I would be delighted to tell you that the all-new 2002 Toyota Motor Corp. Camry is a rollicking, rollercoaster of a car to drive. That would fill in the final blank on Camry's job application for Best Car In The World. The Camry, after all, is every competing automaker's benchmark for engineering, build quality, refinement. All-around goodness.

But Camry's never been emotional — either to look at or to drive. The previous-generation car (1997-2001) took Camry to the pinnacle of blandness, as a matter of fact, and became the poster child for the ultimate expression of auto-as-appliance.

So it is with not-unexpected disappointment that I say the new Camry is NOT fun to drive. The 4-cyl./manual transmission combo is interesting and maybe mildly engaging, but never fun. Certainly not Nissan Altima fun.

I particularly feel for chief engineer Kosaku Yamada, as ardent and painstaking a car-developer as you'd care to meet. He's been doing the Camry for 10 years (which, coincidentally, is how long it's been since the car resided on an all-new platform). In that decade, Mr. Yamada has produced the most consistently ideal car in the market — and yet that last degree of perfection, emotion — continues to be ever-elusive.

It's not that Mr. Yamada and his team didn't try. There's a new, sporty trim level (SE), the car does markedly improve upon the pathetically plain sheetmetal of the outgoing model and there's lots of talk about a newfound sensuality. But at the end of the day, the 2002 Camry just isn't remotely exciting. It's as if the quality just isn't encoded in the namplate's DNA.

As mentioned above, any remote emotiveness comes from the 4-cyl./5-speed manual driveline. Because the all-new 2.4L I-4 (with “intelligent” variable valve timing, essentially the same engine as given in the base Highlander) now uses an aluminum block, it's some 58 lbs. (26 kg) lighter than the outmoded 2.2L 4-cyl. (General Motors Corp. made the iron blocks for that one, incidentally).

The 157-hp flyweight engine and 5-speed manual are enjoyable enough, particularly when one throws in the firmer dampers and tighter steering of the SE trim. Step up to the 3L DOHC V-6 and you get 192 hp (same as before) but with added refinement and a 4-speed automatic only. The V-6's added weight effectively quells whatever fun sensations emanate from the 4-cyl./5-speed driveline.

No, as usual, what's cool about the Camry is the ridiculously deep engineering. Mr. Yamada proudly outlines the fact that the Camry's engineering and design process focused on what many may have believed was an impossible ideal: zero engineering changes after production specifications (drawings) were complete.

The process yielded a program that cut the total number of prototypes by 65%. A new advanced-prototype machine cut more than 3,200 components directly from CAD images, making plastic prototypes that eliminated prototype tooling for any of those components. All this and other rather amazing design and manufacturing process improvements took place in the scant 26 months Toyota says it took to start production after design freeze.

Or consider other numerous unseen details: engines mounted directly on their longitudinal axis to reduce NVH; aramid-reinforced polymer gears drive the AZ-series 4-cyl.'s balance shaft, eliminating adjusting shims and cutting noise; a new-style starter motor that's 15% more powerful yet 30% smaller; the automatic is fully internally “underdriven,” an increasingly important but esoteric design parameter that markedly reduces internal friction, and one of the more serious applications of body electric multiplexing that we've yet seen.

Jeez, if all that sounds a little dry, it really isn't, because it comes together to make a package that at once manages to be larger, quieter, quicker and more economical than the previous-generation car. And that one, as you know, already was close enough to perfect to be every mainstream manufacturer's benchmark.

Unfortunately, CAD + CAE

2002 Toyota Camry SE I-4
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 2.4L (2,362 cc) DOHC I-4; aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net): 157 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.6:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 88.4 × 96
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/5-speed manual
Wheelbase: 107.1 ins. (272 cm)
Overall length: 189.2 ins. (481 cm)
Overall width: 70.7 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height: 58.3 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 3,351 lbs. (1,520 kg)
Market competition: Ford Taurus; Honda Accord; Mazda 626; Nissan Altima;