2003 Toyota Camry SE
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Surprisingly sporty, but where’s the ABS?

Since it was redesigned last year, the Toyota Camry has received glowing reviews in just about every area – except styling and handling. Tall, and rather awkward-looking, the Camry is incredibly roomy and comfortable, but it’s nobody’s idea of a sport sedan – particularly when compared with competitors like the Nissan Altima and Mazda6.

Still, buyers who want more than a plain vanilla Camry can opt for the sportier SE trim level which is offered with both four and six cylinder engines. Compared to the standard Camry LE, the SE 4 cylinder and SE V6 models have a firmer front suspension, standard 16 inch tires, four wheel disc brakes, front fog lamps, blacked out headlamp surrounds, a rear spoiler, sporty aluminum gauges, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. New for 2003 is a five speed manual transmission on four cylinder SE models. All other Camrys, including the SE V6, come with a standard four-speed automatic.

My test car was a 2003 Camry SE with the base 157 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder engine and the new 5-speed manual transmission. In addition to the features mentioned above, its base price of $24,955 includes cloth seats, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette/CD with six speakers, power windows, power door locks and remote key fob, power heated mirrors, and 60/40 folding rear seatbacks. If you prefer the optional four-speed automatic transmission, the price goes up to $26,000.

SE V6 models, which start at $30,755, include a 192 horsepower 3.0 litre V6 engine, 4-speed automatic transmission, and additional standard features such as a JBL audio system, power driver’s seat, and power moonroof.

The SE V6 comes standard with anti-lock brakes, but the four cylinder SE is not available with ABS, even as an option. Personally, I can’t understand why ABS is not available on the four cylinder SE model particularly when it IS available as an option on the base LE model. In theory, Camry SE buyers are more interested in spirited driving than other Camry buyers, and would be more likely to want ABS as a safety feature. No such luck here.

The SE V6 is available with a comprehensive option package ($4,225) which includes side and curtain airbags, vehicle stability control and traction control, Brake Assist, 6-disc in-dash CD player, leather seats, compass, day/night rearview mirror, and garage door opener. But again, the four cylinder SE is not available with any of these things. It’s almost as though Toyota wants you to buy the V6 model..

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s take a closer look at the four cylinder Camry SE..

Subtle styling differences

2003 Toyota Camry SE
Click image to enlarge

Subtle differences between the Camry LE and the SE model give the SE a slightly more aggressive, and in my opinion, a more attractive appearance. Under clear plastic covers, the headlamps have a darker exterior colour instead of chrome. The SE has a different grille treatment, lower front fog lamps instead of tacky plastic inserts, bigger Michelin MXV4 215/60R-16 inch tires with 5-spoke alloy wheels (instead of 15 inch tires/steel wheels), and a rear spoiler and chrome exhaust tip – all of which enhance and improve the Camry’s appearance, in my opinion.

Inside, the aluminum speedo and tachometer with black numerals have a classy, expensive look. These are complemented by faux pewter grey trim on the dash and doors, and a sporty three-spoke stitched leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Like other Camry’s the rest of the interior is extremely well-finished and the quality of the materials is above-average, an improvement from the last generation Camry. The soft cloth seat material in my test car included seat inserts with an attractive speckled pattern, and the textured dash materials in various complementary shades looked of a high quality.

Roomy cabin

With its tall roof and upright sides, it’s not surprising the Camry is so roomy. All five passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom – the front seats are raised to allow rear passengers’ feet to easily fit underneath. The seats have a high hip point, and getting in and out is easy.

The centre instrument panel controls for the radio and heater are mounted fairly high and protrude towards the driver and passenger which makes them easy to reach. A digital clock and outside temperature gauge are positioned at the top, and below that is an AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo with an LCD display that can be hard to read in bright sunlight. The simple design of the three heater dials includes integrated buttons for A/C and Recirculaton functions that eliminates the usual clutter of additional buttons on the dash.

For storage, the lower console includes a handy storage bin with a powerpoint, ashtray and lighter, and the large dual level storage bin between the front seats has another powerpoint for hidden cellphone charging. As well, there’s a nifty pull-out coin drawer on the dash just to the left of the steering wheel.

The rear seat has a folding centre armrest with two built-in cupholders, and rear door pockets for storage. There’s no powerpoint for electrical devices, though. The rear seat has two outboard height-adjustable head restraints, but surprisingly a centre rear head restraint is not offered. There are three rear three-point seatbelts.

The rear seatbacks split 60/40 to improve cargo versatility, and both seatbacks are lockable from inside the trunk.

The trunk itself is huge, probably the biggest in its class.

