A Car for Sunday: 1997 Toyota Camry

Not exactly ubiquitous in the UK when in production, this 1997 Toyota Camry was a welcome surprise.

1997 Toyota Camry (c) the author

I have mentioned previously that my rural backwater, while having charms aplenty to commend it, is not exactly a car spotter’s paradise. There are plenty of shiny and expensive new cars around, but few one might describe as interesting, esoteric or left field.

I have also mentioned my habit of heading for the remotest corner of public car parks in the hope of minimising the risk of picking up a parking dent or scrape. Pulling into my local supermarket car park this morning, my usual space was occupied by this Toyota Camry, an XV20 model manufactured between 1996 and 2001. Although a best seller in the US, the Camry barely made a dent in the UK sales charts, so it was an unusual and welcome sight.

In my opinion, this generation Camry was one of the very best in design terms, with a smooth, linear and unfussy style that might owe more than a little to Peugeot’s 605 and 406 models. There is not a single detail of the design I would change, and Toyota’s 1999 facelift merely altered but did not improve the front and rear ends. It stands as a quiet rebuff to the excessively fussy and overwrought fashion that currently prevails in automotive design.

1997 Toyota Camry (c) the author

Having done the weekly shopping, I was lucky enough to encounter the owner when returning to my car. He told me that he had chosen the Camry as a company car new in 1997, when its list price was around £18,000. When he retired three years later after forty years’ service, he was presented with the car as a retirement gift. Since then it has been meticulously maintained and always garaged when not in use (but never when wet).

The Camry is, however, no ‘garage queen’, only to be wheeled out on high days and holidays. It is his day-to-day transport and has now covered more than 150,000 miles. During its 24-year life, it has required nothing other than regular servicing and the usual consumables. Astonishingly, it is still on its original exhaust silencer. Its 2.2 litre four-cylinder engine runs as smoothly as ever and the car has never failed an MOT test.

1997 Toyota Camry (c) the author

The owner was happy for me to inspect it closely, and the impression in the photos does not flatter to deceive: the metallic dark green paintwork is smooth and lustrous, with only the most minor of stone chips on its front end. The interior is immaculate. Even the driver’s seat shows little signs of wear despite the high mileage. It is clearly a cherished car, and a tribute to its owner’s care, but no amount of care would preserve a car as well as this if it were not well built from high quality materials in the first place.

It was satisfying to see what appeared to be a wholly unremarkable car still giving good service after almost a quarter of a century, and likely to continue to do so as the owner has no interest in selling it. Should something major finally fail, he will have it repaired even if it makes no economic sense to do so. That, for me, is truly sustainable motoring, and a riposte to an automotive industry that relies on the churn generated by three-year corporate leasing and PCP contracts.

1997 Toyota Camry (c) the author

I imagine that, unlike more obviously charming older cars, the Camry attracts as little attention today as it ever did, but it certainly brightened my day.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

41 thoughts on “A Car for Sunday: 1997 Toyota Camry”

  1. Goodmorning, Daniel. Whenever I’m looking for a parking spot I look for the one where my car is likely to get the least damage, quite often that is indeed the most remote corner of the parking lot.

    Reading this article made me a bit nostalgic and I looked for my past cars. Having driven a lot of different cars (I stopped counting when I got to 600 years ago) I have owned no more than 3 cars in my 23 years of motoring. My first car was a 1989 E30 Touring, that I owned from 1998 to 2007. It’s still on the road today. It had 7 different owners over the last 9 years. Happy to see it’s still around, but 7 owners in 9 years? Not to sure about that.

    My second car a 1998 E46 that I owned from 2007 till 2012 is also still around. At the moment I’m driving an E92 325i that I hope to keep for a very long time. It does everything I need from a car.

    So happy to see the owner of this Camry is in it for the long game too. I’ve driven a Camry in the same color and with the same engine once when it was brand new. I don’t remember the upholstery of the car, but it was equipped with a dealer-installed walnut trim package which looked rather tacky. It didn’t leave a big impression on me other than that the most inner wheel would spin easily when accelerating from a standstill through a wet corner. Probably down to the tires and not so much my right foot. A rather nice, but somewhat anonymous car. We need more of those, I reckon.

