The V20 Toyota Camry is the ultimate hand-me-down car every new driver got because their parent’s frugality was outweighed only by their aversion to shepherding their kids to and fro. Just about everyone has an experience with a run-of-the-mill 3S-FE-equipped DX complete with a A140E 4-speed automatic transmission. For me, it was the donor car in shop class on which I changed my first spark plugs. However, there was much more to the V20 Camry than meets the eye, and no, we’re not even talking about how Bubble Economy Toyota overbuilt it and cemented a legendary reputation for quality. We’re talking about how Camrys can actually be rare and fun.
In fact, it was the humble V20 Camry that prompted us to start JNC‘s Consider the Following series. The idea was spurred by a memory I recalled to our editor, Ben Hsu, during dinner at the Chicago Auto Show a couple years ago.
I had gone to a friend’s friend’s party back in 2013 and was in the sole petrolhead in a house full of hipster millennials while my friend had wandered off to parts unknown. Over a beer in the kitchen, I came into conversation regarding the merits of 1980s New Wave music with a mustachioed hipster who’s name is lost to time. Turns out, he drive an older V20 Toyota Camry that he thought was the greatest thing since sliced artisanal bread.
It came to surface that despite how much he loved it, he thought perhaps he shouldn’t have since it’s not insta-famous like an S30 or a 510. When I left the party later that night I noticed his Camry. it was decently clean, not concours quality but seemingly rust free and pretty nice.
The sad truth about that Camry was, if it was subjected to even the lightest tap, the car would end up in a junkyard. It wasn’t that long ago that an AE86 or CVCC would have endured the same fate. With this in mind we started Consider the Following to spotlight under-the-radar models that are overlooked or completely forgotten, despite its merits. In honor of that hipster gentleman with an old Camry, please consider the following.
Historically, the Camry has always been about one-upmanship, the original Celica Camry, and later V10 Camry, were designed to replace the Corona and to make everything else in the market obsolete overnight. When it was released, it was bigger than the Accord, had better ride quality than the American offerings and fit-and-finish on par with German offerings. For the Consumer Reports-worshipping buyer, it was the ultimate mid-size car.
By the time the V10 generation was coming to an end, though, other manufacturers were getting smart, the Oldsmobile Omega had turned into the marginally less horrid Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais and Honda had hit a home run with the CA Accord. Toyota needed to once again raise the bar. A slightly more streamlined body found its way into production and the 5-door liftback evolved to a true 5-door wagon.
The design was spearheaded by Seiichi Yamauchi, who is more famous as being responsible for greenlighting the AW11 MR2. Both lower and wider by one inch and longer by six, the new Camry looked like a baby Cressida. With its newly designed 3S-FE engine, the conservative design actually gave it an advantage as you could get away with more shenanigans before police would take note. “Quick but utterly invisible,” noted Car and Driver‘s Larry Griffin in 1987. “You could call it Camryflage.”
What was going on under the hood may seem quaint when compared to fancy names like 7M-GE or 4A-GE today. Toyota had taken the new 3S-GE out of the Celica and reshaped the cylinder head for better fuel economy. In 1987, to find a free-revving 16-valve engine in a car like a Camry either meant that redundant organs would be partial payment or the car would nickel and dime you to bankruptcy with maintenance.
The result was, surprisingly, the best of both worlds: 115 horsepower, 125 pound-feet of torque, and a 6,000 rpm redline. Comparing this to the comically obsolete 2.5-liter OHV “Tech IV” Iron Duke L4 in the aforementioned Oldsmobile, the 3S-FE felt like race car technology.
This 16-valve glory would be for naught if was being used to spin tires endlessly in snow, however. Since Toyota was already using the Celica’s engine they might as well throw in the GT-Four’s all-wheel-drive as well. Starting in 1988, the All-Trac AWD system was available for the Camry.
As the All-Trac was marketed as a utilitarian option, you had to specifically request an automatic transmission, which wasn’t even an option in 1988. As far as aesthetic differences go, with the exception of a marginally changed ride height the only giveaway would be the “All-Trac” badge on the boot. This little treat largely had its option box unchecked outside of Colorado and Appalachia, but it would become the single most sought after and rarest trim of the chassis later in it’s life.
Back home, Japanese buyers were gifted, starting in 1988, the Prominent trim level. This was the highest trim you could get and it came with a slew of features like a digital dashboard, power seats and woodgrain trim, but most importantly, it came with a 1VZ-FE 2.0-liter V6. Interestingly enough, the Prominent had larger American style bumpers as opposed to the slim bumpers on most JDM models.
