2001 Toyota Camry Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
One of America's most popular cars.Two-doors, coupe or convertible, and a sweet V6.
Is there a 'best-of' automotive list that DOESN'T include the top-selling Toyota Camry? For nearly 20 years the Camry has defined the family sedan. In its current iteration, the Camry offers a comfortable cabin, spacious trunk, and smooth and quiet-running engines. Plus, the Camry has a well-deserved reputation for high reliability. This is certainly a tough combination to beat.
The current model is getting a little long in the tooth. An all-new 2002 model is just around the corner. The Solara offers buyers all of the benefits of the Toyota Camry (smooth, powerful engines, quiet interiors, and rock-solid dependability) in a slick, two-door body style.
Opting for a Solara SE with the 200-hp V6 and available five-speed manual transmission gives the car a sporty edge. Or, the Solara can be ordered as a full-blown luxury coupe with leather upholstery, a concert hall sound system, and automatic climate control. Or, it can be a convertible, delivering top-down, fun in the sun.
Either way, the Solara delivers a blend of comfort, style and reliability that is tough to beat. It shares the Toyota Camry platform, offering solid value and Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability. This makes it a compelling alternative to expensive cars such as the Acura 3.2 CL, BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, and Volvo C70.
Camry is offered in three trim levels: CE, LE and XLE. The Camry is available only as a four-door sedan; the coupe and convertible versions are called the Solara, which is sold as a separate model. (Look for the nctd.com review of the Toyota Solara.)
The standard engine is a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 136 horsepower. LE V6 and XLE V6 are equipped with a 3.0-liter V6 that produces 194 horsepower. LE and XLE models come with a high level of standard equipment, but the CE offers plenty of comfort, convenience and performance at a lower price.
CE ($17,675) comes standard with a five-speed manual gearbox; an automatic brings the price to $18,475. CE does not come standard with air conditioning, so you may want Value Package #1 ($778), which adds air conditioning, variable intermittent wipers, floor mats, and power windows, door locks and mirrors.
The mid-range LE ($20,425) has proven to be the most popular of the three models. It comes standard with an automatic transmission, air conditioning, cruise control, intermittent wipers, power door locks, mirrors and windows. LE also offers a wide range of options open to buyers. Like other models, it can be equipped with either the four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine; LE V6 retails for $23,185 and comes with antilock brakes. You can also get an LE V6 with a five-speed manual transmission for $22,385.
New for 2001 is the Gallery Series for the LE. It includes unique two-tone paint and seat fabric, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, carbon fiber interior trim, chrome door lock levers and interior vents, chrome-tipped exhaust, special badging, and five-spoke aluminum wheels.
The flagship XLE ($24,095) and XLE V6 ($26,225) models add a premium JBL AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, immobilizing anti-theft device, remote keyless entry and aluminum alloy wheels. A more elegant interior with premium cloth upholstery is a big part of the XLE attraction. Value Package #2 adds leather seating surfaces and trim, a power driver's seat, an in-dash six-CD changer, side-impact air bags and a power moonroof to the XLE for $1,606 or to the XLE V6 for $1,106. XLE V6 comes with 16-inch wheels and tires in place of the 14- and 15-inch rubber on the other models. The Solara comes in three variants: an SE version with a base-level 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine; an SE version with a 3.0-liter V6; and the top-of-the-line SLE, featuring the V6, plus many standard luxury appointments (most of which are optional on the SE V6).
A five-speed manual transmission comes with the four-cylinder and SE V6 models (a four-speed automatic is an $800 option). Top-level SLEs only offer the automatic.
Solara convertibles add a rear spoiler and retractable power top with heated glass rear window. The manual transmission is not offered with the soft top models.
The Camry's exterior was slightly upgraded last year, but even with these changes this car is far from being a crowd-stopper. It's an attractive car and doesn't look stuffy, but its bland design does not break any ground and will not attract attention.
It looks substantial without casting a big shadow. Angular lines stretch the car's profile and give it presence. Minimal overhang at the front and rear of the car push the wheels to the corners, giving it a sporty, dynamic stance. At the rear, a tall, square tail provides good aerodynamics. The lever-style door handles, popular in the 1980s, are hard to grasp and can snap painfully out of your hand when you're in a hurry. The Camry's rigid body structure is designed to offer crash protection as well as form a base for smooth ride quality. What prompted Toyota to build a high-profile coupe in an era when a classic like the Buick Riviera has long disappeared? Demographics. Baby Boomers who have paid off their mortgages and watched their kids graduate from college are now ready to splurge on themselves. They're nostalgic for big, long-hooded coupes and convertibles, but aren't ready to turn their backs on practicality. Toyota calls Solara 'a well-deserved indulgence' -- exactly what it thinks these empty-nest Boomers want. Perhaps Ford shares this thinking, since a redesigned 'retro-look' T-Bird is set to hit the showrooms next year.