    1. Good morning Freerk. I’m pleased that you appreciated both the Camry and the philosophy of its owner. The poor light and the limitations of the camera on my mobile phone made it difficult to do the car full justice, but here’s a decent photo of the same model:

      As for ‘anonymous’ looking cars, yes, more please, although I would prefer to describe them as ‘quiet’.

    2. Quiet is indeed a better word than anonymous. Lovely background in that photo as well.

  2. Oddly enough I remember being driven in one of these, at rather high speed, around country lanes in north Dublin. I noticed the smooth ride and imperturbable sense of progress. I was impressed.
    This Camry is a pleasing car. The slim rear lamps, sleek front lamps and tidy grille all add up to the kind of tidy professionalism Peugeot also used to do. I really like it when people hang on to a car and ignore the horrible received wisdom of writing off a car when the repair costs more than the value. I hope this owner has many more years of pleasure from this car and I salute their policy.
    You see these Camrys from time to time in Aarhus – I think I saw one last year. You notice a nice coke-bottle effect in the side profile. And it´s a good package too. I´d put in a group of cars such as the early 00s Accord and the late 90s Mazda 626, Passat B3, Peugeot 406 – tidy, neat and well-organised saloons for people who want a serious car and no fuss. Much as I like my XM, it´s a form of madness to indulge it over the love-it-because-its rational ethos of the the Camry (which is essentially a Lexus with less fancy trimmings).

    1. Richard what do you think about Volvo 850’s design?
      It’s my favourite of 90’s designs.Especially in wagon form.

    2. Hi Murat. Funny you should mention the Volvo 850. It was launched in 1991 and DTW will be featuring it in an anniversary piece in the near future. Stay tuned!

    3. We bought one last year.Loved it so far.
      Looking forward to the article Daniel!

    4. The 850? It´s a design consistent with Volvo values. For the first few decades I viewed it a little ambivalently. In part this was because I only ever saw them in silver metallic. My dad had one and I drove it a few times. It was a hefty old car, with a five cylinder engine, and I remember the odd pause between pressing on the loud pedal and anything happening. On the inside, it had super seats and lots of room in the back. On the outside, apart from the rather bodged A-pillar/mirror, it´s rational and calm. I now have them registered as proper Volvos. Would I want one? Not as much as a 240 and I think that the dynamic qualities I like so much in the household 406 would mean I´d find the Volvo a tad cumbersome. Still, it clearly has many good features and I think they´ll be soldiering on as long as there´s petrol to put in them.

    5. I would like to correct the historical record. There´s no way it was launched in 1991. Surely some mistake? It doesn´t look like a 30 year old design, does it? It´s not obviously “now”, I agree. Yet it doesn´t scream datedness. That´s a sign of a very orderly and rational form.
      Thirty years. Wierd. (Shakes head, ambles off).

    6. Thanks for your detailed comment mr.richard.There has been a very quick facelift in 1993 apparently.Pre-facelift cars had bigger headlamps and 960 taillights.I have never seen them outside nordic market.

  3. What a heartwarming story , Daniel, thank you. I completely agree with the sentiments expressed. Many of us wish we had the foresight to mind a much-loved car so well that we might enjoy it for many a long year.

    As regards the upholstery, I wish my current car had velour which I found incredibly easy to keep looking smart in my last car. The fabric upholstery of my Tiguan is impossible – every drop of water or hand-sanitiser leaves a stain.

    I’m also sure that the trouble-free life of the Camry you feature is as much due to the absence of unnecessary electronics (a pet hate of mine) as to careful maintenance by its owner.

    I’m sure the Camry owner is chuffed to see his pride and joy appreciated by a well-informed bystander. You made his day.

    1. Hi vwmeister. You’re certainly right about those electronics: a major ECU failure can be enough to write off an otherwise perfectly serviceable older car, and the problem is only going to get worse. EVs are mechanically relatively simple, but the electronic wizardry that controls them is pretty high tech stuff.

      Good point about that velour upholstery: it did seem to be resistant to just about anything! Like your Tiguan, the plain black cloth upholstery on the seat bolsters of our Mini will show a water mark if you sponge out a stain without dampening the whole surface.

