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March 25, 2003

Review: 2003 Toyota Camry 2.4V

It seems that Nostradamus is right after all.  Our world may not have ended with the now infamous Y2K debacle or with a Nuclear Holocaust, but continuously watching CNN would have anyone thinking that every day is a disaster.

True enough, I believe that everyone from the balut vendors to the high-ranking CEOs are feeling that the past few months have been the most challenging (and nerve-racking) in a long, long time.  From the country’s ballooning budget deficit to the impending threat of war with Saddam Hussein, these factors have been driving the market forces down and the sales of anti-depressants up.

It’s times like this where spending an hour doing laps around a pool would soothe and calm the soul.  Unfortunately, with the removal of the Unified Vehicular Reduction Program (UVRP), by the time I’ll get to the health club, it would already be in the dead of night.  Fortunately, there’s the next best thing to chase those work blues away: the new Toyota Camry.

The latest mid-sized executive car offering from Toyota is by far the most sorted out Japanese barge that I have ever tried.  That's because it doesn’t pretend to be a fighter against Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but rather it does one thing so well that the Germans (or even the Swedes) could only hope for: escapism.  Everything about the Camry is isolation from the troublesome world outside.

For starters, the 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4 equipped with Toyota’s VVTi system is just as quiet as it is at idle as it is when shut off.  The pristine character of this refined powerplant makes it the smoothest and quietest that I’ve been able to experience in a while.  Though I’d still put a certain V6 engine as the number one on my list, this one comes in a close second place.

Though I somehow miss the lack of any exhaust-induced character, the engine revs smoothly all the way without any hint of boominess that’s been plaguing Toyota inline-4s since time immemorial.  The maximum output of 157-bhp may not seem big, but believe me; it feels a lot more compared than what it seems on paper.  I simply enjoyed the flab-free throttle and the adaptive, quick and smooth-shifting four-speed automatic.

Despite the deadly off-the-line performance, there’s simply no reason to justify racing against rag-tag economy sedans.  Even my temperamental nature is calmed inside the Camry’s ultra-quiet cabin.  At this point, I begin to think of letting the hoi polloi skirmish through the congested roads like little cockroaches.  I’m quite pleased staying behind the wheel of the Camry for an extra few minutes, thank you very much.

I’ve been expecting the worse possible combination of ride and handling from the relatively simple MacPherson Strut / Independent Dual Link Strut set-up—as previous experiences with the last generation Camry would suggest.  Thankfully, this time around, the cathedral-quiet interior is complemented by the best real-world suspension set-up I have ever felt.

Though it still can’t run around my current driver, a 1998 Honda Accord VTi-L, the Camry finally does what it’s told to do.  Handling is safe and understeer is controlled.  The steering gives decent feedback, but is still a bit sluggish—a fact that’s disconcerting when traveling at triple digit speeds.  On the positive side,  bumps of alls hapes and sizes are absorbed in the most convincing of manners, making the ride as soft as a baby’s newly moisturized skin.  For the heck of it, I usually take pockmarked Paseo de Roxas (near the Makati Triangle) at full speed just to test a car’s bump absorption capabilities.  This one passes with an A+ grade.

One thing I didn’t like about the suspension set-up is tires' difficulty with putting all of the car’s torque to the road.  The Yokohama Aspec 205/65 HR 15 tires are obviously there as low-rolling resistance tires, and because of this primary function, they squeal heavily during a fast-bend turns.  Making things worse is that this relatively new set of rubbers lost traction accelerating out of a traffic light.  If you buy a Camry—take my advice and change the tires!

It doesn't take an Einstein to find out that this car is mechanically superior to its rivals—but what about its styling and creature features?  For the outside, I find that the design is slippery smooth and well proportioned.  The tall stance is hidden well with the use of large quad-beam headlamps and a high shoulder line.  The minimal use of body cladding gives it some hints of sportiness as well.

