LOS ANGELES The fancy restaurants on La Brea Boulevard have a parking pecking order. High-end European metal goes up front. That means Aston Martin, Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and BMW. Luxury Japanese cars wind up in the middle. That usually means a Lexus, or perhaps a Nissan 350Z or an Infiniti Q45. The Americans are represented, and they are easy to find, because they are really big SUVs. They are often gloss-black Cadillac Escalade or Hummer H2 models -- and, hey, they go up front with the Europeans. So, what is someone supposed to do with a 2003 Toyota Camry SE V-6 family sedan? The Camry was the best-selling car in America last year. But people who eat at high-end restaurants in this city apparently don't drive Camrys, or, they keep their Camrys at home with Saturday's jeans while they're out showing off their richer stuff. Pulling up to one of those restaurants in a Camry, even one with polished chrome wheels and a pretty metallic-red paint job, is an invitation to oblivion. "Can we help you?" "Yeah, this is valet parking, right?" Silence. The chief parking attendant signals a junior parking attendant, who looks at the car and then looks at his boss with an expression that says, "What do you want me to do with that?" Chagrin drapes junior's face when the chief makes it clear that he really wants him to park the Camry. It's all very silly, because the Camry, extensively revised last year and spiffed a bit more for 2003, is a very good car. It's no great head-turner in the midst of a bevy of Aston Martins and Ferraris, but it will take you anywhere those cars will go -- including a restaurant on La Brea Boulevard. I've driven the 2003 Camry in a variety of settings, including at home in Northern Virginia, in the working-class environs of Baltimore and along L.A.'s gilded thoroughfares. The car gets lots of respect among the ordinary people who support the stars, but the stars and their retinue give it short shrift. Frankly, on long road trips, I prefer driving a Camry or a car like it. It rises above the wealthier metal by doing the ordinary extraordinarily well. The tested Camry SE V-6 performed excellently in high-speed highway traffic, accelerating with authority when needed, changing lanes with minimum body sway. There was nothing particularly thrilling about its performance. People who are more interested in speed and muscle than they are in getting from one point to another in reasonable comfort and safety won't like it. But most of us are quite happy with reasonable comfort and safety in a car, especially when those things come at a reasonable price and a well-deserved reputation for quality and reliability. The Camry offers all of those things, which is why it consistently remains at the top or near the top of the nation's list of best-se lling cars. Maybe Hollywood's snobs could learn something from the general public's acceptance of the Camry and stop taking themselves so seriously. I mean, what do those parking attendants drive home? Nuts & Bolts Complaints: No substantial complaints, just a little advice. Toyota would be well advised not to ignore the power of lust and snob appeal. The new Mazda 6 cars, for example, also are good family-mobiles, but they are sexy, edgy cars with a high head-turning quotient. Praise: The sales have it. The Camry ranks as the nation's No. 1 family sedan, and it's very good at what it's designed to do -- provide affordable, high-quality, reliable family transportation. Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all categories for everyday drivers and riders. The car is very much like a good pair of jeans. It covers the basics well. Head-turning quotient: Apparently, it depends on the setting in which it's se . In the Washington-Baltimore area, the new Camry design gets favorable nods. In the fancier settings of Los Angeles, it causes people to nod off. Body style/layout: Four-door sedan with traditional trunk. Front-wheel drive. Engines/transmissions: The tested Camry SE was equipped with Toyota's 192-horsepower V-6, which is mated to a standard four-speed automatic transmission. Also available is a more fuel-efficient 157-horsepower in-line four-cylinder engine, which can be mated to a standard five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic. Capacities: The Camry SE V-6 seats five people; it carries 16.7 cubic feet of cargo and 18.5 gallons of gasoline. Regular unleaded is recommended. Mileage: I averaged 27 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Safety: Dual front air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, lower anchor tethers for child safety seats. And, yes, to drive home a point made by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers, you can roll a Camry, too. Any vehicle can roll over. Your best protection is wearing seat belts. Price: Base price on the tested Camry SE V-6 is $23,700. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $21,095. Price as tested is $26,185, including an estimated $2,000 in options and a $485 destination charge. Purse-strings note: You can bargain on Camrys nowadays, thanks to lots of competition. Compare with Mazda 6, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Jetta, Chrysler Sebring.
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