Options dress up Toyota's mid-size contender
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Clean styling, spacious interior and comfortable ride mark the Camry, Toyota's entry in the mid-size affordable family car market.

Once upon a time, Japanese automobile manufactures brought America's Big Three car companies to their knees with a mere handful of simple cars and trucks. When the Arab Oil Embargo created lengthy gas lines in the 1970s, buyers turned to the small selection of vehicles from Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Isuzu and Subaru to fight back. Not only did they get better mileage than cars and trucks from Detroit, they were less expensive, more reliable and came with a respectable list of standard features, including gauge packages, reclining front bucket seats and radios you didn't have to pay extra for.

But in hindsight, the selection was pretty skimpy. The cars and trucks came in two basic sizes, small and only a little bit bigger. Styling was simple to the point of plain. Interior materials were flimsy. And performance was anemic, at best.

Times change, though, and now the Japanese manufacturers are competing in every market niche from compacts to mid-size cars and full-size pickups. And no longer is every model offered with a complete set of standard features. Like the American companies they humbled more than 30 years ago, the Japanese manufacturers offer cars with a dizzying array of trim levels and options.

Our test 2011 Toyota Camry is a case in point. It is one of seven cars offered by Toyota this year. That's more than all the Japanese cars put together when Jimmy Carter was first elected President. It is also a far larger vehicle than any of the earliest Toyotas. Except for the station wagon versions, none were much larger than the Yaris subcompact, the company's smallest car today.

The Camry is Toyota's entry in the highly competitive mid-size family car market that includes the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima and Suzuki Kizashi. It slots in between Toyota's perennially best-selling Corolla compact and the full-size, more luxurious Avalon. The differences between these three cars are not as great as such classifications once meant, however. All three are small enough on the outside to maneuver easily through city traffic, but large enough on the inside to carry four to five people in comfort. In comparison, in the 1970s, the full-size Chevrolet Impala was about twice as large as the compact Vega.

In fact, in XLE trim, it's easy to forget the Camry is not Toyota's luxury car. Our test model came with power everything, including windows, front seats and moon roof. All the seats and door panels were leather trimmed, while the front seats were also heated. The JBL, eight-speaker stereo system was awesome. The dual zone climate system allowed the driver and front seat passenger to find their perfect settings. And the wood grain trim added a touch of class.

Just about the only thing that reminded us the Camry is not Toyota's top-of-the-line car was the engine. Our test model came with the base 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine. It produces 169 horsepower and was more than adequate under most circumstances but felt strained on steep hills. A 285-horsepower V6 is available that is the strongest engine currently offered in the affordable mid-size market. A hybrid version is also available for those concerned about maximizing fuel economy.

On the road, our test Camry XLE was, well, we'd be lying if we used words like 'sporty,' 'exciting,' 'thrilling' or even 'interesting.' Instead, the words that come to mind are 'pleasant,' 'comfortable,' 'secure,' and 'predictable.' Toyota is aiming at families with the Camry, not boy racers or anyone going through a mid-life crisis. So the suspension is tuned to absorb bumps, the steering is numb and the six-speed transmission slides gently between gears. Although it has a manual sift mode, we doubt that many buyers will use it very often.

The styling is modern and clean, but subdued. The wide corporate grill flows into narrow headlights above a low air dam. The rest of the car is undistinguished, however. Not unattractive but not striking. The interior is clean and logically laid out, with easy-to-read gauges, large knobs for basic functions like stereo volume and temperature, and an assortment is cup holders and hidden compartments. Large windows allow for good visibility and let in a lot of light, even when the shade is drawn on the moon roof.

Adding to its family appeal, all versions of the Camry come with a lengthy list of safety features. They include antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag. The structural integrity is also first-rate. In crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Camry earned a perfect five stars in all frontal and side impact categories. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave it the top rating of "Good" in its frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. And the trunk is huge.

Although our test XLE was relatively unexciting, a sportier version is available. The Camry SE features a stiffer suspension, a bigger air dam, lower body moldings and a retuned 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 196 horsepower. The stronger V6 is also available with it.

With a beginning price of just under $20,000, the 2011 Camry should appeal to families looking for comfortable and safe - if a little dull - transportation. Our just-about fully loaded test model topped $29,000, which might prompt some buyers to consider jumping up to the larger Avalon, which starts at just a few thousand more.

Come to think of it, that was a trick American manufacturers used to move buyers up from mid-size to full-size cars in the past, too.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Camry XLE

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Mid-size sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive

• Style: Four-door.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline 4 cylinder (169 hp.); 2.5-liter inline 4 cylinder (179 hp.); 3.5-liter V6 (268 hp.)

• Transmissions: 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic with manual mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 22/32.

• Price: Beginning at around $20,000 ($29,076 as tested).

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