The Toyota Camry is a car most people never think about — not even the nearly 10 million owners who fire up the mid-size sedan’s ignition each and every morning on their way to work.
That’s because all the Camry does is win, posting industry-leading sales numbers year after year as Toyota’s most compelling success story.
How did the current Camry evolve to its current status as the ruler of all family sedans? Check out our timeline charting the progression of the Toyota Camry from challenger to champion.
1983-1986: Growing Pains
The Camry name is a rough porting of the Japanese word for Crown (kanmuri), with the latter having graced important Toyota sedans since the mid-1950s. After spending a few years wandering the wastelands of its home market’s compact segment under the Celica Camry banner, the Toyota Camry as we now know it went on sale in America as a 1983 model. Labeled internally with the code “V10,” the Camry sedan and its hatchback lineup mate offered a front-wheel-drive layout matched with the choice between a 1.8-liter or 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, with output for the larger motor peaking at 95 horsepower by 1985. There was even a short-lived turbodiesel model, which used a standard five-speed manual gearbox (gas cars could option a four-speed automatic).
In some ways, the shift from rear-wheel-drive Corona to front-wheel-drive Camry was instigated by Honda’s success in the U.S. with the Accord, which had debuted a few years earlier. Toyota pushed out the Camry’s dimensions so that it was bigger and more comfortable at all seating positions than the vehicle that would become its biggest rival. Fun fact: Toyota also worked hard at the beginning of the ’80s to convince Ford to work together on vehicle development, even going so far as to suggest that the Camry be built at a Ford plant. Blue Oval leadership declined the offer, and the Camry would go on to sell close to 130,000 examples in its first two years of production.
1987-1991: Learning The Ropes
Still square and mechanically mostly the same — save for a move to a 16-valve version of its 2.0-liter engine that was capable of producing 115 horsepower, and internal improvements to the optional autobox — the second-generation Toyota Camry that debuted as a 1987 model focused on refinement, rather than revolution. The car’s body became more aerodynamic, a wagon joined the lineup for the first time, and buyers began to notice that Toyota was stuffing the Camry with higher-quality components and materials than what could be found in mid-size American sedans of the same era.
The 1988 model year would introduce the Camry’s first V6 engine, a 2.5-liter unit that offered 153 horsepower and dual-overhead cams. Amazingly, not only did Toyota continue to offer the manual gearbox with the V6, but it initially made it a requirement for any buyer who wanted to add All-Trac all-wheel-drive to the mix (the second-gen Camry was the only version of the car to ever be offered with all-wheel drive). The following year Toyota began building the Camry in Georgetown, Kentucky, marking off an important milestone for the Japanese automaker in its quest to solidify an American foothold.
1992-1996: Bigger, Better Camry
By the time the early ’90s rolled around, the Camry was no longer an outsider, but a regular challenger for the sleepy Detroit giants who had taken family buyers for granted throughout the past decade (with the exception of the well-received Ford Taurus sedan). The third iteration of the car got even more serious about courting Americans with a six-inch boost in overall length and a typical increase in width that helped it truly qualify for mid-size status.
Toyota also did a bit of experimentation with the redesigned Camry, briefly offering a coupe version and backing away from the boxiness of the older model. A bigger car meant larger engines were now needed, with the base 2.2-liter four-cylinder providing 130 horsepower and a new 3.0-liter V6 offering up to 188 horsepower (depending on the model year). The Camry SE would also debut for the first time in 1992 with the intention of attracting performance-seeking buyers by way of a list of handling and suspension upgrades. Additionally, the redesigned wagon was available with the option of a third row of seating. All-wheel drive, however, was gone forever.
1997-2001: The Dominator
The fourth-generation Toyota Camry is the one that cemented the automaker’s mid-size dominance for the foreseeable future. A longer wheelbase, modernized styling, and two new engines (a revised 2.2-liter four-cylinder good for 133 horses and a 194 horsepower version of the 3.0-liter V6) were the headlines for the redesigned Camry, but it was a series of constant improvements over its five-year lifespan combined with fantastic reliability that would endear this version of the sedan to family shoppers.