Solara's styling is unique. With strong character lines and a wide, aggressive rear end, the Solara is more expressive than a Camry, and more interesting to the eye. Of course, Toyota doesn't want shoppers to completely forget the Camry, or its reputation for quality. That's why this car's official name is Camry Solara.
Solara is available with a 135-hp 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine or an optional 200-hp 3.0-liter V6, both offered in the Camry. (Horsepower ratings for the convertible are slightly less.) It's built on the same 105-inch wheelbase, although Solara gets extra bracing in the front end and behind the rear seat to stiffen the chassis. It has firmer suspension settings than Camry, and a recalibrated power steering system that delivers heavier, more direct feel at the wheel. It's all intended to make Solara drive more like a sports car, and to that end Toyota offers the coupe with a five-speed manual transmission with the V6. That combo isn't available on the Honda Accord coupe or Chrysler Sebring coupe.
The base Solara SE comes well equipped, and includes power windows, mirrors and door locks, air conditioning, and an AM/FM stereo with both CD and cassette players. The SLE adds leather interior, power adjustable driver's seat, alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, and a JBL sound system. Toyota's five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty is standard for both trim lines. Like the Camry, Solara is available with optional side-impact airbags.
Comfort, convenience and a high degree of safety are among the Camry's goals. Safety starts with avoiding accidents. To that end, anti-lock brakes are standard on V6 LE and XLE models and are a $610 option elsewhere. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control of the car in a panic stop by preventing the wheels from locking up. Dual front driver and passenger air bags are standard.
Front side-impact airbags are available as an option on all Camry models for $250; side airbags are designed to help reduce the likelihood of injuries to the driver or front passenger in case of a severe side collision. Three-point seat belts are standard for all passengers including the rear center position, which is not available in all vehicles. Front seat belt pretensioners cinch the belts tight upon sensing, while impact and force-limiters reduce the belt's load on an occupant's torso to help reduce injury.
Convenience starts with the doors, all of which open wide to facilitate easier entry and exit than many other sedans. The interior is roomy, thanks to the Camry's long wheelbase. A generous amount of sound-deadening material makes the interior luxuriously quiet. The interior design and trim are pleasing, although edging on the ordinary. The flowing dash is no-nonsense, yet pleasing to the eye. It houses bright white-on-black instruments. Like most Toyotas, the Camry's controls and gauges are designed to be easy to use. All are right where you'd expect them to be and work just they way you'd expect them to work. Audio and climate control knobs are simple and within easy reach of driver or passenger.
Thoughtful amenities abound. A second power outlet is located at the bottom on the front console, next to the built-in tissue dispenser. The sun visors have extension panels. The front cupholders hold 20-ounce bottles, and the rear cupholders can take either juice boxes or cans. There are numerous storage cubbies, and a capacious glove box.
The LE seats are covered fabric and an optional power seat package (no charge) that is also available in leather ($1,710). Still, the LE's cloth seats lack support. The cloth upholstery, even in the CE, feels built for extended use, however.
All three trim levels have AM/FM/CD/cassette audio systems standard. Audiophiles will want to check out the premium JBL six-speaker setup that comes on the XLE and is optional on the LE; a six-CD changer is also available.
The trunk offers a convenient low lift height and a more than adequate storage area. We had no problem getting four golf bags loaded into the trunk; golf bags will even fit cross-wise. The rear 60/40 split seat folds forward, increasing the load hauling ability. The gooseneck hinges on the trunk lid, which intrude slightly into the cargo area, are less than ideal, however. Solara feels different from the Camry the moment you sit in the driver's seat. The dashboard hints at a cockpit-style instrument panel. It flows into the door panels, accented by a strip of tasteful faux wood trim.
In some color combinations, the plastic, vinyl and leather interior share the rich look and feel of Toyota's upscale Lexus cars. Still, there are things to quibble about. Shoulder belts are not height-adjustable. The storage bins on the door panels are a little too narrow to be really useful, and the center console could have used some of the faux wood that trims the dash.
