Vintage Reviews: 1997 Toyota Camry – First Drive In The “Real” Chevy Impala Of The 1990s


(first posted 10/11/2016)    Once upon a time, the Chevrolet Division of General Motors continually served up a line of cars that became the very definition of the American family sedan.  For decades, the Chevrolet Impala was always up-to-date but not too avant-garde, comfortable, reliable, well-priced and wildly popular.  Unfortunately in the 1980s, GM lost the plot and Chevrolet lost the coveted position as the leader in family cars.  By the 1990s, a new victor emerged for practical sedan buyers, still made in America, but this time from a Japanese brand.  That’s right, behold the Toyota Camry, America’s family sedan sweetheart, circa 1997.  Right in the middle of the domestic new car issue, Automobile Magazine highlighted all the changes to this family favorite.


Toyota was not immune from the cost pressures facing the automobile business in the 1990s.  Like so many makers, Toyota needed to figure out how to hold the line on prices while maintaining profit margins.  Unlike other manufacturers (hello, GM?), Toyota sought to remove costs through clever engineering in ways that would not impact the customer experience.  Rather than cutting corners on materials or re-using out-of-date technology, Toyota worked to simplify the Camry’s parts and streamline manufacturing so that it cost less to build.


When it came to safety features for the new 1997 Camry, Toyota did not scrimp.  In spite of lighter weight, the car was stronger and could meet or exceed all possible crash test requirements.  ABS brakes became standard on most models.


In addition to investing in safety, Toyota also focused on livability.  The newest Camry was roomier than before, redesigned seats were more comfortable than before, the ergonomically sound instrument panel was easier to see and use.  Plus, there were plenty of the little features that meant a lot in daily life, like convenient storage for sunglasses and abundant cupholders.  Nor did Toyota ignore the powertrain: both 4-cylinder and V6 engines offered more power and better fuel economy.

The 1997 Camry was new and improved in most ways compared to its well-received predecessor.  Nothing was revolutionary, just steady enhancements that made getting a new car seem worthwhile.  For years, that approach had served Chevrolet brilliantly, and Toyota was more than happy to copy the playbook.  The shocker, of course, was that Chevrolet seemingly forgot the playbook entirely, and spent the 1990s cranking out mediocre, under-developed family cars, replete with yesterday’s technology and poor quality materials.  Little wonder that the Camry became America’s sweetheart, and the best selling car in America for 1997, with 394,397 of “Toyota’s Impala” finding homes.