Toyota's ever-popular Camry is one of the best-selling sedans in the country. There are many reasons for its success, including interior space, Toyota's reputation for first-rate build quality, a low depreciation rate, and useful choice of trim levels and equipment. But some potential customers have turned away from the Camry because of the price. The last Camry I tested, a top-of-the-line 1998 XLE, had a list price of nearly $30,000 with options. Ouch! However, the most popular Camry model is the mid-level LE four-cylinder. But the 1997 example I tested in late 1996 had a sticker price of nearly $23,000. That's better than $30,000, but still may cause some potential buyers to look elsewhere. No need, really. They could look at the subject of this week's test, the "entry level" Camry CE, under $20,000 even with useful options.
There are only three trim levels in the current Camry lineup, CE, LE, and XLE. But they blanket the midsized family sedan spectrum completely. The premium XLE is a very credible near-luxury car at a near-luxury price. The LE has all of the modern conveniences as standard equipment, and can be outfitted with plenty of luxury options and a V6 engine. The CE, as I discovered during a recent week, is a far more than average car for less than the average price of a new car today. It illustrates the difference between "cheap" and "inexpensive". "Cheap" connotes a lack of quality. This definitely does not apply to the Camry CE. With the same precision fit and finish as any other Camry, and plain but comfortable and functional accommodations, it is not a car to be considered only on merit of price.
APPEARANCE: External differences between Camry models are subtle and mostly trivial, so the CE owner need not be embarrassed to have an "entry-level" car. The CE has the same trim, athletic style as other Camrys, and the same monochrome finish with tasteful chrome highlights around the side windows. A low beltline and large windows give it, and all other Camrys, a graceful, light appearance and great visibility. A careful scrutiny will reveal a CE badge on the trunk. The alloy-look plastic wheel covers are shared with the LE.
COMFORT: Where the Camry CE does show its lower-budget status is inside. No leather, multi-adjustable power seats, gigawatt high-end stereo, power moonroof, or other luxury-class accoutrements. And, in truly base trim, the Camry CE can be had with manual-crank windows and no air conditioning. If plain, the CE is comfortable and honest, and as well-made as any Toyota product. It's solid and quiet, with no annoying low-budget squeaks or rattles. My test car had the pricey but worthwhile "Value Package #1", including air conditioning, floor mats, and power windows, door locks, and mirrors. Those are the items that most improve the comfort, convenience, and value of a car. And, so equipped, the Camry CE is a very pleasant vehicle. A well-designed instrument panel, convenient interior storage spaces and a large, accessible trunk, supportive, grippy fabric-covered front bucket and split folding rear bench seats make the Camry CE a good all-around family sedan. Uncommon attention to small details is apparent. The ignition key goes into the dash, away from the driver's knee, and visor extensions help keep glare at bay. The Camry CE has few frills, but is in no way deficient in important parameters like quality, comfort, and convenience.
SAFETY: All 1999 Toyota Camrys have 3-point harnesses for all seating positions, front seat belt pretensioners and force limiters, front and rear crumple zones, and side-impact protection door beams.
ROADABILITY: As is the case with other Camrys, a rigid chassis structure and good use of soundproofing make the CE a very civilized vehicle. Although the CE is the entry-level Camry, Toyota has not cut corners on basic handling abilities and quietness. It has the solid feel of a much more expensive car. The CE's suspension is tuned for soft comfort, but it handles daily driving chores well.
PERFORMANCE: The 2.2-liter, twincam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine found in the Camry CE combines power, smoothness, and good fuel economy. Typically of Toyota engines, it has great low-rpm torque. Consequently the CE is not much slower than one of its V6- powered brethren around town. Acceleration at highway speeds is less than that of a V6, but the 4-cylinder is in no way underpowered for its mission in life. The electronically-controlled four-speed automatic shifts quickly and smoothly.
CONCLUSIONS: The "entry-level" Toyota Camry CE has the feel, finish, and quiet solidity of a much more expensive car. It's simple, but done right.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 17,838 Price As Tested $ 19,444 Engine Type dual overhead cam, 16 valve inline 4- cylinder Engine Size 2.2 liters / 132 cu. in. Horsepower 133 @ 5200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 147 @ 4400 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 105.2 in. / 188.5 in. Curb Weight 3042 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 22.9 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P195/70 SR14 Dunlop SP 40 A/S m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent dual link Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 23 / 30 / 25 0 to 60 mph 10.9 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 18.1 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.30 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Value Package #1 - includes: air conditioning, cruise control, variable intermittent wipers, power package, carpeted floor mats $ 2,186 Value Package Discount -($ 1,000) Destination charge $ 420