COAL: 1997 Toyota Camry LE – The Safe Choice

1997 Toyota Camry LE

By 1997 we had endured the Taurus buyback saga and completed the Contour trade in as I have talked about over the past several weeks. During this time period, we were still driving the 1994 Integra I described a few weeks back. (My wife and I shared the Integra, particularly when the Taurus was acting up.) The Acura was nearing the end of its four-year lease, and although I enjoyed driving it very much I was ready for something new. Something larger, perhaps, and definitely something that wasn’t going to get me on a first-name basis with my local service department.

I seriously considered an Accord (again) as I figured I could get a good deal by buying a Honda from the Ohio dealership my parents frequented. They had bought at least four Hondas after the 1991 Accord so they were on good terms with the salespeople there. However, the Accord was in the last year of its design and I have always been a sucker for what’s new and different. I didn’t exactly know what the Accord was going to look like but I didn’t want “last year’s model.” And I didn’t want another Civic as I still associated that car with the cursed one we’d managed to unload. And I had to weigh getting a better deal in Ohio against having to deal with the hassle of bringing the car back to Maryland and putting 400 miles on it in my first day of ownership.

I’d been aware of Toyota as a brand of generally boring and reliable cars that were built to last. My father-in-law had purchased a 1994 Corolla used (it had been a service loaner for a dealership so it wasn’t exactly babied) and he put more than 200,000 miles on it over the course of almost 20 years before selling it. I’d had Toyotas as loaner cars, most recently when the Integra needed a visit to the body shop. I liked the cars as they were well-built and solid, and that particular loaner car (a Corolla) had showed it could be yanked out of a parking spot in front of my house by a tow truck and still drive like new. (I had forgotten to get my parking pass out of my own car before dropping it at the body shop so the loaner was “illegally parked.” That cost me several hours and $200 at a time when my take-home check was only a little more than $1000 every two weeks. Whoops.)

I particularly liked the 1992-1996 Camry as those vehicles (the XV10 series) were attractively styled, well-appointed, and solidly built. I was particularly fond of the coupe, a body style that even then was becoming harder to find. Some have considered this generation to be Lexus-like in build quality and appointments. However, that meant that the car was also quite expensive, so I had figured that the Camry was out of my price range so I had not included them in my previous shopping lists.

1997 Toyota Camry LE

However, for 1997 Toyota introduced a new fourth-generation version of the Camry (the XV20) that represented Toyota’s effort to reduce the build cost of the car by economizing in ways the customer would probably not see (i.e., keeping interior fitments high quality but using less expensive parts underneath). Because of this, list prices came down relative to the XV10 models: a 1996 LE four-door sedan listed for $20,168 (about $31,000 in today’s dollars) while the equivalent 1997 LE sedan listed for $19,868 ($30,400 in today’s dollars). The 1997 model came with anti-lock brakes standard: these were an $1100 option for 1996. This $1400 price drop ($2200 nowadays) was enough to bring me to the showroom for a look, despite my parents being less than enthusiastic about that idea. (My mother’s disdain of Toyotas stemmed solely from her dislike of the logo which she said looked like a sombrero. The things people fixate on when deciding which car to buy…)

As with the Accord, the Camry had a base model (the CE) that made some key features optional, like anti-lock brakes, cruise control, cassette stereo, and air conditioning. Toyota did offer the CE, oddly enough, as a V6 with a 5-speed manual. At almost 200 hp, that made for an almost Road Runner-like basic performance car. I was more interested in a mid-level LE as this came standard with air conditioning, cruise, and the aforementioned ABS, among other features. That CE V6 would have been entertaining, though…

Buying a Toyota meant learning a whole bunch of new ways I could get cheated in a car deal. I can’t remember now why I picked the dealer we used, as they weren’t very close to our house and weren’t exactly friendly and helpful. I was far enough away from the end of the Integra lease that I needed to trade it in rather than simply turn it in at the end of the lease. The dealer actually did try that trick you hear about where they ask for your car keys to “assess” your trade while you try out the shiny new car, and then won’t give back your keys to try and trap you into buying a new car. I definitely made my displeasure with that practice known, and got my keys back. This car purchase was the start, I think, of a habit we still have of test-driving a car, getting the numbers together, and then leaving the dealership to get dinner or a snack to think it over before deciding yes or no. It helps us think over the deal more carefully without a salesperson breathing down our necks.

The car we picked was a 4-cylinder 4-speed automatic LE sedan – by this time Toyota had discontinued the Camry coupe but hadn’t yet introduced the Solara coupe so sedans were it. The car was “antique sage” in Toyota’s parlance, and my wife and I still argue about whether the car was green or gray (I said green – take a look at the photos and see what you think). The interior was also “sage” and looked exactly the same as the one in the 1997 Camry brochure (which I still have and obtained the below picture from – apologies for the visible center fold). Same color, same cloth seats, even the same stereo.

1997 Toyota Camry sage interior

Our car had a few accessories that had been added at the Port of Baltimore (this was the first I’d heard of that practice – usually accessories were added at the dealer). The car had a rear spoiler with LED brake light, and since the spoiler had been installed prior to the dealer the installer had removed the package shelf third brake light and replaced it with a blanking panel you couldn’t see from behind the car. A nice touch that made the installation look more factory. This was the first car I ever owned with a car alarm, as well – it was a Toyota installation with an odd oval key fob. The dealer tried to get me to buy some gold or black pearl emblems (remember those) but I wasn’t about to pay that much money for something I didn’t particularly like. I did add the front end mask which by now was a required option in my book (even though they hadn’t gotten any better looking).

1997 Toyota Camry front view

As with the Hondas I owned, the car was reliable and unremarkable to drive. It was exceptionally well built, I thought, with high quality interior appointments and relatively tight exterior seams. I remember being impressed with things like the individual swiveling lids for the two cup holders and the soft touch dash materials (the dash was low gloss plastic that was soft but not squishy – I liked it). The only thing that sticks in my mind was that the 4-cylinder automatic power train (133 hp) was somewhat inadequate for the 3100 pound car, so I wished I’d spent the extra coin for the V-6. (This feeling came back to bite me in a later car purchase, as we will see in a few weeks). Otherwise, the car required no more than regular maintenance and was always ready to go. After that Taurus, I really appreciated that!

As a bit of a spoiler, this was the first of many Toyotas I have owned over the years. The price was right, the lease payment was fairly low as the resale value of the car was high, and everything was screwed together to last. This Camry was one of the only cars I have liked enough to keep to the end of its lease (I have traded most of my cars well before the turn-in date). The car that replaced this Camry at the end of the three years was not one of my best picks, though, as we will see in the coming weeks.