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Toyota Camry

Toyota

Review

##toycam--right##THE Toyota Camry has gained quite a following over its 21-year history. One of the world's most popular cars, sales have reached seven million, and in the US - where five million have been sold - the Camry has been the best-selling saloon car for the last four years.

Why, then, is Toyota expecting to sell a total of 6,000 new Camrys in Europe next year, with UK sales expected to be a modest 'several hundred'?

The Camry competes in a strange sector of the market in the UK. In terms of size, it is on a par with the BMW 5-series, Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-class and Jaguar S-type. But without a premium badge to compete with the best Europe can offer, the Camry is priced against other big saloons from volume manufacturers, like the Vauxhall Omega and Peugeot 607.

So the new Camry comes to the UK with two new petrol engines and high equipment levels, and with about two- thirds of sales expected to go to fleets, highly competitive projected running costs.

With the appeal of driving a car with a premium badge - despite modest equipment levels - being greater than a value-for-money car from a volume manufacturer, Toyota rightly has restricted expectations for the vehicle in the fleet arena.

Jon Pollock, general manager for fleet, says that realistically the bulk of corporate business will be where companies have solus deals with Toyota and need a top-of-the-range vehicle for senior staff.

But he also thinks the new Camry is in a competitive position against its main rivals from Peugeot and Vauxhall: 'Because of the numbers we sell globally, the Camry justifies far more investment by Toyota than perhaps the Peugeot 607 and Vauxhall Omega would from their respective manufacturers. It means Toyota can build a better car for a lower price.'

'Company car drivers concerned about carbon dioxide emissions will be better off in a 2.4-litre Camry than in an equivalent Peugeot 607 and Vauxhall Omega, and running costs will also be lower.'

The new Camry, while understated, looks a little more distinctive than the previous model, and although nearly three inches taller than before is sleeker than a Vauxhall Omega. However, it isn't as handsome as a Peugeot 607.

The interior is huge and comfortable, with ample headroom and legroom, both front and rear, and the boot is massive despite getting narrower the deeper in you go. Electrically adjustable front seats are standard across the range as well as automatic climate control, six airbags, automatic headlamps and rain-sensitive windscreen wipers.

Although comfortable, I was disappointed to find the steering wheel was only adjustable for rake and not reach. Toyota also claims the car has been tuned for European handling tastes, with stiffer springs and a different anti-roll bar, but I am always suspicious of such pronouncements where the car is primarily geared-up for the largely straight, flat roads of North America.

And it now seems unusual that manufacturers launch a new range of petrol engines which do not comply with Euro IV regulations. It's true there are a few years to go before the regulations become law, and it is unlikely to persuade a buyer one way or the other, but it seems strange that the new 2.4 and 3.0-litre engines are only Euro III compliant.

Camry project manager Hiroyuki Hirata said Euro IV compliance was unnecessary at present, and having Euro III engines was a way of keeping costs down.

Likewise the automatic transmission - a four-speed unit is offered when five-speed autos are becoming more common. Hirata said while a five-speed auto would improve fuel consumption, the four-speed suits the nature of the engines better and reduces the number of gearshifts.

After I spent time stroking an imaginary beard I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and wait until I drove the car. Its main strengths, according to Toyota, would be its value, refinement and space.

During our test route in the south of France I spent time behind the wheel of the range-topping V6 as well as the manual entry-level 2.4 GLS.

The V6 is almost Lexus-like in its silence at idle, and there are a few touches in the cabin that echo Toyota's premium brand. The quality of the leather trim is similar and the parking brake is foot-operated. The driving experience is different, however.

While a GS300 has a firm ride, the Camry is supple and soft - excellent for travelling in a straight line, but show it a series of corners and things become less pleasant. There is significant body roll, despite the stiffer suspension, and after a series of quick bends, the Camry took time to settle back into level behaviour.

The steering is too light for robust cornering, offering very little in the way of feedback, and the tall front tyres begin to squeal at about 5mph slower than you would expect when tackling tight hairpins.

The 3.0 V6 has vehicle stability and traction control as standard, which might come in useful in an emergency, but I had no desire to push the car to its limits to try it. I'm sure typical Camry drivers won't either.

The 2.4 is almost as quiet as the V6, and in GLS manual guise, the Camry does without leather trim and a CD autochanger. However, the 150bhp unit is punchy and never comes across as harsh, even when revved hard.

The car displays the same handling and ride characteristics as the 3.0-litre, and is also a refined cruiser - covering motorway miles just as effortlessly.

The Camry has a difficult job in Europe, performing a role as a range-topping saloon in the shadow of the Lexus brand. It cannot hope for greater success in the UK than the previous model merely with a recipe of refinement, value and space. Competence in these areas is all very well, but a successful car must do better.

Although the 2.4-litre performs well against the Peugeot 607 and Vauxhall Omega - particularly as a company car tax proposition - a little more money would buy an Alfa Romeo 166, Volvo S80 or a Saab 9-5.

The Camry is not a bad car, and is a pleasant driving companion. But in a sector that has been shrinking for so long, and with several more characterful choices lining up against the Camry 3.0 V6, Toyota cannot hope to win many conquest sales.

We would probably choose the 2.4 over an equivalent Peugeot 607 and Vauxhall Omega for tax reasons, but to compete only against such cars shows a lack of ambition when we see what Toyota has been capable of with Lexus.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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