      As to the Camry’s owner, I do hope he gets to see the piece. He’s not an Internet user, but he said he would ask his daughter to find the DTW site for him.

  4. Thank you Daniel for devoting some well deserved attention to the Camry; just as with the Citroën C5 you covered recently, this is a car that is much better to drive or be driven in than it is to look at. Although for different reasons in my opinion: the C5 is simply ungainly from some angles, while the Camry is quiet and nondescript yet well resolved.
    This may be a somewhat weird association, but it also reminds me of when in my younger years I was,like many others doubtless, attracted to girls with certain -ahem- features and superficial charm readily on display that on closer acquaintance often quickly lost their initial attraction, while the more modest and introvert girls turned out to be much better company once you got to know them. And their beauty which initially seemed hidden revealed itself as well.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Bruno. It’s rather nicely summed up in the phrase “Beauty fades, but dumb is forever.”

      (I steal some of my best lines from Judge Judy. 😁)

  5. The good man has my utmost respect.

    By the way, it is not that difficult to understand that he will have any repair done, no matter how high the price.
    Comparable vehicles currently cost between 3,500 and 4,500. Even with a repair price of more than 5,000, he is still on the safe side commercially, because he is having a vehicle repaired that he knows. He knows the value of the remaining vehicle. If he were to purchase another (used) vehicle instead of a repair of this magnitude, this would not be the same, since it is not possible to estimate whether the previous maintenance costs have also gone into the new old vehicle.

    Vehicles of this type are very cost-effective and very sustainable. Not comparable to the current mobile data centres that can become electronic waste quite quickly these days because of one little thing.

    And what is supposed to break down on such a vehicle – if it is properly maintained? There is too little technological stuff built in that could shut down the car. Those were the Heydays in terms of quality – and Toyota was pretty high up in the quality rankings at the time.

    The owner of the Camry is actively protecting the environment. We should be really grateful that people like him exist – and he drives a nice looking car to boot.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Fred. Moreover, what use is, as you rightly put it, a “mobile data centre” to a man who doesn’t access the internet, as I mentioned in my comment above?

  6. Thank you Daniel for a tale which has brightened my day and gone some way to restoring my faith in humanity. As have the responses and Fred sums your man up perfectly.

  7. Thanks Daniel for your commendation of a very underrated vehicle.
    In Australia, where Camry was manufactured for local and export (Middle East) markets, the press only ever focused on the fact that they were Camrys so they were boring – driven by old blokes in cardigans! They were in fact no more boring to look at than many other cars of their era, very much more reliable & rarely credited for their ride and handling. Certainly this model was a beauty compared to its predecessor!
    Toyota’s focus on quality (even at a price) explains why the fabric seats remain in good nick and it will be true of the trim items and mechanicals – I have to confess a bias at this point: I worked for Toyota Australia for slightly longer than this car has survived and understand something of the manufacturing philosophy. Many of the last generation of Camys to be manufactured in Australia (2.5 litre 4 cylinder) in 2017 are used as taxis in the Middle East and record over 1 million kilometres travelled with remarkably few of the key drivetrain components replaced & the interiors intact, so there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the car you saw will go on for many years.
    One exciting aspect of this model you might like to know is that the 3.0 litre V6 variant won the Australian Production Touring Car Championship for standard production cars a couple of times. Main competition was the locally manufactured 4.0 litre Ford Falcon & Holden Commodore (based on the Opel Senator body). Most were shocked when this car beat them (who ever heard of a Camry winning a race, let alone a championship?). The following year Ford & Holden drivers started pulling engines down and polishing ports etc to improve gas flow (not entirely within the rules!). The bloke who drove the Camry told me they also pulled the V6 down but found there was nothing to improve such was the quality of the production engine. They just reassembled it but they did struggle the following year as the Fords and Holdens improved power out put.
    I suspect that car is still being used. You can imagine the sales advertisement when sold by its race driver owner: “Only driven on the weekend. One owner, no cardigan”

    1. Hello G.M. and thanks for giving us an Australian perspective on the Camry. Who would have guessed that it would win a motor racing series?! Moreover, any car that is chosen by taxi drivers has to be pretty durable and trouble-free. It’s the very best recommendation for anyone looking for the same in their car.