The Solara driver looks at a crisp, legible, well-lit cluster of three gauges, with the speedometer in the center, tachometer left and the fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The stereo buttons are big and easy to find with minimal distraction; the volume and tuning dials sit closest to the driver, exactly where they should be.
Simple radial climate-control switches allow easy adjustments. The fan is a bit loud at full speed, but almost inaudible on lower settings. Solara has both a cigarette lighter and an extra power outlet. From the stalk-mounted wiper controls to the sunroof button overhead, switch placement and operation are first rate.
So are the seats. The optional leather is supple and perfectly tailored, while the seats themselves are soft enough to be comfortable yet firm enough to keep the driver from feeling lazy. The seatbacks have a memory feature, so they return to the same incline position when they're leaned forward. The front passenger seat has a toe-operated lever that slides the whole seat forward for easy access to the rear.
Even though the Solara only comes with two doors, the rear seat accommodates two 6-foot adults in reasonable comfort. Grab handles, a padded armrest and an ashtray are available for back-seat passengers. In short, accommodations are better than adequate for taking friends out for a night on the town. When it's necessary to carry oversize packages, the rear seat folds flat to expand trunk space.
The Solara convertible's headliner is covered in rich-looking fabric; it's so nicely finished that you'd be hard-pressed to know you were in a convertible.
Long days spent in the Toyota Camry fail to reveal significant faults with any aspect of the car. The Camry feels smooth, soft and comfortable around town. It isn't a sports car and floats a bit on its suspension, but it handles well and is easy to drive fast. Overall, this car is smooth and quiet, though a small amount of road vibration comes through.
The standard powerplant for the Camry is a 136-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that is remarkably smooth. A four-cylinder engine in a car this size is usually a dismal choice, but not here. Although the four-cylinder does not produce the power of the V6, it performs quite well. Toyota's 2.2-liter inline-4 is smooth and relatively free of the noise and vibration associated with four-cylinder engines. The 2.2-liter provides acceptable acceleration performance and, once up to speed, keeps the car rolling along nicely. It has to downshift more frequently, and passing on two-lane roads requires more planning than with the V6. The four-cylinder engine is economical to buy and operate, which is why 85 percent of Camry buyers opt for it. It earns an estimated EPA city/highway gas mileage rating of 24/33 mpg when equipped with the manual transmission, 23/32 mpg with the automatic.
Toyota's 194-horsepower 3.0-liter engine is one of the best V6 engines in the industry. For the extra money, you get a significantly more powerful family sedan that will accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 8.7 seconds, as opposed to about 10.9 seconds for the four-cylinder engine. It provides good smooth power with good performance for passing and accelerating briskly from intersections. Toyota recommends premium fuel (91 octane) for the V6, however, and it gets an EPA-estimated 20/27 mpg.
Opt for Toyota's four-speed electronically controlled automatic and you'll be getting an excellent transmission. The ECTi transmission mated to the V6 features an adaptive program that responds to individual driving styles. Drive more aggressively and it will delay the shift points for more spirited performance. Leisurely cruise around town and it will shift sooner for smooth, fuel-efficient performance.
Automatics in four-cylinder models do not benefit from the adaptive intelligence feature, but they do come with a little button on the gearshift lever that allows the driver to lock out overdrive. This keeps the transmission from shifting above third gear. We found it provided much better acceleration performance when winding along California's coastal roads or up and down mountain passes. We also found it helpful on many occasions heading down city streets for a quick trip to the market.
V6 models come with four-wheel disc brakes that quickly stop the Camry without drama. Four-cylinder models use drum brakes in the rear, but we experienced no brake fade with them. Traction control, which reduces front wheel spin for improved control in slippery conditions, is a $300 option for some models. When the Solara idles, the driver feels almost no vibration through the steering wheel, seats or floorboard. The only hint the car is running comes as a faint resonance in the gas pedal. Pick up steam and that silky smooth quality remains. At freeway pace, there's little wind noise in the Solara's cabin even on the windiest days. As you'd expect, the convertible model is a bit noisier inside with the top up than the coupe.
Full steam in the Solara comes in short order. With healthy torque, the V6 delivers a steady flow of acceleration. The four-speed automatic, which most Solara buyers will choose, takes full advantage of that power. Downshifts are as immediate as a jab at the gas pedal, and passing maneuvers are a breeze. Off the line, a Solara V6 automatic coupe manages 0-60 mph acceleration runs in the low 7-second range, making it one of the quickest cars in its class.
