COAL: 2002 Toyota Camry SE – Not Always The Safe Choice

2002 Toyota Camry front view

As our Tundra was coming up to the end of its lease, I had already been thinking about what was going to follow it on my side of the garage. We had the “practical hauler” side of the equation covered with the Sienna minivan, so I could go back to a sedan or something else that didn’t need to haul home remodeling supplies. It didn’t take me long to make my decision, even with the large number of possible Toyota models to choose from.

By the Tundra’s lease end in the summer of 2002, Toyota had already introduced a new version of the Camry to follow the 1997-2001 platform I had already owned. Released in late 2001, the new XV30 platform was larger and offered new and (to me) more interesting styling. I very quickly decided that the Camry was going to be the replacement for the Tundra, so I needed only to choose which model to lease. The new model came in base model LE, “sporty” SE, and “luxury” XLE versions, both with 4 cylinder or V-6 power. I certainly wasn’t interested in the base model car as it seemed like a rental car special, but the SE and XLE were better options with more equipment and a more upmarket look.

2002 Toyota Camry SE

I considered the 4-cylinder automatic XLE because of its equipment (automatic climate control, power accessories galore, and multi-function trip computer, among other things). Amusingly, the XLE model came with some seriously fake-looking “wood” trim that was (to my eyes) pretty cheesy. The 6 cylinder XLE was a bit out of my price range, and I recalled being underwhelmed by the 4-cylinder performance of the ’97 Camry I had, so I was reluctant to commit to this powertrain. The SE “sporty” model had a cheaper base price (no trip computer and manual air conditioning) so a V6 automatic was in my price range. I briefly thought about the 4-cylinder 5-speed manual version but decided to go with the V-6 to get more power (192 hp versus 157 for the 4-cylinder). The SE offered “sport suspension” and a strut tower brace (JDM tight, yo!). The SE package also brought a sport steering wheel, blacked out grille and emblems, fog lights, and silver face gauges. All highly up to the moment in 2002, to be sure.

2002 Camry SE interior

When I was ready to purchase, the big-box dealer who had sold me the last several Toyotas showed me the cars that were in transit. A well-equipped white V-6 automatic SE was on its way to the big-box dealer and seemed to be the right choice for me. My father planned to buy the Tundra when I turned it in, so I figured we could do the whole transaction at once at the dealership and made arrangements for my dad to show up in Maryland. I got an unpleasant surprise about a week before the intended transaction date when I found out that my dad couldn’t just buy the truck from Toyota Motor Credit – I had to buy the truck first and then immediately sell it to him, a hassle that I didn’t particularly want to deal with. However, my dad had the cash on hand to buy the truck, so he gave me the funds to buy the truck from Toyota Motor Credit and turn it over to him (we figured that he could drive the truck for a couple of weeks under my insurance and temp tag while we waited for the title). However, Toyota Motor Credit had lost the title to the truck so it took almost 60 days for me to get a title in hand to sign over to him.

2002 Camry SE steering wheel

The second surprise in this transaction was the lease payment. As with the Tundra, the leasing price structure Toyota was using at the time used high residual percentages on the base price of the car and fixed increments added to the residual for the options. Since the car I was purchasing had a lot of options (high-end stereo, the V-6 powertrain, sunroof, a sunshade for the rear window, and an alarm, but no leather interior), the lease payment ended up being relatively high (over $400 a month, as I recall), and I paid through the nose for that V-6 powertrain in particular. I had already more or less decided on this car by the time I got the actual lease payment. I probably should have shifted at that point to the cheaper 4-cylinder 5-speed car, or at least test-driven it, but I stayed with the V-6 model and accepted the relatively high payment. I wanted one of the new electrochromic auto-dimming inside mirrors but that would have jacked the payment even more, so I paid for that separately after I took delivery of the car (that mirror was about $400 installed, as I recall). As readers of my COAL series might expect, there was a front end mask purchased as well…

My ownership of this Camry began with a hassle in selling my truck and a hassle in getting the new car (surprise high lease payments), so we were not starting off on the right foot. Things got a bit worse during the first month of ownership, where the car demonstrated some uncharacteristic build quality issues. The biggest of these dealt with the ignition switch. At that time, Toyota had an ignition switch with an interlock that prevented the doors from being locked when the key was in the ignition. I believe the interlock was a simple finger that was pushed upward when the key was in the lock and dropped back down when the key was removed. The mechanism made an audible “clunk” when the key was removed, as I recall.

In my car, the interlock finger was sticky so it wouldn’t drop down when the key was removed, which meant that it was impossible to lock the car as the locks would automatically unlock every time you locked it. There were several instances when I had to leave my new car unlocked in a mall parking lot as I couldn’t get the doors locked. Inserting and reinserting the key shook the finger loose sometimes, but that was not a foolproof solution, nor did a squirt of lubricant on the key fix the problem. A new ignition switch was the ultimate solution, but I was quite annoyed with the car by then (I was overly sensitive to problems with brand-new cars at the time, too). There were some squeaks and rattles that were surprising to me given my past experience with Toyotas – perhaps buying the first year of a new design wasn’t the best idea.

2002 Camry SE rear view

On the plus side, the car was very enjoyable to drive. The V-6/4-speed automatic powertrain did a great job of moving the car at extra-legal speeds, and the “sport” suspension, while not Mustang-like, still provided better handling than the softly-sprung base models. I did drive the 4-cylinder automatic car as a rental on several occasions after buying this model, and learned to my chagrin that the 157-hp engine was a much better performer than the 130-hp model in my ’97 Camry, and I suspect with the 5-speed it would have been even better. I probably would have saved $40 a month on the lease payment, too.

So, I was somewhat dissatisfied with the quality of the car and suspected that I’d paid too much for the lease, leading me to start to dislike the car not long after I bought it. My dislike for the car intensified quite a bit when my parents leased a 2003 Acura 3.2 TL Type-S with navigation (which stickered at about $4k to $5k more than my Camry) and were able to lease that car for about $30 less per month than my Camry. The realization that I was paying a lot more per month for quite a bit less car really irritated me, and caused me to be a bit irrational in my actions.

I don’t have a lot more to say about the driving experience of this Camry SE, because it probably holds the record for the shortest ownership period of any daily driver in my fleet. I leased the car in July of 2002 (roughly) and traded it in in February 2003 and was glad to be rid of it eight months into a 36 month lease. As one might expect, I lost a considerable amount of money trading the car in that early – I don’t recall how much the loss was, and it is probably better that way. Its replacement was still sporty, but more practical and much less expensive (even with the money I lost on the Camry rolled into the payment), as I will describe in the coming weeks.