      Cars like the Camry are often dismissed by those interested in all things automotive as “only suitsble for those with little interest in cars and driving”. Doesn’t that description cover the great majority of owners, who regard their car as an appliance just like their freezer or microwave? Yes, it needs to be comfortable and reliable, and not look unpleasant, but they couldn’t care less about the finer points of its handling, as long as it is competent and safe. Manufacturers like Toyota cater perfectly to the requirements of such customers. The company tends to come unstuck when they try to make their cars more ’emotional’.

      After a long break, the Camry has been back on sale in the UK for a couple of years. I’ve actually seen one on the road. Here is the latest model:

      That’s it’s best angle, where you can’t see the huge expanse of front grille.

    2. I remember there being a Camry GTP version in celebration of that racing win, with a large wing on the back similar to the last Celica GT-Four. I’m sure I’ve seen one in recent years too.

      I drove a V6 version 20-odd years ago for a little while (company car) and the engine had a good bit of shove at the top end. Never got the chance to try the rare manual version though.

      Also, on behalf of my country, apologies Bill for the actions of the anorak…

    3. Yes John it was developed to capitalise on the win. The locally TRD Aurion with supercharged V6 & serious suspension upgrade (more discrete spoiler) in 2010 was a proper performance iteration, but I must be boring Bill M at this point!

    4. Yes John it was developed to capitalise on the win. The locally developed TRD Aurion (Camry V6) with supercharged V6 & serious suspension upgrade (more discrete spoiler) in 2010 was a proper performance iteration, but I must be boring Bill M at this point!

    5. Hi Gordon, and welcome to DTW. Apologies for the delay in your comment(s) appearing. As a new (or not recent) commenter, your comment needed approval. Subsequent comments should post immediately. Keep the Australian perspective coming, we appreciate it!

  8. Well done Daniel for picking out this most overlooked and underrated of designs. I am in complete agreement with you, it’s a very well designed, handsome thing, albeit in a quiet manner. I remember it being launched and thinking how it just didn’t register the radar of the UK’s motoring press apart from rather lazy accusations of being rather dull, which irritated me at the time. A nice looking car, deserving of higher recognition.

  9. Nice find for a presumably rare car in the UK. I should think it’ll last forever in your clime with minimal but persistent care.

    I much preferred the look of the previous 1992 to 1996 model years version to this one which looked vaguely gangly or something, and I’m not alone in North America in saying so. That previous one was peak Camry, IF you didn’t live in a snowy area where roads were laced with salt in winter. The 3.0 litre V6 had decent shove and the interior was even better than this; a business friend was delighted with his after an Audi 80. The plebeian Camrys had the same 2.2l engine as featured here, but I never saw one with anything but an automatic. Special order only.

    Toyota had decided to put almost Lexus ES300 quality in its volume sedan for 1992, barring the perhaps apochryphal extra welds, because that Camry was the same car underneath otherwise. They had to do something, since Honda was running away with the US sales crown with the Accord in competition with the Ford Taurus. However, the fly in the Toyota ointment was that it did not possess galvanized sheet metal, while this next Camry you feature today did, at least here in North America. Also for this new 1997 model year variant, the electronics had to have the OBDII service capability, as did all other vehicles. Paying for better metal and electronics meant scaling back on some of the hidden goodness like sandwich sound-deadening panels and super-plush interior. It’s been downhill ever since. Decontenting is the word commonly used.

    The Wikipedia entry on the Camry is, as are so many other entries on Japanese vehicles, infested with irrelevant Australian models and reams of minutiae of interest only to an Aussie anorak. Mind-numbing quantities of it, coming from a source where but a minute proportion of sales occurred compared to the USA. So it’s off to Curbside Classic for the real story and properly decent photos towards the end of the article:


    The last paragraph is instructive: “Toyota gave the people what they wanted, and with a little luck the 1992-1996 Camry set the industry benchmark for all mainstream midsize cars through the end of the decade. Clearly this benchmark has sunk in for much longer in the minds of the commonly stuck-in-their-ways American buyer, even as the Camry has been outclassed by competitors from the U.S., Germany, Korea, and other Japanese automakers. If this Camry isn’t the epitome of building positive brand equity, then I don’t know what is.” The comments, as usual, are revealing.

