Oomph, Elegance, Silence: Surprise! It's A Camry

You might call it Toyota's bargain luxury car. You get in, crank the starter, and there it is--the almost eerie hush that has become the hallmark of the company's Lexus models.

But this is no Lexus. It's the Toyota Camry, which for 1992 has grown from a boxy, practical compact into a quieter, more stylish midsize car. It's longer, taller, and wider than its predecessor--which translates into 15% more interior space and pits it grill-to-grill against the Honda Accord and the Ford Taurus, America's two most-popular cars.

It's no secret that Toyota wants to unseat the Accord as the best-seller. And the new Camry is a car that could do it. An optional V-6 engine has more oomph than the Taurus V-6 and is quieter to boot. And shifts of the automatic transmission are imperceptible--something neither competitor can boast.

The Camry shares the same basic chassis, engine, and suspension with the Lexus ES 300 sedan, introduced last fall. More important, Toyota engineers have made extensive use of vibration- and sound-deadening techniques developed for the Lexus, such as steel-asphalt-steel floor and wheelwell panels and fluid-filled engine mounts. They've also halved the tolerances on the fit of body panels, to 1.5 millimeters. Among other things, that lessens wind noise.

Technology doesn't come cheap. Sticker prices are up more than 10%, starting at $14,368 and running above $20,000 for the top-of-the-line XLE model. Some of that difference washes out with options-turned-standard, such as air conditioning and body-color bumpers, and the inclusion of driver's-side air bags. Besides, even after popping for optional leather seats and antilock brakes, you can expect to save about five grand over a comparably equipped Lexus ES 300.

MORE TO COME. And you'll get a superb, elegant car. It's not quite as sporty as its Lexus brethren. But after all, the Camry is a family sedan. Still, Toyota plans to extend the Camry line both ways, with a sportier SE version coming this month and a roomy wagon later this spring.

When Lexus was unveiled 2 1/2 years ago, its engineers promised that the innovations would trickle down to the Toyota brand. The new Camry proves they weren't kidding.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.