The Toyota Camry was the best-selling car in the industry for 2004.

Ditto 2003.

Ditto 2002.

In fact, Camry has been the top-selling car seven of the last eight years, the string broken only in 2001, when it finished second to the Honda Accord.

The reason for its success obviously is its reputation for reliable, dependable, quality operation, because Camry certainly isn't the industry leader when it comes to flash or dash.

Camry is the conservative leader when it comes to styling and performance. Function takes priority over fun. Owners look for the ability to get there and back—over and over again - without having to make frequent stops for repair.

With industry sales leadership so many years, perceptions, as well as expectations, run high when it comes to Toyota's midsize sedan - though it's safe to say the competition takes little delight.

"The Chevy Impala finished ahead of Camry in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, and Impala has been a recommended buy by Consumer Reports for five years, but you don't change perceptions overnight," said Jim Campbell, marketing manager for Chevrolet cars.

Despite Impala's success with new-car buyers, Camry took the prize that counts most - sales of 426,990 in 2004, up 3 percent increase from 2003 and considerably ahead of Impala, which finished in fourth place at 290,256 units, a record high.

To learn what makes Camry stand out in the midsize crowd, we tested the '05 in XLE trim.

The current-generation Camry bowed in the '02 model year. Based on Toyota's five-year product cycle, it would undergo its next major makeover for 2007.

For '05 the focus is on a few refinements.

Those don't include two features offered by the competition: optional all-wheel-drive like Ford offers in the midsize Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans or a gas/electric version like the Honda Accord has for '05.

Ford is counting on AWD to lure buyers from Camry, and notes that about 40 percent of Five Hundreds and Montegos are sold with AWD.

Toyota did have AWD in Camry, starting in the 1987 model year. But it dropped the option after the 1991 model year, because only about 3 percent of consumers ordered it.

It should be noted that its Lexus luxury division adds an AWD model this fall, the 2006 GS300 sedan, hinting that Toyota is testing the waters again.

As for a hybrid, Honda hopes the gas/electric Accord (Transportation, Feb. 6) will help it regain the sales lead it lost to Camry in 2002. To up the ante, the hybrid Accord has cylinder deactivation so it runs on only 3 cylinders when all 6 aren't needed to conserve fuel.

Camry won't offer a hybrid until shortly after the sedan is redone for '07.

Those considerations aside, the big difference in the '05 Camry is that it sports very fashionable jewel-like headlamps, bigger taillamps and a redesigned grille, nothing to make the car stand out in a crowd unless the crowd consists of Camry loyalists quick to spot minor variations one year to the next.

Most of the changes are aimed at those who buy 4-cylinder models. They now get a new 5-speed automatic transmission and anti-lock brakes as standard and vehicle stability control as an option.

Camry comes with a choice of 2.4-liter, 160-horsepower 4-cylinder, same as offered in the Scion tC sports coupe, or a 3-liter V-6 that develops 210 h.p. and delivers 220 foot-pounds of torque.

The sports edition Camry SE is the only model offering a 3.3-liter V-6 that develops 225 h.p. and delivers 240 foot-pounds of torque.

Considering that the 3.3-liter V-6 is a newer engine and also gets 21 m.p.g. city/29 m.p.g. highway, or 1 m.p.g. better city and highway than the 3-liter, have to wonder why Toyota doesn't go with the more responsive 3.3-liter in all models.

Perhaps because the 4-cylinder traditionally is the best seller in the Camry line, accounting for about 60 percent of sales? That's in keeping with its function-over-fun character.

The XLE tested came with the 3-liter V-6 with 5-speed automatic. It's rated at 20 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway.

The V-6 is more fuel efficient than it is energetic and most of the test drive was spent looking at the exhaust pipes of those ahead. But the popularity of the 4-cylinder shows that most who opt for a Camry aren't looking to break away from the pack.

Camry does nothing to offend. Head, leg and arm room are adequate and sight lines good, and there's an ample number of holders and compartments to store or hide items. All controls are easy to see and use. Trunk capacity is spacious, and rear seat backs fold if you need to haul more.

Ride is smooth. The suspension absorbs road irregularities so those in the cabin don't. Steering response is precise. Handling is adequate. You'll experience some body lean in corners but not to the point you feel uncomfortable and have to back off the throttle.

For those who demand a car has to be more than simply transportation, the SE sports version has a sport-tuned suspension with higher spring rates for a firmer ride as well as summer grade performance tires for more agile handling.

The XLE benefited from optional stability control with traction control to limit unnecessary movement. Stability control comes in a $1,300 package that includes seat-mounted side-impact air bags for both front seat occupants and side-curtain air bags to protect the front and rear seats.

Since the package ensures stability and limits slippage when starting from the light or in a sharp turn and includes those side curtains in case someone should run into you, it should be the first item added when checking off options.

If you take the $1,450 navigation system and pass on stability control/curtains, you should have the melon examined.

But when it comes to stand-out features, you'd be hard-pressed to find any in Camry. As noted, it doesn't offend, but it also doesn't go out of its way to surprise and delight, either.

One gripe: Seat bottom cushions are short and don't offer enough thigh support for long-distance travel.

The XLE starts at $25,405. Standard equipment includes power, heated and color-keyed outside mirrors, power leather seats (add $315 if heated), automatic climate control with air filtration, cruise control, JBL AM/FM/cassette/CD player, power moonroof, 60/40 split rear seats, power windows and door locks and rear window defogger with manual pull up sunshade. Power adjustable pedals are a $120 option.

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2005 Toyota Camry XLE

Wheelbase: 107.1 inches

Length: 189.2 inches

Engine: 3-liter, 210-h.p. V-6

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 20 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $25,405

Price as tested: $27,206. Includes $1,300 for stability control and side air bags/side-curtain air bags package; $315 for heated driver and passenger seats; and $186 for carpets and cargo mat. Add $540 for freight.

Pluses: It's the best-selling car in the industry with front- and rear-end styling upgrades and fashionable headlamps. Anti-lock brakes are standard and Vehicle Stability Control with traction control and side-curtain air bags available. Lots of stowage compartments with large trunk capacity, and it gets good mileage.

Minuses: Seat cushion bottoms not long enough for ample long-distance thigh support. Time to reconsider all-wheel-drive. Gas/electric hybrid not here yet.

Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.