    An ex-Brit audiophile (my and his hobby) consulting doctor acquaintance bought the first new Volvo S80 around these parts in 1999. Perhaps it was because it was assembled right here in Nova Scotia, and a brand new design, but the car was an absolute lemon from beginning to end. Six months of messing around with an unresponsive Volvo now owned by Ford, and refusal to buy it back even as it sat stranded at the dealership most of the time, effectively dead, led to a lawyer’s letter and a begrudging refund. What role his campaign to let his professional acquaintances know what a load of utter rubbish it was and that Volvos should be avoided one cannot say. But Volvos are expensive enough that your average citizen cannot afford one but his colleagues could. To salvage his sanity, he then bought a orangey Camry of the version you feature here to match his hair colour he said, and with complementary orange interior including carpet, the horror! and banked the remainder of his refund. His blood pressure returned to normal overnight and he stopped brooding darkly. There’s something to be said for manufacturing competence all right, and Toyotas are still very reliable, even if possessing not very prepossessing interior appointments these days. The only late one (a 2018) I’ve been in recently on a long drive on B roads had a very unsettled ride compared to my Mazda6, quite noticeably so — and to revive an old descriptor from my London days, a truly grotty dash. Dear oh dear. No thanks! The front grille is made of a material like Cadbury reserves for its Milk Tray chocolates to hold them in place, and is spread across the entire front like its platform-mate the Avalon, likely costing about five bob in old money. Just dreadful. However, it still is the US sales leader in the segment by a significant margin.

    1. Interesting that, the Lexus and Toyota overlap. The 1992 Camry does look it might have been a Lexus with just one small badge added. From a styling history point of view the two models are in apparent reverse order. The earlier one looks as if it should be the later one and vice versa. Recent BMW 5s have this quality.
      N American buyers have always been more open for the qualities the Camry serves up and N European buyers averse unless they are verging on the passionately rational. The Irish liked the Camry, as I recall, which is not a surprise if you consider the amount of Irishness woven into N American life. I grew up misunderstanding these cars – I wish I had spent more time studying my neighbour´s bordeaux red Cressida, the Camry´s more prestigious relative. But if we are just looking at the appearance, today´s car is more integrated,denser, lighter-looking than its predecessor. It is down to the 1992 car´s lamps up front, finished in a hurry on a Friday, perhaps but jarring with the smoothness evident elsewhere.

    2. Good morning Bill and thanks for the North American perspective on the Camry. You make an interesting comparison between this generation Camry and the previous one. I cannot recall seeing an example of the XV10 for a very long time, which is probably down to its lack of a galvanised body. Even the UK’s relatively mild climate, that would be terminal for a daily driver, no matter how carefully it was maintained. To trade off some sound-deadening and interior plushness for proper anti-corrosion protection sounds like a good deal to me.

      As to the Australian content on Wikipedia in respect of Japanese cars, perhaps that is simply indicative of a greater interest in and respect for them from that part of the world?

    3. I didn’t know until this article and comments that the preference between XV10 (1992-1996) and XV20 (1997-2002) Camrys was so hotly debated! My family owned both at once – a 1996 in truly basic specification with 2.2L, five-speed manual transmission, and vinyl seats, followed by a 1997, also a 2.2 but with beige cloth seats and an automatic, and in the same shade of green as this article’s featured car.

      I do think the XV20 should be recorded as a styling success considering how well it hides its size. It is within an inch of the XV10 in all dimensions (actually taller and wider) but appears significantly smaller in person. I would put this down to the more complex fenders/wings, which transition into a more noticeable tumblehome that better hides the design’s vertical bulk, and the XV20’s tidier bumpers.

      I recall both the XV10 and XV20 as being reliable in family service (a small sample size of two!), though I do think that Bill Malcolm may be right about the XV10 being the ‘peak Camry’. In the eastern US, surviving Camrys of the XV10, XV20, and following XV30 (through 2006) generations all seem to appear at about the same rate on our roads – implying, with age considered, a decline in quality in each successive redesign.

    4. Hi Neil. That’s a perceptive observation regarding the design of the XV20. The XV10 at first glance looks a bigger and bulkier car, do it’s a surprise that they’re so similar in size.

