Curbside Classic: 1986 Toyota Camry – Toyota Builds A Better Citation; Forever

So just how exactly does a car become the best selling one in America? In the only reliable way that one becomes number one in just about anything: doing your homework, and practicing every day. And it really does help if the competition has forgotten that formula.

Read old reviews about the first-generation Camry, and right down the list you’ll find all of the very qualities I experienced when I drove a new one a while back, except for one (roomy): “quiet, smooth, solid, competent (but not exciting) handling, comfortable, well built, reliable, plenty of torque and power, but not sporty”. Same car, 28 years ago; just add some super-sizing and drop the hatch, and the formula remains as intact (and winning) as ever.

Toyota Camry gen1image: wikipedia

My first exposure to the Camry was in 1984, when the Chief Engineer of our TV station and I took a business trip together and he talked me into renting a Camry. Having learned long ago to trust his judgment, we made sure one was available and reserved it. Good call, too, as the default rentals of the day would typically have been a floppy Buick Regal, Ford Tempo or K car. Despite its compact-car status, the Camry’s obvious solidity and quiet manners were immediately apparent, although it lacked the tip-in and roarty zest of GM’s V6s–and, of course, the accompanying torque steer.

Undoubtedly, there were two cars under Toyota’s microscope when they designed the completely new 1983 Camry, which was a major departure from its long line of RWD predecessors: of course, there was the Honda Accord, but also the Chevrolet Citation. Clearly, the Accord showed the way forward with FWD in its popular size class. But I’m guessing that Toyota, like most other imports, was more than a bit worried about GM’s highly ambitious X-cars. And in size, configuration and even design, the Citation’s influence is unmistakable.

The Citation had all the right ingredients wrapped in modern, space-efficient bodies, including five-door hatches. But as we know all too well, the Xs were was a flash in the pan that quickly sizzled out due to a lack of full and proper development and a rash of quality issues. The X-Bodies’ flame-out threw the gates to what would become the biggest sector of the market wide, wide open, and the Camry glided in, albeit initially in stealth mode.

Before the Camry could live up to its name and take the crown (Literally: ‘Camry’ is actually an Anglicized, phonetic transcription of the word Japanese word kanmuri, or ‘crown’), it had to sit out the Taurus and Accord’s years at the top. But why the hurry when you’re thinking long-term? Truly, Camry is the tortoise. How it outran GM’s X-Bodies and even the Taurus is easier to understand than its ability to knock the Accord off the throne.–yet it did, in its own silent but lethal way.

What’s somewhat remarkable is that the current Camry  (XV50) is only the third truly all-new Camry platform in the model’s history. The popular and quite successfully restyled Gen-2/V20 (seen in front, above)  sat on the same platform as the first one, despite very different external sheet metal that yielded a relatively compact interior. The all-new and definitive Gen-3/XV10 (rear) set the brutally high standard that wiped out the competition once and for all; its remarkably refined manners truly made it the Lexus in its class, and most clearly distinguished it from the decidedly tauter and sportier contemporary Accord.

The Gen-4/XV20 rationalized the Gen-3 as Toyota found ways to cut costs, right down to losing the expensive double door seals. Hardly anyone noticed, especially with pricing that was now more competitive with the offerings of increasingly-pressured Detroit competitors. The Camry’s downward march in price forced GM to respond aggressively by cutting corners and content, but it was a losing battle.

The differences in the Gen-5, 6 and 7 are more subtle than in the past–not surprising, as they all share essentially the same platform. New platforms aren’t what they once were; car development is now more about refinement and cost rationalization. And as the dramatically reduced cost (adjusted for inflation) of the Camry  shows, this approach is obviously working very well, at least for Toyota. Update: as just another refresh of the 2012, the 2014 Camry marks Camry’s 13th year on the same basic platform.

Without doubt, the profit Toyota has made with three distinct generations of Camrys over almost three decades has been remarkable. It wasn’t that long ago that some well-leaked info suggested that Toyota was making up to 90% of its global profit in the USA. And Camry, in any language, is their gold crown–one that Toyota’s going to be mighty reluctant to see anyone else wear.