Can a product be so strong that it builds a nearly indestructible reputation, and one that holds for decades in the minds of many consumers, even as product quality and competitiveness lapse to unremarkable levels? Well, I can think of at least one.
That’s right, the Toyota Camry, America’s poster child for dependable, no-nonsense, middle-class transportation for the past generation of drivers. But just how did the Camry achieve this pedestal, and dare I say iconic status?
Naturally, it all goes back to the 1980s, a decade that saw drastic shifts in consumer tastes and spending habits alike. In the automotive world, the 1980s was a time when the once almighty General Motors began showing us its fatal flaws to the point where an increasing amount of Americans were turned away, many permanently.
Coinciding with this was the increasing physical size of Japanese imports to the level where they were comparable substitutes for most compact and midsize American sedans, thus finally achieving mainstream appeal and success. One of these such cars was the Toyota Camry.
Officially introduced to the U.S. market in March of 1983, the Camry was Toyota’s first compact, front-wheel drive, transverse engine car, and the automaker’s answer to cars such as the GM X-bodies, Chrysler K-cars, and of course, its perennial arch-rival, the Honda Accord.
Early Camrys had broad appeal, offering inoffensive styling and the expected choice of several four-cylinder engines, manual or automatic transmission, and several trim levels with various options to accommodate different budgets and degrees of comfort. While the Camry offered little in the way of extraordinary features, it was screwed together well and offered owners a comfortable, efficient, and reliable package — everything the average A-to-B sedan driver desired.
The second generation Camry, sold in the U.S. for the 1987-1991 model years brought with it added refinement in such ways as more fashionable styling, higher quality interior materials, advancements in suspension and braking systems, and for the first time, an available V6 engine and optional all-wheel drive.
With the second generation, Camry sales and reputation continued their rise, with U.S. sales surpassing 200,000 units in 1988, a mark the Camry has stayed well above every single year since. So while the second generation firmly grounded the Camry’s place in the large-compact/midsize class, it was our featured third generation car that cemented the Camry’s status as the industry benchmark for years to come.
Part of this reason is owed to the fact that the third generation Camry sold in the North America and Australia was truly a midsize car, capable of competing with key players such as the Ford Taurus, which was then America’s best-selling car.
In fact, Toyota wisely elected to produce a separate body (known as the XV10) for these markets that was seven inches longer (riding on a 0.7-inch longer wheelbase) and three inches wider than the third generation Camry/Vista (pictured above) sold in Japan (V30), as Japanese tax legislation dictated the size of the domestic Camry to remain within its size bracket.
The XV10 Camry was conceived before the collapse of Japan’s asset price bubble in a period when Toyota and other Japanese automakers were less concerned with cost cutting and more concerned with making their vehicles the best within their respective classes. Toyota’s somewhat no-expense-spared attitude was clearly seen in this third generation, making it the best Camry yet, and what many feel to be the best Camry of all time.
Along with its larger physical size, rounded sheetmetal with soft curves and flowing lines, flush bumpers, moldings, and aircraft-style doors gave the car much greater substance and elegance than any prior Camry, and quite possibly any other Toyota-badged sedan sold before it in the U.S. Much like the E100 Corolla which premiered the same year, Toyota designers were clearly going for a premium, almost Lexus-like appearance.
With numerous advancements and improvements made over previous Camrys, refinement was the name of the game. Replacing the previous generation’s motorized seatbelts, a driver’s side airbag was standard on all models from the start of production, while a passenger’s side airbag joined the list of standard features in 1994. Anti-lock brakes were also a new option, becoming standard on the top-trim XLE in 1995.
In many ways, the Camry was an “almost Lexus”, boasting the same high levels of fit-and-finish, the same V6 and very similar driving dynamics (especially in the SE) of the ES 300, with no real noticeable downgrade in interior plastics. Minus real wood trim and a few luxury options, a top-line Camry XLE V6 was little different than its Lexus ES 300 cousin.
Toyota engineers spared no effort in making the Camry smoother and quieter than ever, incorporating measures such as engine balance shafts and a hydraulic cooling fan, aircraft-style doors with triple door seals, and sound-absorbing foam injected into body cavities to create a vault-like interior. With interior noise measuring at 68 decibels at 60 mph, the Camry’s interior was as quiet as many luxury cars costing thousands more.
Engines were now all dual-overhead cam design, with the base four cylinder enlarged to 2.2 liters and making 135 horsepower and 145 lb-ft torque. The available 3.0L V6 was the same engine found in the ES 300, initially making 185 horsepower and 189 lb-ft torque, and from 1994-on, producing 188 horsepower and 203 lb-ft torque. Automatic transmission was now the only choice in all but the base DX and sporty SE models, which featured a 5-speed manual as standard equipment.
The Camry could hardly be called sporty, even in SE form with its very minor performance upgrades, but it did offer a confident, controlled driving experience that was forgiving to the everyday driver, especially in emergency maneuvers. Exceptional ride was a stronger quality than performance, with its four-wheel MacPherson strut suspension featuring subframes to better isolate vibration from the chassis.
As far as the lineup was concerned, the 1992-1996 Toyota Camry offered something for everybody, for the penny-pincher looking to buy a cheap to maintain car that they’d be able to keep running for the next 20 years, to the family hauler looking for a maneuverable wagon to hold seven in a pinch, to even the Camry-class buyer looking for a bit of sportiness with a firmer suspension and manual transmission.
Nearly all North American-spec Camrys were now produced on U.S. soil, at Toyota’s new Georgetown, Kentucky manufacturing plant. The volume-leading sedan in base DX, midlevel LE, and high-end XLE trims were the first models to appear, soon followed by the sports-oriented SE sedan, and the DX and LE wagons later in the 1992 model year.
Rather belatedly, for the 1994 model year the Camry gained a 2-door coupe for the first and only time, offered in DX, LE, and SE trims. Despite its ever-slightly sexier appearance, Toyota was decidedly a few years (or a full decade) behind the curve with launching a Camry coupe. The coupe market, especially the mainstream midsize coupe market, was drastically shrinking, and the Camry coupe never found many buyers, resulting in its disappearance for the Camry’s 4th generation (though a distinctive bodied “Camry Solara” coupe and convertible would soon appear, to only marginally greater success).
Convenience features such as power windows, air conditioning, and AM/FM stereo with cassette deck were standard in all but the base DX models, with numerous other amenities such as an 8-way power drivers seat, 4-way power passengers seat, in-dash six disc CD changer, and remote key-less entry all available. Among other niceties, XLE models featured a power glass moonroof as standard.
All models received cloth seat upholstery and door panels as standard equipment, with leather available on SE and XLE models. DX models received a lower-grade cloth with vinyl trim on non-seating surfaces, while all other models received full-cloth seats. Regardless of model, all Camrys featured interiors of high-quality plastics with many soft-touch surfaces for added refinement over their predecessors and most competitors.
Over the course of its run, the XV10 Camry was showered with near-universal praise from consumers and professional industry reviewers alike. Camry sales steadily rose over this generation’s five-year life cycle, with U.S. sales alone surpassing the 300,000 mark in 1994, and U.S. sales totaling nearly 1.6 million units for this car’s generation.
Toyota designers, engineers, and even the accountants worked together to make this Camry the best one yet, and very confidently, the best of all time. They made the exterior classier and more stylish. They made the engines smoother and more powerful. They made the interior quieter, more spacious, and more luxurious. They made the ride more velvety plush yet more confident and controlled. They made the Camry one of the best Toyotas ever by making numerous refinements, improvements, and advancements to an already competitive car.
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 the Camry isn’t the epitome of building positive brand equity, then I don’t know what is.