The ads say "better than ever." Because the Toyota Camry has become the standard that other automobile makers measure their family sedans against, I set out recently to see if the all-new 1997 Camry really was an improvement. After all, when Toyota launched the car this past September, it cut prices across the line. The base model now goes for $16,398, some $610 cheaper than a 1996 Camry with the same equipment. The price of the upscale XLE V-6 model was slashed by $1,745 to $24,018. But if Toyota is cutting any corners to get a more competitive price, you're not likely to notice them.

What you will notice is that the Camry is a sportier-looking automobile. The once vertical grille now thrusts forward, giving the car a pointier nose. And the rear is no longer a high, rounded haunch. Instead, it's been chopped off, making the Camry resemble some European luxury automobiles. It looks even more sporty with the optional spoiler, a $445 accessory that mounts on top of the trunk. I don't usually like these aerodynamic gadgets, but this particular model makes the car look better.

TEMPTING TRADE. These are small changes, of course. The folks at Toyota aren't about to mess with a successful design. Inside, you will find the alterations are equally subtle, and mostly aimed at giving current Camry owners a reason to trade up to the new model. In fact, some of the new features are quite clever, and are designed to let buyers customize the car to their own needs. There's an overhead storage area up by the map lights, for example, that comes with two interchangeable covers. One lid is designed for conveniently storing a garage door opener, while the other can hold your sunglasses. And if you don't need a rear-seat ashtray, you can replace that with a cup holder that has a number of different ring shapes, including one that will hold juice boxes for the kids.

On the center console, the radio has been moved above the air-conditioning controls, a long-awaited change for those who feel the previous configuration endangered drivers who constantly fiddle with the audio buttons. Now they can (almost) keep their eye on the road as well. Toyota also added a second 12-volt outlet, besides the cigarette lighter, for plugging in cellular phones, compact-disk players, and the like. The seats are noticeably more comfortable, especially in the rear, and Toyota has used more expensive fabrics and leather on most models.

On the road, the new Camry is the same well-behaved machine. Toyota has boosted the horsepower of the standard 2.2 liter, 4-cylinder engine from 125 to 133 horse power. At 194 HP, the optional V-6 can go from 0 to 60 mph in a zippy 7.6 seconds. The so-called cowl line, where the glass of the windshield and windows meets the metal of the doors and hood, is lower. That change gives the interior a more spacious feel. More important, it means there's a better view of the road ahead. Toyota has also added sound-dampening foams and resins throughout the car to isolate you from engine and road noise, and it widened the rain gutters above the windows to cut down on wind noise.

So what did Toyota leave out to get its price cuts? Take a closer look up front. The running lamps, formerly mounted in the bumper, are now part of the headlight assembly, reducing parts and labor. The once separate grille is now part of the bumper. That simplified bumper, by the way, is a bit safer. It can now withstand 5 mph crashes, instead of the slower 2.5 mph collisions that the old bumper could handle. The seat-recline mechanism is cheaper to build, but it is continuous rather than step-by-step. The new Camry's mechanical odometer is now digital, cheaper, and more tamperproof, not to mention that there are two trip meters instead of one. And don't even ask about the clips that hold the plastic scuff plate to the threshold of the car. (O.K., they're painted instead of zinc-plated, which amounts to a saving of 5 cents each.)

WEAK YEN. All this adds up to big price cuts, changes that Toyota hopes will make the No.3 Camry the best-selling car in the U.S. The irony is that, unlike America's Big Three, Toyota is trying to disguise exactly how much it is cutting prices. The carmaker may not want the Big Three to complain to Washington politicians about how the weak yen is allowing Japanese auto makers to drop sticker prices. It says, for example, that its best-selling, four-cylinder mid-range LE model, at $19,868, is 4.3% cheaper. But the truth is if you had tried to buy that model with the same equipment last year, it would have cost you $21,568. So that works out to more like an 8% price break. The main reason: Antilock brakes, which cost $1,100 last year, now are standard on all but the base model.

That's still no bargain. But the new sticker price puts the Camry within a few dollars of the smaller Honda Accord or the Ford Taurus, which both currently outsell it. My hunch is the all-new Camry, with its all-new prices, is bound to change all that.

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