Let’s face it: Nobody really wants to own a Toyota Camry, but everyone wishes their automobile was as reliable and trouble-free as one.
I’ve aspired to own many cars in my life. An old BMW E46 M3, an air-cooled Porsche 911-even if those are now impossible to afford on a journalist’s salary. Or a simple Golf GTI. Those are all fun to drive sports cars that’ll make any automotive enthusiast feel good about driving and owning them.
The Toyota Camry is not one of those cars.
Yet, there’s one sitting in my driveway right now and I don’t exactly have a problem with that. It’s my daily driver, actually, replacing the charming little Honda Civic EP3, which I gave up restoring because I’m lazy. Don’t worry, my Civic is still around, I just sold it to my dad. He takes much better care of it than I ever could.
But, a Camry? Seriously? Yes. A goddamn Camry.
This can only mean one of two things: That I’m officially an old fart, and something has gone terribly wrong. Or that the poster-child for the most boring automobile on Earth has suddenly become an object of desire. I took my car out for a spin to answer these existential questions.
(Full disclosure: My spouse and I bought a second-hand 2001 Toyota Camry XLE V6 from a kind old man. It is our year-round daily driver.)
The Toyota Camry has been a stalwart sedan here in North America for over 30 years. People like it so much that it’s currently the best-selling automobile in the U.S., somehow resisting SUV domination with over 300,000 units sold each year.
It appeared in the late 1970s, in Japan, as a variant of the Toyota Celica. We only got it at its second generation, or what Camry connoisseurs (is there even such a thing?) refer to as the V10.
Back then, the car was offered in two body styles: a five-door liftback or a four-door sedan. This new and revolutionary front-wheel-drive automobile ended up replacing the aging rear-wheel drive Toyota Corona.
The model you see here is a fourth-generation example, or also known as the XV20, sold between 1997 and 2001. A wagon variant was available in other parts of the world (I suddenly want that one too), but we never got it here.
The Toyota Solara was essentially a Camry coupe, also available as a convertible. It sold from 1999 to 2003, where it was redesigned for its second and last generation.
The gen-four Camry was powered by two very lame engines; a 130-horsepower 2.2-liter four-cylinder, or an equally lukewarm 3.0-liter V6 good for a claimed 192 horsepower and 209 lb-ft of torque. All Camrys sold on our continent were front-wheel-drive.
While four-cylinder cars could be had with a five-speed manual, the V6 only came with a five-speed automatic... with overdrive! (Update: The Canadian car was auto-only, but U.S.-specification fourth-gen Camrys actually did have a stick option.)
That’s how my car is spec’d. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
While the current Toyota Camry has finally shed off its boring beige reputation, past generations have never excited anyone. Yet, they have somehow garnered an enormous amount of respect from the automotive community.
Come rain, snow, neglect, or nuclear apocalypse (probably), these things just work.
There’s a reason why the Camry has quickly become the number one choice for cab drivers, replacing the almighty Crown Vic. Because a Camry is well put together, spacious enough, surprisingly comfortable and above all: Indestructible.
Stories of owners bringing these things well above 200,000 miles with very little repairs are common. Even when they’re beaten to shit and not maintained at all they keep on running.
What you have here is a juggernaut of a family sedan. Through its stellar dependability and affordability, the Camry has become an essential part of the American suburban landscape. It’s perfectly happy shuttling middle-class families to their daily duties, a job it fulfills remarkably well.
My example is a particularly invisible one, notably because of its Lunar Mist Metallic paint job, but also because of its plastic hub caps. For those wondering, yes, my car has the XLE’s original wheels, but since we shot it during the holidays, you’re seeing it on its winter tire and wheel package instead.
Having an XLE is rather fun, actually. Not just for the added power and torque from the V6 but also because of all the creature comforts.
Remember, this is the top-spec variant, which means it comes with a full plethora of neat features like heated power-electric leather seats, automatic headlights, a rather good-sounding JBL sound system (with both tape deck and CD player!), a power sunroof, heated mirrors and climate control with A/C.
That was actual high-end stuff at the turn of the millennium.
Samantha and I bought the car from an elderly man who had been the only owner since 2001. He always maintained his Camry at the same Toyota dealer he bought it from. A rust-proof treatment was done every Fall, and he constantly brought his car in for checkups and recalls, as per Carfax and receipts.
It’s fair to say that the car is mint, both mechanically and aesthetically. We even got a remote starter as well as a set of winter and summer tires and wheels thrown in the deal. Final price was $3,000 CAD, or roughly 2,300$ USD.
The only mechanical issue I noticed when we picked it up was the valve cover seals, a common problem on these V6 Camrys. For instance, the seals end up drying up, so they crack at around 100,000 miles. This causes the two head covers to leak oil.
You detect the problem by a thin smoke and vague smell caused by the oil leaking on the manifold.
Fixing it cost us about $300, parts and labor included. No biggy. Except for the need for a new set of rear shocks–because they’re very tired–our Camry is mechanically sound.
It currently stands at 196,000 km (121,000 miles).
Honestly, not much. I will say I was somewhat let down by the V6 engine’s performance. I don’t know why I was expecting blistering acceleration from an old Camry, but this feels kind of slow, even when compared to other cars of its era.
I say this because I used to own a 1998 Mazda 626 V6. And it was definitely quicker than this.
