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Toyota making fresh assault on US compact-car market with Camry

Toyota, Japan's biggest carmaker, is launching a calculated, fine-tuned attack on the compact-car market in the United States. With the spacious Camry, successor to the Corona, Toyoto is gunning not only for the General Motors X-cars - Chevrolet Citation, et al. - but also for the Chrysler K-cars, Ford Tempo/Topaz, and anything else that happens to be in its way.

In fact, the Toyota Camry is a landmark vehicle for the Japanese carmaker and indicates an even more aggressive stance for the future. Hardly content with what it has already achieved, it is exploring new markets. The compact-size market is heating up fast.

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Highly aerodynamic, the Camry carries a drag coefficient number of 0.36 for the liftback and 0.38 for the notchback sedan. As a result of extensive wind tunnel testing, all pillars are flush for reduced wind noise and drag, while a thin, flat roofline helps to reduce wind buffeting. The nose and hood are sloped , the belt line is low, the front bumper is one piece, and an air dam helps to direct the flow of air.

It is Toyota's second front-drive car, the Corolla Tercel being the first.

The 4-door sedan with 5-speed manual transmission has a base price of $7,998; while the 5-door liftback starts at $8,048.

The new 1,995-cc, 4-cylinder, overhead-cam engine produces 92 horsepower at 4 ,200 r.p.m. The suspension is fully independent.

To drive the car is probably to buy it, or at least to give it a priority position on the list. The ride is firm, but not choppy. The straight-line braking is swift.

The Camry offers three driving ranges: economy, standard, and power. In the economy range, you should get the greatest distance on a tankful of fuel; the standard range provides a combination of performance and fun while the power range is supposed to give more response with perhaps a slight decline in gas economy.

I find there is plenty of whoosh in the economy range. Thus, in hundreds of miles of commuter-type, economy-range driving, I got a clear 32 miles per gallon - a good figure, given the performance, comfort, and ''feel'' of the car from behind the wheel.

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The cruise control is precise, I find. In other words, set it and forget it, as the car maintains speed uphill and down. Yet the placement of the cruise-control switches is awkward, at least to this driver.

Ford has perhaps the best ''cruise system,'' with all controls on the steering wheel crossbar. In the Camry, by contrast, the required one-two movement is on the dash. You have to reach for the on-off switch - the steering wheel cuts right through it, in my case - and then you reach up higher on the dash for the activating switch: down for ''set'' and up for ''resume'' and ''accelerate.'' There really is a better way.

A single joy-stick switch adjusts the right and left mirrors.

What is most impressive is the room inside the car. Even with the front seats extended far back, knee room should be sufficient for most rear-seat riders.

The Camry is fun to drive - and think of all the gasoline you save in relation to the volume of space inside the car. You'd find it hard, in fact, to run out of fuel. The design of the gas gauge alerts the driver when the tank hits the one-quarter level; and as it continues to drop, a broad bar across the bottom of the gauge lights up. You'd have to drive with your eyes shut to miss it.

In the upscale LE version, the rear-window wiper has an intermittent feature - a nice addition. Thus, in fog or a light mist, you can set both the front and rear wipers to make an occasional sweep of the glass.

The rear seatbacks fold down flat.

In designing and engineering the Camry, the goal was a high-economy, large-passenger-volume, perky car at a competitive price. If Toyota were to get a letter grade, it would have to be an ''A.''

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