Curbside Classic: 1991 Toyota Camry (V30) 2.0 ZX – Alternate Normality

Much has been said on CC about the “parallel universe” feeling one gets in certain faraway lands. Typically, North Americans and Europeans experience this in South America or Australia: a mix of both familiar and totally unfamiliar models from around the world, along with local variants of known marques and/or nameplates, resulting in a bizarre automotive fauna. Japan isn’t quite like that – it’s more like a different planet, really. But there are a few examples of Brazilian- or Argentinian-style known unknowns. We saw the JDM Nissan Maxima recently, for instance. So today, let’s examine the… Camry?

This is not the early ‘90s Camry you know and, presumably, have no particular feelings about. This is the completely different, gen-three (or four, depending how you count these things) “narrow” Camry that never left its native land, while its bulkier namesake continued to conquer various global markets.

That’s the ‘91 Camry you probably remember. This is the XV10 Camry (1991-96), hailed by some as “The Greatest Camry Of All time” and it certainly was a great success in North America. Europe was comparatively less enthralled by the Camry, but any other markets, e.g. Asia-Pacific, the Middle-East and South America, were keen. In Japan, this car was marketed as the Toyota Scepter, as the Camry name was already in use.

The V30 Camry was launched, alongside its Vista sister model, in the summer of 1990 – the height of the Bubble Economy. The whole point of the “narrow” Camry was that it could be in a lower tax band (illustrated by the license plate starting with a “5”), so the majority of Camrys were fitted with engines under 2000cc, to keep within the tax bracket.

Two petrol 4-cyl. options were on the table – a 1.8 and a 2-litre twin cam, as well as a 2-litre turbo-Diesel. But then came the well-named Prominent series, which featured a V6 – also a 2-litre, but soon joined by a naughty, limit-busting 2.5 litre V6.

Oooh, that extra half litre of displacement… That’s almost a pint! Camry, how hedonistic of you! The Prominent was also given the obligatory “pillared hardtop” treatment to make it stand out even more. But that’s not the version I found, so let us leave this flight of fancy and get back to our plainer, and perhaps Janer, standard sedan.

The entire point about the Camry / Vista twins, since the V10 at least, was to provide a FWD alternative to the myriad large-ish RWD saloons peddled by Toyota in those days – the Crowns, Mark IIs and the like. That never really worked in Japan, though. Folks who wanted a front-driver had a number of larger Mitsubishis and Hondas to choose from, but those never exactly flew out the dealerships either. The big saloon game was still very traditionally-oriented in 1990, and remained so throughout the decade.

It won’t have escaped your perspicacity that this Camry is the AWD version – a Toyota attempting to be an Audi 80/90, essentially. It even has a manual transmission, like a real enthusiast’s car should. Interesting to see that the AWD drivetrain was only available on the narrow Camry in the ‘90s, inherited directly from its V20 predecessor. Four-wheel steering was optional on 2WD cars, as well. All the nice toys were reserved for the domestic audience, yet it failed to really move them.

This Camry may not be as wide nor as long as its international namesake, but the amount of cabin space still seems quite acceptable. The absence of the usual white doilies enables us to appreciate the grey mouse-fur interior in its full mind-numbing dullness, at least.

Just like every other car in the range, Toyota devised a logo for the Camry. Inventing these is not easy – to whit, Mazda’s three-emblem flustercuck during the ‘90s – so let’s be charitable and call this a mediocre effort. To me, it looks like a Renault rhombus on its side, sitting atop an empty Chinese takeaway box. Sums up the Camry to a T(87).

The V30 Camry only came in two flavours of four-door. By contrast, the global Camry had a sexy coupé and a cavernous wagon to accompany the sedan. I’m sure Toyota knew their markets and thought this through, but I do wonder if they didn’t hamstring the narrow Camry by only giving it the “Prominent” variant, but nothing else to attract buyers. This did not prevent Toyota from offering the next-gen V40 starting in the summer of 1994, keeping the JDM-only narrow Camry / Vista alive for the remainder of the ‘90s.

The Camry name continued to blossom globally, of course, and eventually Japan caught up with the rest of the wider (har har) world and got the same Camry as anybody else. All the while, the nameplate continued to top the charts in various corners of the globe. It’s still far from being a huge hit in Japan, but as they say, no one is a prophet in their own land. Especially one of them alternate reality ones.