AUSTIN, TX -- Heads will not turn when the all-new 1997 Camry drives by, and it's hard to imagine many 14-year olds will ever fall asleep dreaming of someday owning one.

"Sterile," "bland" or "an appliance" are some of the dismissive adjectives hurled at this midsize benchmark by some hardbitten gearheads.

But ask any engineer on a competing midsize car program, and it's a different story. Seeing a new Camry just four years after the current version hit the market is like an Olympic sprinter learning he's torn a hamstring just before he runs against Michael Johnson.

"It's a car we all want to emulate," says Gary White, General Motors Corp.'s vehicle line executive in charge of the Buick Century/Regal and Chevrolet Lumina/Monte Carlo. "It's kind of like a decathlon champion. It may not win every event, but it finishes high enough in every category to post the best overall score. It's what our (Chevrolet) Impala and (Oldsmobile) Cutlass were in the '60s and '70s."

Not only has Toyota raised the industry's benchmark, but with aggressive cost-cutting and 20% of its projected U.S. sales to be imported from Japan (a stronger dollar could push that percentage higher) Camry eventually could challenge Ford Taurus and Honda Accord as the best-selling car in the U.S.

"Many auto writers have noted that the Camry is an unspectacular car ... that it does everything with near-perfect precision and grace," says Camry Chief Engineer Kosaku Yamada. "I've always considered that evaluation to be a supreme compliment for a five-passenger family car."

The new Camry, due out in mid- to late-September, is roomier, quieter, lighter, faster, safer and slightly more fuel efficient than the one it replaces.

To the horror of competitors, the new Camry also is expected to be slightly more affordable than its pricey predecessor. Just how much lower is the subject of much speculation. Industry experts who have examined Camry's cost reductions and compared them with the car's numerous added costs and features -- such as new safety features and standard antilock brakes -- say a substantially reduced sticker is unlikely.

J. Davis Illingworth, senior vice president and general manager of the Toyota Div. of the automaker's U.S. sales unit, emphatically says rumors of the new Camry being priced $1,500 less are wrong. However, he won't give a hint as to what the real pricing may be. That's expected to be announced shortly before the car goes on sale later this month.

Costs were siphoned out in dozens of areas from the bumpers to the headliner. What's more, slightly more engineering and parts sourcing was done in the U.S., but the North American content of the Camrys assembled in Georgetown, KY, remains a tad below 75%.

In fact, Toyota brags that the '97 Camry is the first true 50/50 joint engineering effort between the Toyota Motor Corp. (TMC) engineering dept. in Japan and the Toyota Technical Center (TTC) U.S.A. Inc. in Ann Arbor, MI. TMC was responsible for developing the basic platform and underpinnings (chassis, suspension and powertrain), while TTC developed the rest of the vehicle.

Chief Engineer Yamada likens the development to building the new Camry under one roof that stretched from Toyota City, Japan, to Ann Arbor. For nearly 18 months he commuted back and forth every two weeks.

TTC and Toyota's manufacturing plant in Kentucky also worked closely with North American suppliers to develop simpler, less costly parts than those used on the previous-generation Camry, Mr. Yamada says.

Most of the cost-cutting will be invisible to car buyers. The number of parts on the new bumpers was reduced from 20 to 13, and the number of fasteners from 53 to 15, significantly chopping production and assembly costs. The new bumpers also weigh 40% less, yet their crash rating actually was improved from 2.5 mph to 5 mph (4 to 8 km/h) compared with the previous generation.

"We're nervous when we hear people talk about us `decontenting' this car because we actually added many features that aren't in the current one," says David Benedict, TTC general manager-vehicle evaluation. "There's an overhead console where customers can put a sunglasses holder or a garage door opener. There's a rear-seat cupholder."

Contrary to some speculation, there are no side air bags, something the 1997 Cadillac DeVille and all Saturn models will have. "Their effectiveness is still being debated, but we improved side-impact protection by adding more energy-absorbing material in the doors," says Michael Sweers, manager of engineering design.

The most unpleasant example of cost-cutting a Ward's reporter could find was Toyota's use of a metal bar to hold open the hood on up-level '97 models instead of the gas springs used on the '96s. The gas springs allow the hood to be opened with less effort, and then automatically hold it open. On the new Camry, you have to hold the hood up with one hand, and then use your other hand to unhook the bar from the front of the engine compartment and prop open the lid.

It's a typical setup on the lowest-priced economy cars, but a bit disconcerting on a sedan whose top versions likely will soar past $25,000. Even so, this one bit of stinginess probably won't be a deal-breaker. Many Camry owners go months -- or even years -- without lifting the hood once.

On the opposite side of the ledger are numerous features and improvements that add cost -- and weight. These range from increased use of sound-damping materials, to a stiffer, redesigned body that exceeds all foreseeable U.S., European and Japanese crash-test criteria for passenger safety. Antilock brakes also are standard on all except the base 4-cyl. CE model. And traction control is available for the first time on a Toyota frontdrive car.

"We tried to give the car a little more of an American flavor," says David Baxter, general manager for chassis and electrical design at Toyota's Ann Arbor technical center. "So we decided to put in an overhead console and add a rear seat cupholder."

Mr. Yamada originally planned to cut the curb weight of the fourth generation Camry by 110 lbs. (50 kg). Adding additional reinforcements to comply with global safety standards added 77 lbs. (35 kg) to the car's structure, but that still allowed him to bring the new car to market 20 to 35 lbs. (9-16 kg) lighter than the current model, depending on options chosen.

Under the hood, Toyota didn't skimp either, equipping '97 Camrys with higher-output versions of the same standard twin-cam 16-valve 4-cyl., and optional four-cam, 24-valve all-aluminum V-6 engines offered in last year's models. Quashing another rumor, Toyota officials say balance shafts were not removed from the 4-cyl. engine to save costs; they're still in there.

However, thanks to intake and exhaust manifold modifications, the standard 2.2L four banger now produces 133 hp (130 in California), eight more than last year. V-6 output is 194 hp and 209 ft.-lbs. (283 Nm) of torque; that's 6 more horsepower and 6 more ft.-lbs. (8 Nm) than last year.

Preliminary zero-to-60 performance for the V-6 with manual is a healthy 7.6 seconds, 8.7 seconds with automatic transmission. The 4-cyl. provides more sedate -- but surprisingly smooth -- 0-60 acceleration of 9.9 and 10.9 seconds, respectively. Based on figures provided by Toyota, the new automatic V-6 is only slightly faster than the old Camry, but the I-4 is substantially faster.

The chassis features a fine-tuned version of the same basic design from the previous generation: MacPherson strut front/independent dual-link rear suspension components are mounted on bushed subframes, which help reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Steering is power-assisted rack-and-pinion.

Overall the new Camry is slightly larger in every exterior dimension, the most significant of which is a 2-in. (5-cm) longer wheelbase. But interior space is cut by 1 cu. ft. (.03 cu. m) to 111 cu. ft (3.14 cu. m.)

The interior also has been redesigned, featuring easier access to controls, more luxurious-looking seats and -- of course -- that backseat cupholder.

It's all integrated into a very prim, unassuming package.

"My appreciation for the music of Miles Davis has a lot to do with ... the effortless ease with which he is able to create perfection in such a reserved and controlled fashion," says Mr. Yamada. "Far from overpowering, the new Camry has been enriched and refined by making it simpler, smoother and more efficient."