When the road changes direction sharply and frequently, the Solara bears up well. The steering is less numb than that in the Camry sedan. It's more progressive in the effort required by the driver, a little bit sharper, and quick enough to keep up with rapid direction changes.
But the Solara is not a sports car. It's basic handling characteristic is understeer -- a pushing at the front of the car the helps keep drivers without racing experience from getting in over their heads. It has more body roll, or lean through the corners, than a sports car. But it is well controlled as the car's weight shifts from side. Solara is competent on all kinds of roads, and its supple ride keeps driver and passengers comfortable in all circumstances.
For entertainment value, the manual transmission gives Solara an edge on competitors. The five-speed adds another level of driver involvement, and it quickens acceleration performance.
However, we're not as enamored of Solara's optional traction-control system, available only on the SLE model. Traction control works by limiting engine power when the drive wheels slip, and the Solara's system might be useful in climates where slippery conditions are a constant problem. Yet managing power in a front-wheel-drive automobile is less demanding than in a rear-drive car to begin with. And the Solara's system is so aggressive that it turns the car into a turtle in conditions that aren't that difficult. Fortunately, a switch allows the driver to turn it off when it's not needed.
Does Solara have that intangible quality enthusiast drivers call personality? That's a hard thing to define. Certainly, it doesn't have the spirit of performance of favorites like BMW's 3-Series coupe. On the other hand, compared to some of the vanilla-flavored cars from staid Toyota, the Solara has personality. It doesn't beg to be driven like a race car, but it doesn't wilt under pressure, either.
Solara can get the blood pumping fast enough to more than satisfy most drivers. The Honda Accord coupe, Solara's most obvious competitor, has slightly more responsive steering, yet it doesn't feel as substantial as the Solara. And compared to the Chrysler Sebring coupe, or just about any car in the class, the Solara is smoother and quieter.
The Solara convertible's top operation is very simple. To lower the top, lower the sun visors, release two latches near the top corners of the headliner, and press and hold the 'open' button on the center console. The front- and rear quarter-windows conveniently lower automatically when the top is lowered (but do not automatically go back up when you raise the top). A semi-hard plastic boot allows you to cover the retracted convertible top and gives the Solara a clean, finished look. Successfully attaching it, however, requires a fair amount of tugging and tucking it in and around the rubber seals near the back of the rear section of the passenger compartment. Most times we didn't bother with it.
The Toyota Camry is a smart choice. While some sedans offer more style or better performance, the Camry will leave you with the feeling that you made a wise decision. This car is easy to drive and live with and you'll enjoy years of easy, trouble-free operation. Toyota vehicles historically hold a resale value well beyond the competition and are leaders in terms of quality, durability and reliability. That's why the Camry is a perennial favorite among mid-size sedans.
As the launch of the all-new 2002 Camry approaches look for special pricing and financing on the 2001 models. The success or failure of coupes and convertibles probably depends less on fads or trends in the auto market and more on how well a particular car is executed.
The Camry Solara is well executed. It's solid, roomy and reasonably fun to drive. Anyone seeking the mix of looks, performance and practicality that defines a good coupe or convertible should have Solara on their shopping list.
Of course, this ticket can be expensive. The Solara SLE we tested cleared $27,000, including preferred options like an in-dash six-CD changer, traction control and a power moonroof. A top-of-the-line SLE convertible with similar options (less the moonroof, of course) will set you back over $32,000.
It's up to the buyer whether Toyota's reputation for quality is worth the price premium.
CE 5-speed manual ($17,675); CE 4-speed automatic ($18,475); LE 4-speed automatic ($20,415); XLE 4-speed automatic ($24,095); LE V6 5-speed manual ($22,385); LE V6 4-speed automatic ($23,185); XLE V6 4-speed automatic ($26,225). SE 4-cylinder ($18,965); SE V6 ($21,675); SLE V6 ($26,165); SE 4-cylinder convertible ($25,095); SE V6 convertible ($28,035); SLE V6 convertible ($30,515).
Georgetown, Kentucky; Toyota City, Japan. Cambridge, Ontario.
Options As Tested
Side airbags ($250); traction control ($300); floor mats ($93). Traction control ($300); in-dash CD changer ($200); front side-impact airbags ($250); power moonroof ($900).
Camry LE V6 ($23,185). Solara SLE ($25,165).
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