CAMBRIA, Calif. -- Narrow California 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, clings to ramparts of the Santa Lucia Range along the Big Sur Coast high above the Pacific Ocean.
The breathtaking route, chiseled into steep slopes dotted by towering green redwoods with a white mist hovering above the expanse of Pacific blue currents, extends for a hundred miles from Carmel-By-The-Sea at the northern tip to Cambria at the southern tail.
Spectacular vistas of mountains and sea along the convoluted coast lure a multitude of tourists each summer and the route often clots with sightseeing vehicles which reduce the flow of traffic to a snail's pace.
However, on one morning so early that most Big Sur travelers are still snoozing, we find a clear lane down the Big Sur PCH while steering the latest edition of best-seller Camry, the Kentucky-built mid-size sedan of Toyota.
Our shapely Camry XLE, containing a new four-pack engine and more sophisticated equipment for safety, navigation and comfort than you can quickly enumerate, takes over the winding road, dominating the asphalt with rock-solid stability expressed through precisely carved turns and spurts of speed down the infrequent straightaway.
Not only does the car propel its riders in a confidence-inspiring manner, but it envelops them in an elegantly stylish package which contains a host of safety gear and luxurious cabin features to position the car close to the realm of Lexus, Toyota's elite upscale line.
The exterior package of Camry seems sleek and shapely, yet it reflects subtle lines and subdued paint shades in the manner of an upscale vehicle.
A dominant face shows a broad grille scored with body-colored fins and an enlarged low intake valence stretched from corner to corner, plus canted lamp clusters of an irregular format mounted at the top of front corners with larger projector-type low-beam lamps drilling round points in shimmering acrylic caps.
The aerodynamic body features a long and low-sloping hood and a windshield severely raked leading to an arching canopy over the cabin with deep windows on doors and side pillars muted to create the impression of a sleek coupe.
Side panels are chiseled practically sheer to forge four slab doors, although there are crisp high-shouldered cutlines and a graceful inward tilt to the side windows.
Swoopy back pillars of the roofline slide down to the blunted tail, which looks clean with a wrap-around fascia and restyled corner taillamps.
Camry's ride quality has traits of a luxury vehicle.
A four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front and dual link aft seems firm yet forgiving even on irregular pavement like the bumpy blacktop we encounter on the PCH wining down the coast toward Cambria.
Net effect is a silky smooth ride.
And Toyota has tapped into the Lexus bag of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) tricks to insulate and isolate the passenger compartment of Camry from external discord and mechanical chatter.
Elaborate safety systems, either passive or active, appear as standard equipment with this car.
Passive safety measures include a reinforced structure with crumple zones to absorb and diffuse energy from a sudden impact along predictable paths but also deflect the force away from the passenger compartment.
The cabin is surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and one more to shield the driver's knee, then curtain-style air bags tucked above side windows front and back
On tap to help stop the vehicle are four disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD).
Additional electronic vehicle controls include vehicle stability control (VSC), which corrects lateral skidding, plus traction control (TRAC) to check wheel spin and a brake assist (BA) system to add maximum braking pressure during an emergency stop.
Powertrain choices apply to the 2010 editions of Camry, which trims out as Camry, LE, SE and XLE.
The standard powertrain for Camry plus LE and XLE grades is a new 2.5-liter in-line-four engine with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) to optimize the cam timing and maximize power production at all engine speeds.
It produces 169 hp at 6000 rpm plus 167 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
The four-pack plant qualifies for Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV-II) status and delivers fuel economy numbers as high as 33 mpg.
Transmissions extend to a new six-speed manual stick or a six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting -- pull the console-mounted shift lever to the left, then tip it forward to move up the gear ladder one step at a time, or click it backward to shift down that ladder.
For sporty performance, Camry SE edition bumps up the horsepower numbers by ten points through special tuning.
A 3.5-liter V6 -- Toyota's 2GR-FE engine -- becomes the optional power upgrade for Camry's top three tiers.
The V6 employs chain-driven dual camshafts with dual VVT-i controls.
As a result, it romps with 268 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque pushing to 248 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
The exclusive transmission for Camry's V6 is that six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting.
Entry issue Camry stocks plenty of gear -- from power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors to cruise control, a tilting steering wheel with audio controls and 16-inch steel wheels with P215/60R16 tires.
Camry LE adds eight-way power controls for the driver's seat and a remote keyless entry device; sporty SE has the chassis dropped with taut suspension tuning and a body kit with front and rear spoilers and rocker panel moldings plus 17-inch aluminum wheels and P215/55R17 tires, yet top-grade XLE loads the luxe like a dual-zone automatic climate system, moonroof and auto-dimming electrochromic rearview mirror with compass.
Price points for the 2010 Camry look favorable, beginning at $19,395 for base Camry with the new six-speed manual transmission.