I guess I was expecting something a little more urgent from the Toyota 1MZ V6 unit. This is the opposite of urgent. It’s very laid back and relaxed. Not exactly what you would call sport sedan dynamics.
The audio system doesn’t catch FM channels very well, I guess that’s a downer considering you can’t connect your phone and stream your favorite Spotify playlist.
Tire roll and wind noise are rather high at freeway speeds, but that’s mostly attributed to the fact that it’s a twenty-year-old car.
Overall, nothing dramatic, actually. This is a good car! If I was a car reviewer back in the early 2000s, I’d probably blurt out some cliche like: “It’s a fine and dependable sedan”, a car that does “everything well”.
Because the Camry was first and foremost designed for daily driving, this is obviously the area where it dominates. Even if it’s getting old, I’m impressed by how smooth, comfortable and easy to operate this thing is.
The cabin’s most noteworthy asset is its visibility, a quality modern cars seem to slowly lose due to their ever-growing girth. Because this car’s beltline is so low and the A-pillar is so thin, the interior is nice and airy.
Windows appear to be larger than they actually are. And because it’s lower to the ground than most modern cars and SUVs, you feel instantly more connected to the road.
I never thought I’d one day write that in a Camry review.
Remember, this is a car that comes from a time when you actually had to twist your neck to check out your blind spots. An era where you needed a good view of what was happening out the rear-view mirror before engaging reverse.
Lazy technologies like backup cameras and blind-spot monitoring systems we’re even in people’s minds in 2001.
I’m also pleased by how rock solid this car still is after being driven on god-awful Quebec roads for two decades. There are no apparent rattles when you drive over imperfect surfaces, a testament as to how well put together these cars actually were. The leather seats are also fantastic, showing no visible signs of cracks or tears.
Meanwhile, the V6 is butter smooth and super quiet, pulling a decent 26 mpg if you run it calmly.
While my Camry was considered a midsize sedan during the Y2K bug, its proportions are more in tune with modern compact cars. It’s still rather spacious though, with ample leg and headroom out the rear too. I wouldn’t try to fit three adults back there though. That could prove a little tight.
Trunk space is also rather decent at 14 cubic feet, which is just one cube lower than a current Honda Civic sedan. That’s how much cars have grown over the years.
So when I say I’m disappointed by the Camry’s performance, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily slow. It’ll hit 60 mph from a standstill in a claimed 7.8 seconds, which, at the time, was within acceptable performance numbers for the segment. It gets the job done.
Obviously, it’s not a driver’s car. Handling is sloppy and body roll is very present. The old worn-out dampers definitely accentuate all that. The brake pedal is just as cushy as the ride and the hydraulic power steering is loose and vague with no apparent feedback. There’s nothing thrilling about flogging a Toyota Camry hard into a corner.
It honestly kind of sucks to drive hard.
But the V6 engine provides ample thrust once it picks up and goes. It always remains smooth, never too loud, even when its grabbing air full swing. The car will even lay a patch if you remove the traction control system, which is kind of fun.
This is an engine that needs to rev to produce power. Unfortunately the automatic slushbox that’s connected to isn’t the best tool to let it sing. You really need to stomp the throttle for it to wake up and actually drop a gear.
Removing the overdrive feature at least gives it a bit of a helping hand. Doing so will have it kickdown right away, placing the engine in the meat of its powerband. But this remains a laid back transmission. It simply feels bothered when you ask it to perform.
Because the fourth-generation Toyota Camry was sold in very large quantities and because we never got unique bespoke models like a wagon or a true high-performance variant, it’ll never appreciate in value.
The two-door Solara seems to be doing alright in the second-hand market, but I doubt it’ll ever become a collector’s item.
The good news is you can put your hands on a rather cheap Camry that’s still in very good shape. Prices for low-mileage XLE V6 models like mine will never really exceed $6,000. You can find a decent running and looking one with higher mileage for about three grand, as I discovered myself.
Plus, its resale value is considerably better than most sedans from that era. Except for perhaps a Honda Accord or a Volkswagen Passat, Camrys typically sell for more money than your average 20-year-old midsize.
The Camry’s legendary status as an indestructible automobile allows it to remain a good second-hand automobile. You just know you’re not going wrong when buying one.
Who knows, maybe in, say, 2o years, my old daily driver will be worth a lofty sum, but for now, these things aren’t worth much.
I’m not exactly sure how to conclude this review. The outcome is exactly how I had anticipated it: a 2001 Toyota Camry is an uninspiring car that does a fantastic job at being... A Car. The end.
As I gaze at its simple, classic, yet elegant lines, I can’t help but admire how honest and uncomplicated this automobile is. More important than that is how far the year 2001 now is, and how much the automobile has changed since.
What this tells me is that “normal” cars don’t exist anymore. Everyone wants cool, fresh and sporty now. Automotive designers have made even the most humble Kia appear like an expensive concept car. Safety regulations have morphed our inoffensive sedans into crash-resisting SUVs. And in-car technology has brought us connectivity as we’ve never experienced it before.
As great as all this progress is, it has somehow transformed the old, no fuss, lame-ass grey Camry into a rare and desirable piece.
(Correction: The Canadian car was auto-only, but U.S.-specification fourth-gen Camrys actually did have a stick option. We regret the error and confusion!)
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.