It's no mystery that the Toyota Camry has long been an American favorite. It's reliable, comfortable, reasonably safe, easy to drive and reasonably priced -- and backed by Toyota's recall-tarnished but still strong reputation.
What more can you ask? Well, a little pizzazz would be nice; on the road Camrys are the drab background for other more stylish family sedans like the Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and, especially, the new Hyundai Sonata. Like the almost-as-popular Honda Accord, the Camry seems designed not to offend rather than to delight.
Prices for 2011 start at $20,580 with freight and range up to $29,323, but beware of dealers trying to take advantage of a shortage created by the March earthquake/tsunami in Japan.
Most buyers opt for the four-cylnder engine, and it's easy to see why. New for the 2010 model year, it delivers all the standing-start acceleration and passing power you'll need, even with four adults aboard. The only time you'll wish for more torque is when hauling up a long hill at interstate speeds with a full load of passengers and cargo. Note that an available V-6 is government estimated to get 2 mpg fewer in the city, or 20, and 3 mpg fewer on the highway, or 29, than the four-cylinder.
Stick shift is available in four-cylinder versions; it adds 1 mpg in highway driving. (There's also a hybrid Camry, estimated at 31 mpg and 35 mpg city/highway and discussed in this space March 11, 2010)
The LE that I sampled is the most popular variant, but note that it does not come with a power-operated passenger seat, heated front seats, sunroof, a satellite-capable radio or leather upholstery. It does come with a power driver's seat and with power windows and locks, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, anti-lock brakes, stability control, emergency "brake assist" and seven air bags, including one for the driver's knees.
For a little sportiness in your Camry, consider an SE, which gets a version of the four-cylinder engine that delivers 10 hp. more, or 179, and has firmer springs and shocks, thicker stabilizer bars, wider tires on larger wheels and a few other functional and cosmetic items.
The Camry has a better-than-average rating for reliability from Consumer Reports. It is deemed "good" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but it gets a just-OK federal rating under the new, tougher criteria that took effect for 2011.
2011 Toyota Camry
Engine: 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder, 169 hp.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Safety: Seven air bags, including driver's knee; 4-wheel disc brakes w/anti-lock, stability control and brake assist; tire pressure monitor; daytime running lamps; fog lamps.
Place of assembly: Georgetown, Ky.
Trunk: 15 cubic feet
EPA fuel economy estimates: 22 mpg city; 32 mpg highway
Price as driven: $23,735, including freight
Bottom line: No wows, no groans.