I was dumbfounded. It was a TV commercial, an ad for a 2000 Toyota Camry sedan. A Camry was speeding along a series of roads and a male voice was intoning Right Said Fred lyrics: "I'm too sexy. . . . I'm too sexy. . . ."
Did somebody change the meaning of sex? Did Toyota test consumer reaction to this car in a convent, rectory or monastery?
The car in the TV ad looked like a Camry, with a few minor tweaks front and rear. But "too sexy"? Perhaps. In the same way that PTA meetings are too sexy.
Weeks passed. A 2000 Camry LE sedan arrived. It was red. More precisely, it was what Toyota calls "vintage red pearl," a kind of creamy metallic maroon. The interior was tan with seats of cloth. The dashboard included a hooded instrument panel and a center console that seemed part oval, part rectangle.
Nearly everything within the new Camry's passenger cabin was ergonomically correct. There was nothing offensive--or exciting.
So, what's Toyota trying to do with its "too sexy" advertisement? Is it trying to capture a younger, more hip audience? Has it fallen victim to the image police? Or has it been duped by an off-point marketing pitch from an advertising firm?
Off-point? You bet.
Since its U.S. introduction in 1983, the point of a Camry has never been libido. It has been common sense.
You want a reliable family sedan at a reasonable price? Buy a Camry. You don't like flash? Buy a Camry. You like decent, mainstream, everyday styling? Buy a Camry. It has been a winning, no-brainer formula for 16 years. It's why the Camry will finish 1999 as the best-selling car in America for the third year in a row, ahead of the Honda Accord and Ford Taurus, and way ahead of other, more exotic cars that are too sexy to fit into most consumers' pocketbooks.
None of this is to say that the Camry is strictly missionary. It has its moments, especially when it is equipped with Toyota's 194-horsepower V-6 engine. This thing can move, folks. And the car has pretty darn good balance, too, especially in curves, where it performs without body sway or waddle.
The 2000 Camry essentially is running with the same suspension as the 1999 model--MacPherson struts, stabilizer bar, gas-filled shocks and anti-vibration sub-frame up front, and an independent dual link with gas-filled shocks, stabilizer bar and anti-rumble subframe in the rear.
Using standard 15-inch-diameter tires on the Camry LE also helps. The Camry XLE, which comes with 16-inch tires, offers even better grip and handling.
There were other vehicles, including the Mercedes-Benz ML-55 sport-utility model, in my driveway. So I did the common thing and ignored the just-folks Camry for a few days to play with the sexier celebrity metal. In fact, I was using the Camry as a barrier, parking it behind the fancier stuff as a kind of guard gate.
But I was in a rush one morning, and didn't have time to move around cars to get to the supermobiles. I drove off in the Camry, and happily kept driving it for the rest of the week.
Join Warren Brown tomorrow at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost. com/liveonline for "Rear Wheels," his live discussion about cars.
Nuts & Bolts; 2000 Toyota Camry
Complaints: Toyota has to do something about its options packaging and pricing, which are confusing and could turn an otherwise reasonable car payment into something more expensive.
Praise: A solid, durable, reliable, comfortable family sedan that can be had at a reasonable price if you engage in trade-offs (accept the V-6 and its related accoutrement and drop something else) and otherwise control your lust for options.
Head-turning quotient: It's still a Camry, still vanilla.
Ride, acceleration and handling: A triumvirate of excellence in the Camry LE V-6.
Brakes: Standard four-wheel discs with anti-locks in the LE V-6.
Engines: The tested 3-liter, 24-valve V-6 is designed to produce 194 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 209 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm (except in California, where tougher clean-air rules mean adding emission-control components that result in slightly less horsepower and torque).
A 136-horsepower four-cylinder engine is available, along with a standard five-speed manual transmission. Both the four-cylinder and V-6 engines can be mated to four-speed automatics.
Capacities: Seats five people. Holds 14.1 cubic feet of cargo and 18.5 gallons of fuel (premium unleaded recommended).
Mileage: About 27 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.
Price: Base price of the tested Camry LE V-6 with automatic transmission is $23,058. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $20,185. Price as tested is $23,803, including $290 in options and a $455 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: Watch those options. Compare with any mid-size family sedan.