On the down side, I’m joining the countless others in the anti-Camry’s-rear club.  The rear-end styling isn’t appealing from almost all the angles.  It looks far too detached from the rest of the flowing sheet metal.  I have this ominous feeling that there was an attempt to spruce up the back and make it look like a certain German luxury saloon—the effect isn’t nice as there’s a lack of surface detail here.

Inside, though I would gladly swap the fake pine for brushed metal, the cabin is nicely done overall with swathes of tan / gray plastics and high-grade cow hide.  Interior space is class-leading and the overall feel is airy and refreshing—it’s something I won’t be embarrassed to be seen in.

The dash, though not exactly organic (and the wood doesn’t help) manages to flow throughout the cabin—echoing the Camry’s slippery exterior.  The center console is laid out well, with all the major controls within easy reach.  Like all the Toyotas that I’ve driven before it, the Camry has nice and tactile switchgear that feels unbreakable.

The automatic climate control is fairly straightforward  with large, chunky buttons and an clear layout.  It’s fairly effective, too, at adjusting to minute changes in exterior temperature.  It follows the preset temperature, with the same tenacity as Saddam Hussein’s foot soldiers—no fighting with a ‘more intelligent A.I’, it becomes hot as hell or cold as the Arctic when I demand it.

The coupe-de-grace is the funky 2-DIN Kenwood CD / MP3 player that’s linked to a 6-speaker system.  Unlike other MP3-capable head units that I’ve tried before, this one searches through tracks faster and more efficiently.  In addition, it can use ID3 tags to classify your tunes whether they’re from Kenny Rogers, April Boy (your chauffeur might want a track or two in there) or Ozzy Osbourne.  The large volume knob is welcome, but apparent lack of radio preset tunes removes some points.

I managed to gallivant around the range topping 2.4V.  The 1.59 million entry price means that there’s absolutely everything in here from automatic climate control to power everything (including the folding mechanism for the side view mirror).  That said, I’m still in aghast that the Camry lacks certain features, which I’m sure company bigwigs would be keen to look for: power adjusting seats, back-up sensors (though it’s got that rather useless irritating beep when you go into Reverse) and maybe a moon roof.

The only other gripe I have with the Camry’s interior is the less than perfect seating position.  I find that the steering wheel, which is set too back and the pedals, which are set too high are to blame for this.  Driving the Camry to Batangas and back made me feel either like a short, disproportioned individual or an extra from the set of Planet of the Apes.  It takes the perfect driving shoes, which luckily I have, to drive this car comfortably over long distances.  There’s also a question of the lack of seating adjustment (only six ways for the driver, compared to other vehicles, which commonly have eight to ten ways).  Back and bum support seems to be in the wrong places as well.

I find the lack of lateral support quite disturbing for a car of this caliber.  There was more than one occasion where I found myself slipping and sliding around the seat at the slightest hint of cornering.  For a company known for creating comfortable and ergonomically-efficient automobiles, this luxury offering fails to get my nod for seating comfort.

At the end of the day, I find myself wondering…is the 2003 Toyota Camry all that it’s bent up to be?  As a tool for isolation, the answer is an astounding yes.  If your name is Steve Case, then I suggest that you forget about AOL Time Warner for a moment and ride inside this little gem for a bit of escape from the world around you.  The ultra-competent mechanicals, smooth powerplant and transmission, very airy cabin and promised painless ownership makes this a worthwhile vehicle to consider.

However, considering the Camry’s variants—I would have to steer away from the 2.4V as my main choice.  Though the 2.4-liter engine is frugal as some 1.6-liter engines (giving out 8.2 kilometers to every liter), the mid-line 2.0G with its 149-bhp 2.0-liter engine is an absolute steal.  It has all the features of the range-topper and it should be able to give slightly better mileage.  Of course, that’s just me.  If you put bragging rights above everything else, then there’s no better car out there than this 2.4V.

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