  10. Thanks for the information on the new version Daniel. Just had a look online and I agree with your comment about the front grille. What are they thinking of?

    1. Hi Mike. Yes, it certainly does fall into that category. Here’s the offending front grille for our readers who haven’t seen it already. It carries a “may cause shock” advisory:

    2. Mmmm – pretty typical of what they are doing across their range I feel. I assume they have carried out market research on options and this is what the “punters” favour. Doesn’t do a lot for me.

    3. Toyota have done something clever with the grille – if you consider the overall impression and not the mass of small elements making it up, they reduced the complexity by hiding things in the the lower “baleen” area. Look at any other modern bumper and grille assembly and they are a muddle of shapes elaborated from two airtakes and some foglamps. Try looking at the front without focusing on it or look at the whole car and all those slats melt into one light grey area. It´s not that mad at all (compare to the current Peugeot 3008).

    4. Hi Richard. Hmm, I think I see what you mean, but the grille doesn’t need to be half that big for cooling purposes. I’d sooner see a more conventional ‘letterbox’ shaped opening below the number plate, bookended by the foglights.

      Time for some photoshopping…

    5. I´d agree with generally but the corner the designers are painted into is that that´s been done already. Design is as much about making a visible difference as making it look objectively correct. The car is an object composed of a few basic elements and, I suppose, all the obviously nice ways of making a unified whole from them has been done already. One part of me sympathises with you and I adore Audi´s earlier timeless ID approach. Another part me accepts that designers need to distinguish the car from the last one. I´ve grown rather fond of Peugeot´s manic exteriors and am a known fan of the Juke and C-RH on those grounds. And I have a lot of time for subtler approach of Ford with their luxuriously finished surfaces too. I am dimly aware I found earlier eras of Toyota hard to digest but came around to them after a mere 30 years. This car too has its interesting Japanese approach which I might find I will like more than I do now (this time I am preparing to like it though!).

  11. Heartening story about an underrated car and his caring owner. Funny he kept the Camry as a retirement gift; fifteen years ago I bought a car that was given as a retirement present to the seller a few years back. It was a Saab 9000 Aero.

    Although Camrys aren´t my favourite subject I have to admit that the previous generation, the XV10 launched in 1992, was an impressive car. Handsome, very well engineered, solid build quality and with the 3.0 V6 was a very passable “mini Lexus LS400”. It seemed a more expensive car than this XV20; I guess the yen appreciation demanded some cost cutting measures when the XV20 was developed.

    Toyota didn´t bother to sell the XV20 in Spain; given the XV10 poor sales here (I remember seeing very few, and they were all V6s), probably it was a sound idea.

    1. Hi b234r, here’s the XV10 for those (almost everybody?) Who don’t remember it:

  12. Given its reliability, I would not be surprised if the XV10 is one of those cars that was worth far more in areas of Africa than in fellow-RHD Britain, and therefore got exported; certain Benzes being better-known for this (along with commercial vehicles). I recall a feature in a magazine a few years ago, and I think Freelanders were another one…

    Daniel, the estate XV10 is the one to show, for its twin rear window wipers! The XV20, of the type in your article, has at least a couple of survivors local to me in coupe form. Considering that they were probably quite unpopular when new, that isn’t a bad survival rate.

    1. Hi Tom. I had forgotten the XV10’s twin rear wipers until you mentioned it, but here it is:

      It’s an unusual looking car, rather cigar-shaped. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an XV20 estate. Perhaps they weren’t sold in the UK?

    2. Having gone to look for Camrys, I found some at firms called “Africa car exports” in Germany. They are sold off to Africa for what I imagine are larger sums than they command here.

  13. I don’t recall seeing an XV20 estate – and I can find only saloons, of any generation, for sale in the UK. There’s an 82k mile 1997 one-owner example on Car&Classic, 2.2auto, for £1500. Maybe not much of a classic, but probably quite a reliable find for someone. (the photos are taken in a graveyard; poor taste if that’s where the former owner now resides)

    The xv70 (current) one seems to come with a different frontal option in some markets (including USA and Australia) for some grades/trims. It’s more conventional than the full-width version, is one way to describe it.

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