Driving impressions

2003 Toyota Camry SE
Click image to enlarge

The Camry’s front seats are wide, comfortable and offer decent side bolsters, and the view to the outside is better than I expected for a car with such high window ledges. In fact, the driver sits relatively high looking over the hood with great forward and side visibility. The rear window ledge is high though, making it difficult to see the car behind you when backing into a parking space.

The Camry’s rack and pinion variable power assisted steering offers extremely low effort at city speeds, and is firmer at highway speeds. Though low-speed effort is light, it’s not too light, and I found it encouraged quick lane changes and tight turns because very little effort was needed.

The Camry’s new manual 5-speed shifter doesn’t have particularly short throws, but its movement is fluidic and shifts are precise enough that there’s never any mixup about where you are. I found that I could shift this transmission all day long (OK, a couple of hours), and not get tired. Clutch effort is also fairly light, and clutch engagement is smooth.

The manual transmission enables the driver to get more out of the Camry’s wonderful 157 horsepower 2.4 litre twin cam four cylinder engine. Now, you can rev it up to 6000 rpm, or downshift prior to setting up for a corner, and generally make the engine work harder when performance is required. However, there’s no real need to wind this engine up to the redline because it has plenty of low-end torque – the engine’s comparatively large displacement (for a four cylinder) and its variable valve timing contributes to generous torque at both low and high engine speeds. Acceleration from a stoplight is brisk, and you can can lug around town in fourth or fifth gear at 50 km/h, and accelerate without having to shift down.

2003 Toyota Camry SE 2.4 Litre
US model shown. Click image to enlarge

The 2.4 litre four cylinder engine doesn’t make a lot of noise until you get above 5000 rpm, but even then it’s minimal, and vibrations are almost non-existant. Below 4000 rpm, where the engine spends most of its time, the engine is extremely quiet. At 100 km/h, the engine turns over just 2300 rpm, and at 120 km/h, it does 2800 rpm. That’s one of the reasons that the Camry is so quiet on the highway – it’s generally acknowledged as the quietest mid-size family sedan on the market today.

It’s also one reason that the four cylinder Camry gets such good fuel economy for such a big car: 9.8 l/100 km (29 mpg) in the city and 6.5 l/100 km (43 mpg) on the highway. With the optional four-speed automatic transmission, it offers 10.2 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city, and 6.9 l/100 km (41 mpg) on the highway.

Like other Camrys, the SE has a fully independent MacPherson strut suspension, but the SE has been tuned for less lean and better handling. A strut tower bar in front helps firm up the suspension, and stiffer shocks reduce roll. Frankly, I was quite surprised how quickly I could throw this big car into the corners, and I felt that it offered more control and less lean that Camry LE and XLE models. But we’re not talking BMW 3-Series here, or even Nissan Altima. The Camry SE is just more fun than you might expect for a big, heavy-looking sedan.

I found brake pedal feel and modulation was excellent and stopping distances were short, but would be concerned about steering control and stability in the wet without anti-lock brakes.

Like other Camry’s, it has a great ride, and you could easily drive this car across the country in comfort. Its quiet, roomy cabin, comfortable seats, good visibility, and good stereo are all conducive to pleasant journeys – whether to the mall, the ski slopes, or a vacation destination. The SE model just adds that extra sporty edge to make the driver’s job a little more pleasurable.

Competitor overview

Four cylinder competitors like the Nissan Altima have more horsepower and better handling, while the Mazda6 is more nimble, and the Honda Accord is somewhere in between. All of them have better styling in my opinion, and they all offer anti-lock brakes – but the Camry is the roomiest, the quietest, and has the biggest trunk. The Camry SE is also extremely well-finished, is known for its great reliability, and has an excellent resale value. If you want some fun in a mid-size import, and you don’t mind the Camry’s styling, the Camry SE is definately worth a test-drive.


The Camry SE with a four cylinder engine and new five speed manual transmission is sporty by Camry standards, and extremely quiet, comfortable, and well-finished. But its lack of ABS and options like side airbags is a strike against it.

Technical Data: 2003 Toyota Camry SE

Base price $24,955
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, VVT-i
Horsepower 157 @ 5600 rpm
Torque 163 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual (4-speed auto optional)
Tires P215/60R-16 inch with full-size spare
Curb weight 1435 kg (3164 lb.)
Wheelbase 2720 mm (107.1 in.)
Length 4805 mm (189.2 in.)
Width 1795 mm (70.7 in.)
Height 1490 mm (58.7 in.)
Trunk capacity 473 litres (16.7 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.8 l/100 km (29 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.5 l/100 km (43 mpg)
Fuel Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca