Oxymoron: Why The Sport Failed to Save the Toyota Camry

Major Waffle 90s cars Toyota
The Toyota Camry Sport was unveiled at the 1996 British Motor Show. It was designed to appeal to a youthful audience, but it failed to spice up the Camry.

Search for ‘Toyota Camry Sport’ on the web, and Google stops just short of asking ‘Did you mean [something else]?’ Until recently, the idea of a ‘sporty’ Toyota Camry seemed odd. Like sticking a pair of Nike running shoes on an English Mastiff and asking it to run the 100 metres.

The 2020 Toyota Camry TRD is the first genuine attempt to make a sporty road-going Camry. A 3.5-litre V6 engine, suspension upgrades, larger brakes, cat-back exhaust and TRD body enhancements are the highlights of this US model. It looks a million dollars, but costs just $32,000. That's a mere £24,000.

But it's not the first Toyota Camry Sport. That honour belongs to a UK-only model, introduced at the British Motor Show in 1996. In a country which failed to warm to the Camry, this was very much a last chance saloon for Toyota GB. Or should that be last chance sedan?

Spice Up Your Life

1996 Toyota Camry Sport 2.2

Launched in 1996, the fourth-generation XV20 model is notable for being the first Camry to top the US passenger car sales chart. Nearly 400,000 Camrys found a US home in 1997. On the other side of the Atlantic, the figure was 1,878. For context, Ford shifted nearly 120,000 Fiestas, around 113,500 Escorts and 107,000 Mondeos. The Carina was the UK's best-selling Toyota. Sales totalled 21,816.

The Toyota Camry died a long and slow death in the UK. Sales tailed off until it was pulled from sale in 2004, although the launch of a new model in November 2001 led to a small upturn in fortunes. In the final year on sale, Toyota shifted 69 Camrys in the UK. Most American Toyota dealers would be disappointed to sell that many in a lunch hour.

Toyota GB had high hopes for the Camry Sport. “It highlights the more youthful appeal of the new Camry, providing an emotional reason to back up the many rational arguments for buying a Camry,” it said.

‘Youthful appeal’ of a Camry? That's like Stannah asking Tim Westwood to Pimp My Stairlift.


Toyota Camry Sport

The Camry Sport certainly looked the part. Lowered suspension, 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, rear spoiler, side skirts and a unique grille on the outside, Connolly leather trim on the inside. In what seemed a strange decision at the time, the Camry Sport was limited to the 2.2-litre engine. Possibly something to do with cost of the insurance for the ‘youthful’ market?

Performance was... relaxed. Zero to 62mph in 10.4 seconds – or 11.7 if you opted for the automatic gearbox. That said, with a 0-62mph time of nine seconds, the 3.0 V6 wasn't exactly whippet-like. In many ways, the Camry Sport had two advantages: a manual gearbox and improved styling.

There were mixed messages. On the one hand, Toyota GB said it was going after a younger audience, but part of the launch campaign was a giveaway in Today's Golfer magazine. Young, but not that young, then.

In a last throw of the dice, 18 months after the launch of the Camry Sport, it was made available with the 3.0-litre V6 engine. Now the Camry Sport had the pace to go with its undoubted style. A case of too little, too late. Overall sales totalled 1,139 in 1998, 513 in 1999, 346 in 2000, and 207 in 2001.


1996 Toyota Camry Sport

This might seem odd to anyone in a market where the Toyota Camry is as ubiquitous as Starbucks, McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Over here, it's more artisan coffee and that independent deli just off the high street. Bread-and-butter in the USA and Australia, but sourdough in the UK. No, you're right, this food-based analogy isn't going anywhere.

A bit like the Camry in the UK, then. Until the Toyota Camry was surprisingly reintroduced in 2019, total UK sales were destined to remain on 37,355. That's roughly 10 percent of the annual sales in the US.

Finding a Camry Sport is tough. According to How Many Left?, there are 16 on the road with a manual gearbox, 29 with an automatic, and 10 with a 3.0-litre V6 engine. Stick a TRD badge on the back – nobody will suspect a thing. For maximum trolling, put a Gazoo Racing badge on the boot.

Toyota Camry Sport side profile

Why did the Camry Sport fail? Partly because of a lack of identity. The Toyota badge was never going to tempt buyers away from their BMW or Mercedes-Benz. At £23,175, the Camry Sport was decent value, but not affordable enough to woo Rover, Ford or Vauxhall owners.

On a broader level, the Toyota Camry was always hamstrung by the lack of diesel power. All of which means the Camry Sport is a British oddity. A valiant attempt by Toyota GB to spice up the Camry.

It was posh enough, but was left found wanting in the ‘sporty’ department, baby.

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