The Toyota Camry made leaps and bounds after the model debuted as a sedan sub-variant of the Celica in 1980. The first Camry to stand on its own was the V10, a very boxy four-door on sale for just four years, from 1983 to 1986. In the North American market, the front-drive V10 Camry replaced the rear-drive Corona as Toyota’s compact offering. And though the V10 was designed in part with export markets like North America in mind, its successor the V20 used the North American customer as its starting place.
By the time V20 arrived, the American consumer expected different things from a Japanese car. The V10 was designed during the 1979 oil crisis and was engineered to be as space and fuel-efficient as possible with maximum attention paid to function over form. Skip forward a few years, and Toyota had established itself in North America as a purveyor of reliable and economical cars. The company wanted to head upmarket with the new Camry, and appeal to a larger part of its customer base: Middle America. Toyota also had to outdo its primary domestic competition as those speedy people at Honda released the third-generation (CA) Accord for the 1986 model year.
Toyota assigned the design of the V20 to Seichi Yamauchi, who’d managed the company’s design group since circa 1981 and penned the popular MR2. The V20 Camry was more stylish than the V10 and had a much more polished three-box look, albeit still made up mostly of straight lines. Camry’s looks were similar to the even more conservative rear-drive Cressida, the company’s only luxury car at the time. Compared to the V10, the V20 was nearly four inches longer, slightly wider (66.7 inches versus 66.5), and its roof was half an inch lower. The overall look was more American, and necessarily less faithful to the typical Japanese car as Americans knew it. Quality was improved over its predecessor, as Toyota spent lots more money on hard-wearing materials and improvements in production.
There were three body styles globally, two of which arrived in North America. The standard four-door sedan and its longer station wagon sibling were joined by a four-door pillared hardtop that was not imported. The hardtop was confined to the Japanese market, and served two purposes: It was the replacement for the liftback V10 which was no longer offered, and also served as the most luxurious version of the Camry. In the home market, luxurious Camrys were called Vista, and the line included a standard sedan as well as the much more expensive pillared hardtop. Although the Vista hardtop was very similar looking to the standard sedan, it used entirely different body panels. Toyota renamed the Vista the Camry Prominent in 1989, shortly before the hardtop had its light rework into the failure that was the Lexus ES 250. The Camry wagon was not sold in the Japanese market.
Production of the V20 Camry expanded considerably over its predecessor, which was built solely at the Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City. There was additional large-scale production at the new plant Toyota built specifically for the Camry in Georgetown Kentucky. The plant saw its first cars roll off the line in May 1988 for the 1989 model year. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, or TMMK, was the first wholly-owned Toyota plant in the United States. Other global production included Port Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, and Chinese production in Zhanjiang, Guangdong. Camry was produced and sold in China as the Xinkai Camry, via a joint venture. Australian-produced cars wore Toyota badging but were also sold at Holden dealerships, where it was called the Apollo.
Though consumers may not have been aware at the time, the V20 used the same platform as the V10. That’s why although Camry grew larger in dimensions, its wheelbase remained the same 102.4 inches. The car’s suspension design was also almost identical from V10 to V20: Both cars used a fully independent setup with coil springs and struts, as well as anti-roll bars front and rear. The rear suspension in the V20 benefitted from the new use of a subframe that improved NVH characteristics. Said subframe was similar to the one Toyota implemented on the fourth-generation Celica in 1986 when the sporty two-door made the swap to front-wheel drive and the new Corona’s platform. The Camry maintained a front disc and rear drum braking setup, though on higher trim cars there were disc brakes at all corners.
In the V10 generation Camry, all engines had four cylinders and were either 1.8 or 2.0 liters displacement. 1.8 liters was also the starting point in the V20, but engine displacements included 2.0-liter mills with four or six cylinders, as well as a 2.5-liter V6, and 2.0-liter inline-four turbodiesel. The 2.5 was the star of the lineup (albeit not the volume seller) and had 24 valves and dual overhead cams. As before, transmissions were four speeds if automatic and five if manual. Notably, the entire engine lineup on the V20 used fuel injection.
For the first and only time in North America, there was a four-wheel-drive Camry in the lineup. Toyota’s proprietary system was called All-Trac and was full-time four-wheel drive. For a short time prior and only in the Japanese market, the system debuted under the moniker GT-Four and was offered on a high-performance ST165 generation Celica. Afterward, it was offered across several models globally between 1988 and 2000. The system was an impressive one from a technical perspective, and there was a locking center differential in addition to the front and rear differentials. The center one was very unusual in a standard passenger car. The system was electronically and vacuum controlled, and the version in the Camry All-Trac was a direct port from the GT-Four Celica. All-Trac was only available with four-cylinder engines and arrived in North American cars for 1988.
The lineup of sedans and wagons in the North American market was divided into (unmarked) base, DX, and LE trims, with the LE All-Trac a sort of rare halo model. The largest 2.5-liter V6 arrived in 1988 as an optional extra on the LE. As TMMK came online, Camry sedans were sourced in ever-greater numbers from Kentucky, while all V20 wagons came from Japan. Changes over the years included a light refresh in 1989 with new one-piece bumpers front and rear. Tail lamps were changed slightly, and a handful of interior trim bits were updated. 1989 saw the arrival of an ABS option, but it was fitted only to LE V6 trims and the All-Trac.
For 1990 there was a rework in the 2.5 V6, which increased horsepower by three to 156. There was another visual refresh in February of 1990, as the Camry wore Toyota’s new Urban Sombrero logo. Other updates alongside the logo included color-keyed door handles and matching grille trim on all trim levels except the base. There was a new interior cloth that was longer traditional Toyota Tweed, and DX and LE cars wore new wheel cover designs.
Camry continued on through the 1991 model year, as its sedans and wagons spread all across North America wearing their new sombreros. TMMK kept the last V20 they made, a white LE V6 with maroon interior, lace alloys, and motorized seat belts. By then the Camry name was very well-established, and Toyota was ready with its full-frontal, high-quality soap bar sedan. The benchmark Camry that defined what a midsize sedan of quality, reliability, and longevity really was: XV20.
Today’s Rare Ride Icon is a very tasty one. A 1989 Camry in its base trim, with a few optional convenience extras. Air conditioning, power windows, and an automatic are present and functional on this 51,000-mile sedan. In maroon over light brown, even the wheel covers are in as-new condition. Yours in Seattle for $9,750.
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.