Although the V6 only made 136 horsepower and three more pound-feet of torque, it provided a much smoother powerband, which at low speed driving offered a driving experience much closer to that of a luxury car. The smooth, flat torque band was more appreciated than outright speed in Tokyo traffic. This engine never made it to America, but we would get our own, even better V6 Camry at the same time.
In Japan, the V6’s displacement was a result of a vehicle tax structure that preferred 2.0-liter and under displacements. The USDM Camry’s V6 had no such restriction, so Toyota gave America a DOHC 2.5-liter 2VZ-FE. Output was bumped up to 159 horsepower and 159 pound-feet. More power is good, but if it’s a lazy-revving engine that gain is wasted; luckily the 2VZ’s redline was increased to 6,800 rpm.
There was so much that was right about this configuration but none more so than the 5 speed manual option. Being able to spec a V6 with a manual transmission is fantastic, but Toyota gave the freedom to even put that powertrain into a wagon. Most curiously of all, the wagon version was never offered in Japan. Needless to say, V6 5-speed wagons are exceedingly rare and the holy grail of Camrys.
Little freedoms like this are sadly missing from modern cars, Speaking of freedom, the V20 was also the first Camry made in the new Toyota plant in Kentucky. The “Made in America” status was a big step forward for a Japanese car manufacturer if it wanted to be taken seriously by a certain portion of American car buyers at the time. The plant was a sign that Toyota was putting down roots in America. Since the vast majority of Camry sales were in North America, having a manufacturing plant located here only made sense.
The V20 Camry was also timed perfectly for the launch of Lexus. To supplement the flagship LS, the V6-only Lexus ES 250 was based on the upscale Japanese market Toyota Vista/Camry Prominent hardtop model. A luxury Japanese car was a risky gamble, and Toyota wanted to avoid the scenario that had played out two years prior when British Leyland introduced the Sterling brand to the US with one model, the 800 Series, which flopped and lead to the eventual dissolving of the company in 1991.
The original plan was for the more modestly priced ES 250 to take the lion’s share of sales to the LS as one would expect. However, the LS was a runaway success and sold north of 165,000 cars compared to under 50,000 for the ES 250. Today the ES 250 is relatively rare and has some unique features like the pillarless doors, a standard CD player and fog lights integrated into the headlights. For the rarest of the rare, try to find a manual transmission ES 250.
In the world of modification, the aftermarket is thin. However, like the EG Civic, the V20 Camry has a brother it shares parts with. It was largely based off the ST165 Celica, so parts interchangeability is high. Both powertrain and braking components can be improved with items made for ST165 and ST205 Celicas. There are a number 3S-GE and 3S-GTE swaps we’ve seen on various forums and at shows. If you have a V6 model, A 3VZ-FE can also swap in with some wiring changes.
The V20 Camry even had a cameo in You’re Under Arrest when a chop shop owner utilized it’s camryflage and a 3S-GTE swap to get away from a police officer he ripped off. It looks like the concept of the Camry sleeper isn’t lost on series creator Kousuke Fujishima, who is well known as a petrolhead.
While a set of lowering springs or coilover sleeves from an ST165 will fit, for struts or full-body coilovers some modification to the upper and lower strut mounting points will be required. Luckily, a company called DGR Suspension makes a full coilover kit for the V20. Although we’ve never dealt with them, reviews of DGR from the Miata community are largely positive. If coilovers are more than you’re willing to spend, B&G does have a set of lowering springs for FWD models.
Aesthetically, a standard V20 Camry can be made to stand out with parts from other markets, like the Luminere we spotted at the Shanghai Motor Show earlier this year. JDM, European and Australian market cars all had slight cosmetic differences, but the vast majority of parts will port over to an American V20, making for nearly as many options as the venerated EG Civic.
Perhaps best of all, the V20 Camry is utterly bulletproof. At the height of the Bubble Economy, Toyota was overbuilding nearly all of its cars. It was common for V20, even with little to no maintenance from clueless owners, to last well past a trip to the moon. The V20 Camry was largely what built Toyota’s legendary reputation for quality.
To 99.8 percent of the population, the Camry is the ultimate had-me-down beater, but there really is more than meets the eye on this car. It’s sports car roots lead to a variety of options like AWD and manual transmissions on V6 engines. For someone looking to first get into the community of vintage Japanese cars but still wants something they can daily, the V20 Camry is an excellent starting point. They’re affordable, reliable, practical, and despite being 30 years old now, are still more common than a Weedle in a Pokemon game.
With the community of enthusiasts that exists for this chassis, a prospective owner will have a support system as well. Perhaps that person I met at the party in 2013 still has his and is still enjoying every motoring moment. Here’s to you, unnamed hipster, may you enjoy your V20 Camry, for years to come, unironically.