Curbside Classic Review: 1990 Toyota Camry LE V6 – Dripping With Fat

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(first posted 8/24/2013)    The gen2 and gen3 Camrys are from the heart Toyota’s “fat” years, when seemingly no expense was spared to make them tower over the competition in terms of build and material quality. A while back, a tenant asked me if I would check out and drive a used 1990 Camry she was looking to buy. I figured it was an opportunity to confirm my recommendation to buy one in the first place, as well as to indulge in some genuine Toyota fatness. Little did I realize I was about to have the automotive equivalent of a banana split, or fois gras, depending on your preference for lipids.

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I had suggested she look at for an older Camry after her Volvo 850 munched its valves due to a broken timing belt. She now understands why they’re supposed to be changed. And what did she find? A pristine one-owner 1990 LE V6 with 79k miles that had been driven by a preacher. How’s that for a cup of fresh Devonshire cream?

This Camry looks almost new. It simply exudes solidity from every extrusion, piece of trim, and its paint. OK; it obviously wasn’t abused in its twenty years with the preacher. But the years do tend to take their toll. As do the damn motorized retractable seat belts, the scourge of all cars of this vintage. I’d almost forgotten about them; despicable.

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 This Camry may be fat in content, but its size is anything but. In a classic example of inflation, the 2010 Corolla is bigger than this Camry in every way: 2.4″ longer wheelbase, 2.3″ more width, 3.6″ taller, an inch longer overall, and it would weigh more if this wasn’t a V6 version. The gen 2 Camry was the last one still made within Japan’s width=tax limits, and it shows, or doesn’t. It took a minute or two to for my tallness to feel properly accommodated. But that happens with just about any car, thanks to being spoiled by my Xb. That’s why I put up with its harsh ride: all that real estate for my head and legs. The gen3 Camry (on right) was a decidedly larger car all-round, with a wider body for export markets.

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The four-cam 24 valve 2.5 liter V6 purrs to life, and we head for the country on this sunny day. This is a very short stroke and small displacement six, so fatness in its torque band is not part of the equation. One has to poke a bit on that old-school non-e pedal to get some life out of it. But it’s happy to spin, and is just as smooth and creamy as anything made today, if not more so. With 156 horses, it’s willing to hustle the 2800lb Camry right along, but you have to ask a bit firmly. The four-speed automatic shifts every bit as silky-smooth as it did two decades ago, and feels just as competent as the four speed still being used in the 2013 Corolla.


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Once you get past the almost forgotten seat belt routine (I forgot to buckle the lap belt), the one really glaring time-warp is the steering. The wheel is big, the rim is hard and skinny, and the assist is remarkably low. Compared to the synthetic over-boosted electric steering on the new Toyotas, this feels just like a big Mercedes tiller of yore. Heavy, rather dull, and a remarkably strong self-centering action. This Camry always lets you know that it would just as soon prefer not to change directions, ever. Perfect freeway car; no wonder American commuters came to love it; the closest thing to autonomous car in its time.

Well, no one ever accused a Camry of sporting pretensions. The ride on its undoubtedly original shocks is still pretty decent; as long as one stays away from curves with any kind of aggressive speed. But the really predominant sensation is the utter solidity of this car’s body and interior. After twenty years, there is not one minute creak, rattle, or groan anywhere to be heard or felt. Except for the slightly enfeebled (or were they like this new?) shocks, it feels like I just drove it off the dealer’s lot. Tight, solid, carved from a granite block, bank-vault like; what other over-used metaphors should I employ?

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And for what cars were those metaphors typically used back in the day? Mercedes. This Camry is the closest thing I’ve ever driven that mimics the sensations of a Mercedes W124. The structural solidity, the low-torque high-rpm six that has to have the spurs put to it, the rather heavy and somewhat dull steering, the high-quality interior materials. Obviously, the Camry can’t touch the Mercedes in overall dynamic qualities and in terms of the interior design and tactile feel (and room), but everything is genuine quality padded vinyl or cloth. Nary a hard surface to be seen, except that highly unpleasant steering wheel, which the early W124s also had.

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Yes, this Camry is the classic old school Japanese “imitation” of an old-school Mercedes. They both espoused pure unadulterated quality as the key to success. And then they both threw it away, at about the same time. But for $3500, my neighbor just bought a high-calorie virtual time capsule from 1990, and I suspect she may have it for a while. Just don’t forget to change that timing belt!