build quality and reliability. Certainly, it’s an affordable and interesting alternative to mainstream European rivals like the Vauxhall Omega and Ford Scorpio.”

On the inside, Toyota presented this:

1996 Toyota Camry interior.

It’s all well-screwed together in typical Japanese fashion. Even the jacquard cloth is muted. It reminds me of the 1995 Peugeot 406: there is no strong theme here, more a gathering of elements unified by smooth and pretty featureless surfaces.

The interior also came in a beige colour (except the steering wheel):

1997 Toyota Camry: eBay.

In the rear:

1996 Toyota Camry interior, rear.

The door design is curious: instead of placing the window controls on the rear part of the armrest they sit on an odd half-baguette which extends too far forward, a landing surface for a trapped fly, perhaps. At least there are map pockets and a centre arm-rest.

The RAC summed up the Camry as follows:  “Smooth with capital ‘S’ is the best way to describe the driving experience. These cars were principally designed for the American and Australian markets, where long, straight roads abound and drivers like to relax at the wheel. European-spec Camrys have somewhat tauter suspension than their US and Antipodean cousins but not to the detriment of ride comfort. Hustle a Camry through some challenging bends and you’ll soon discover it’s no sports car, yet as a motorway cruiser or around-town family car, it certainly satisfies.”

Car magazine took another view in their January 1997 edition: “Camry V6 takes the effort out of car travel,” they said. The text attempted some objectivity but failed immediately: “I am trying so hard not lapse into all-new-Jap-exec barge cliché. But it’s simply no good. It’s not going to happen. Bland-faceless-pointless.” That was Hilton Holloway. He then changed tack. “But stay tuned. For although the badge won’t impresss anybody there’s a pretty good car lurking behind it. All cars are for travelling in, and for grinding up and down motorways and nosing through grid-locked city streets, the Toyota Camry V6 is not a bad way to go”.

He went on to call it “effortless…” and with “…accessible acceleration, a quickish helm and unruffled progress.” It sounds almost like a Jaguar (except for the steering). “Buy it for the airy view, the cabin’s whispering micro-climate and night-time instrumentation with the clarity of a vivid nightmare”.  Given the overall result of the article, it is peculiar Holloway did not delete the pointless, faceless, bland part because it seems the car has a lot of merits. I think one might actually enjoy getting about in a car like this: smooth, durable, reliable, well-specced and efficient.

In 1997 a 2.2 Camry cost just under 20K. For another three thousand you could get a Sport model  (10 seconds 0-60). And a for 25K the V6 could be yours, along with 24 mpg thirst. An Omega started at under 19K and the 3.o V6 Elite cost thirty thousand.

For comparison, a BMW 518i cost about the same as the Camry though probably came with very little equipment. Brand image, carefully nurtured by BMW, ensured most customers walked their way and not to their friendly, local Toyota retailer.

You can snap up some of this deliciousness for as little as 700 GBP.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

5 thoughts on “Despair And Joy Dance Their Pavane”

  1. I’ve always had a sneaking regard for this model Camry. For me, it represented the vey essence of Toyota at the time; quiet, understated competence. I accept that it might be regarded as bland, but it passed the “brother-in-law” test with flying colours*.

    I am a regular visitor to the U.S. and am struck by how many of these are still in service (and, apparently, in excellent condition, not bangers) which is testament to their engineering quality. Current Toyotas are, in the main, horribly overstyled in their desperate quest to be “on trend”, akin to a man of my age (57) wearing skinny, ripped jeans from Top Man.

    *My brother-in-law has no particular interest in cars and regards them merely as appliances. He drives a new Kodiak, which replaced a Superb estate, bought on my recommendation.

  2. I’m really pleased you have posted this. OK, so don’t laugh, but I have always really rather liked this particular iteration of the Camry. Yes the frontal aspect and treatment is nondescript and there’s nothing stand-out about it really, but the length lends the lean and refined styling a certain elegance, helped by those slimline rear lamps. In fact, I’d call the rear well defined and attractive. The DLO is a bit shallow – making the flanks look a little porky – but I find the turret and rear trailing edge of the roofline when viewed from the side really pleasing. Overall, I’d rate it more 605 than 607 (that’s a good thing in my book, I think you differ Richard), and rate it as the nicest of Camrys. The interior is not so good at all, rather destroying the argument in its favour as a potential buy.

  3. On the subject of Car Magazine, I’ve long since given up on the print edition. I might enjoy reading about superstars and exotica, but am more interested in the much greater challenge of designing and building “regular” cars to be the best in class and advance class standards. Also, the florid, overwrought prose of Anthony ffrench-Constant* was just too tedious to decipher.

    *The random capitalisation of his surname here is not a typo on my part.

  4. There is, I’m fairly confident you’ll agree a three-car comparison test between the Camry, Kia Magentis and Hyundai Sonata screaming to be carried out. One might even include a Nissan QX for good measure, although I personally think the latter a little racy for this company. I doubt these vehicles have ever been brought together for the purposes of rigorous evaluation and there is now, I’m equally sure you’ll agree only one man appropriately qualified to adjudicate the eventual outcome.

  5. Indeed, i too have always thought this was one of best Toyota models ever to find its way into UK showrooms.
    I understand why the later Camry models haven’t arrived here, because they would have made Lexus pointless.

    Toyota missed a trick here though, whilst Honda ruined the looks of the last Accord, previous models being reserved looking, and have now left the segment, and other marques are proving to be unreliable and expensive to maintain long term, eg electric parking brakes, unreliable dual clutch gearboxes and timing chains made of cheese, plus makers proving not the slightest intention of looking after their customers with problem cars, they could have been the solid go to maker of sensible transport for the many out there who simply do not want what the other makers offer.
    I believe Camry is coming back soon, but it should never have left.

    I also can’t fathom why Toyota insists on making their very good cars so plain ugly in more recent years, and i suggest if you want see the most striking difference, find a picture of a 2008/9 Lexus 460LS and enjoy viewing its quiet handsome lines, then find the facelift model around 2011 on with the most garish grill one could imagine and see how they have completely the ruined the looks of that fine car, as they continue to do with almost every model they release under the Lexus brand.

    Agree with the comparison with Magentis and Sonata, and more’s the pity none of the three were available in estate form, at least here, as one of the three would have been on our drive for the last 20 years and i am sure both the Korean brands would have sold well because almost no one made a decent squared off estate in this segment with reasonably simple engines and drivetrains.

    I personally would have gone for the Toyota because i freely admit to being an admirer of the marque, Landcruisers mainly, i’ve had several going right back to 70 series, for their engineering integrity and it wasn’t broke so we didn’t fix it design as well as they can genuinely be maintained in the field with a hammer and mole grips, not forgetting Toyota’s well earned reputation of standing by their product and their customer should things go wrong.

    Though no one could dispute the utter bargains that Sonata and Magentis are on the used market.

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