The wagon body style had been exiled for good, but the coupe – now called the Camry Solara – would make a comeback as a ’99 model in another attempt to buff up the sedan’s commuter car image. A convertible version appeared the year after. Neither were really necessary, however, because the Camry was by now an unstoppable sales freight train.
2002-2006: More Luxury
The Lexus brand, which had been launched partly on the back of the Camry-based ES sedan, had taught Toyota a number of important lessons when it came to maximizing profits, and this was visible in how the 2002-2006 version of the Camry was packaged. The stripped-down base model was dropped from the lineup, a brand-new 2.4-liter, 157 horsepower four-cylinder engine was added, and by 2004, the older V6 had also been replaced (by a 3.3-liter, 210-horsepower six-cylinder). The Solara coupe and convertible would make their last hurrah with this version of the Camry, too, with both bowing out by 2009 after a light restyling effort was made to keep them fresh alongside the redesigned sedan.
Still, cars from this era lost some of their luster as Toyota’s pursuit of volume at the expense of quality suddenly had owners dealing with a higher rate of problems, defects, and breakdowns than they had ever encountered on past models. It was an issue that would persist until the end of the decade before the company realized that it needed to right the ship — Camry included.
Not only did Toyota face a quality crisis that would overlap part of this generation of Camry, but it also found itself with the task of producing two separate versions of the car — the one familiar to Americans, and a more high-end model that was exported to certain overseas markets. This time, instead of making the entire car bigger, Toyota focused on improving the interior room, which led to a bigger feeling cabin with no additional length or width — the two inches of wheelbase stretch are contained within roughly the same parking spot, although the car now sat two inches taller. The Camry’s sleeker profile would soon be spotted on NASCAR starting grids, too, where the sedan made its first foray into America’s premier motorsport.
Although four-cylinder models remained untouched, a new 3.5-liter V6 generating 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque made its debut for the 2007 model year, a substantial boost in power from a motor that would hang in for the next 10 years in one form or another. You could still get a manual transmission with the four-cylinder, but five-speed automatics and even a six-speed automatic for the V6 were far more popular choices.
The biggest update to this generation Camry, aside from the styling? The introduction of a hybrid model, which represented the strategy, borrowed from Lexus, to rebrand Toyota as a purveyor of electrified transportation. With about 40 mpg available from the car in city driving, the battery-assisted Camry Hybrid made significant waves in the mid-size segment, but couldn’t attract the same level of attention as the more popular Prius compact hybrid.
See Also: 2006-2011 Used Toyota Camry Review
2012-2017: A Return To Form
Were there any worlds left for the Camry to conquer by the start of the new millennium’s second decade? Not really — although the threat of SUVs and crossovers would rise like a looming specter not long after its debut in the summer of 2011. Styling for this generation Camry was among the most eye-catching since its ’90s heyday, and the car’s new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine boosted base power to 178 horses (the V6 carried over). The long-standing manual transmission was banished from the Camry’s order sheet, with a six-speed automatic becoming standard across the board. Build quality was also boosted significantly for all versions of the sedan, with customers re-upping on a regular basis and keeping sales numbers strong.
For 2018, the Toyota Camry makes a substantial leap forward in terms of design and engineering. It now shares its underpinnings with the Prius and the CH-R, allowing the company to leverage its New Global Architecture platform across a wide range of vehicles. With up to 206 horsepower available from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 301 horsepower from its 3.5-liter V6 — both of which having been gifted with direct fuel injection — and with a 208 horsepower version of the Camry Hybrid also available, the vehicle has never fielded a more intriguing range of drivetrain choices. It’s also more style-forward than past Camry sedans, especially the extroverted Sport trim.
See Also: 2018 Toyota Camry Review
Even with all of these changes, however, the car still aims squarely for the hearts and minds of families interested in a reasonably sized, affordable daily commuter that will deliver a hundred thousand miles of worry-free driving.