There aren't many cast-iron bargains in this era of $99.95 liquidation sales and the five-day, four-night Caribbean come-on. The 1992 Toyota Camry LE, however, is about as close as one will ever get. For the price of a Toyota--or a mid-priced Pontiac or Nissan for that matter--this car gives the buyer a hint of the body, all of the heart and most of the soul of a Lexus. For the Camry LE's suggested base of $18,638--provided bottoms and eyes don't flinch at the thought of sitting on tweedy fabric or looking at vinyl linings--you can have the ride and performance of a $26,150 Lexus ES300. That means the same chassis, the identical24-valve, 3.0 liter V-6 engine good for 185 horsepower, the exact cruise control, the selfsame driver's side air bag and a four-speed automatic transmission tantamount to the ES300. Plus the same sweet handling. All this duplication is the result of family exchanges that began three years ago, when Toyota's emerging Lexus Division acknowledged that it was short an entry-level car. Lexus adopted the front-drive Camry, tarted it up with wood, leather and a few finer fixings and it sold as the Lexus ES250. This year, Lexus replaced the ES250 with the mid-size ES300 designed from scratch. Lexus gave its new ES300 engine, chassis and transmission to Toyota as the infrastructure for the third-generation Camry. Like the Nissan Maxima and Ford Taurus it now rivals in power and mid-size dimensions, the Camry LE has evolved into a dual-personality car: It combines very sporty performance with the riding comforts of a four-doorfamily sedan. After several consecutive wins, the Camry has virtually retired reliability and quality surveys by J. D. Power & Associates. This year, the car repeated its 1990 Power triumph as the best quality car built in the United States. Therein falls the final piece of resistance to spending hard-earned U.S. dollars on an import: Most ToyotaCamrys are built in Georgetown, Ky. And if it still matters, the Camry was recently named to Car and Driver's list of Ten Best Cars under $40,000. It is, of course, a frustrating car to critique. Because beyond a somewhat generic silhouette and a shortage of head and legroom in the rear seats, there is precious little to criticize. Perfectionists that they are, thoughtful Toyotans even remembered to line the trunk lid. Remember, however, that the Camry comes in several flavors, with the highest level of looks, efficiency and proficiency reserved for models with the V-6 engine. Beneath these is a variety of milder vehicles with 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engines. The entry-level Camry DX, for example, comes with a 5-speed manual transmission, a base price of $14,368 and about 5% better gas consumption. But it delivers only 135 horsepower, you pay extra for such staples as air-conditioning and cruise control and the car is relatively sluggish in mid-range acceleration. So for the extra $1,700 and change, invest in the six-cylinder version. With the additional 50 horsepower comes a broad surplus of oomph for entering freeways without sweating that 18-wheeler crawling into your brake lights. The new Camry is longer, wider, taller and consequently 250 pounds heavier than its predecessor. Some might question the stretching and bloating as a mild disservice to the bargain buyer in search of basic wheels and a compact car. But with the growth and a price hike come a disproportionate increase in quality that errs on the high side. Also, the larger size has provided more room to play with the slope and flow of exterior lines that, although rather ordinary, are far from unattractive. If reminiscent of anything, they smack of another Lexus--this time the $45,000 LS400. Once inside the Camry LE, however, there is no mistaking the car for a luxury sedan. The fabrics, by quality and textu e, are more May Co. than Saks. The dash is vinyl and the steering wheel isn't leather-covered. The Camry comes up short in automatic climate-control, lighted vanity mirrors, concert sound system and other electronic luxuries. Yet what is there, once more, is mid-quality, with fittings and fixtures edging on the upper class. Ergonomically the car is very clean. The dash is panoramic, the gauges analog, all controls are where they should be and nothing displays a bad case of the dysfunctional uglies. Grip and support of the seats--with a five-position power driver's seat for LE owners--are world class. On the road, there is no firm reason why the Camry should feel safer and more manageable than earlier models. The suspension is independent MacPherson struts and anti-roll bars that are standards these days. So maybe it is a more serious choice of wider tires and longer wheelbase that makes the car feel flatter and much more stable. The use of high-strength steel and front and rear sub-frames for engine and suspension makes for a rigid body that not only improves handling but also soaks up road and engine noises like an asbestos ceiling. Add fluid-filled engine mountings and rubber bushings on those sub-frames, and listening for an idling engine risks ear strain. This is a quiet, fast car with steering and braking systems well up to the task of handling its new and improved power. It also is a comfortable car that has captured an intangible: At rest, at speed, in crush-hour conspiracies on the Harbor Freeway, the Camry LE has the softness and silence of a car costing much more cabbage. Next year, there will be a new Camry wagon, followed by an SE sedan with a racier suspension and a five-speed mated to the potent V-6. In terms of extended value and a lasting impression, either should beat a short week in Jamaica. 1992 Toyota Camry LE The Good Champagne car on Budweiserbudget. Smooth, silent, quick V-6 performer. Reshapes vanilla image of family sedan. Quality looks, equipment and feel. The Bad Styled with the herd. Sluggish four-cylinder version. Barely enough rear-seat room. The Ugly Not applicable. Cost Base: $18,638 As tested, $20,947. (Includes driver's side air bag, cruise control, four-speed automatic, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, power driver's seat, power windows and doors, tilt steering and premium sound system.) Engine 3 liters, 24 valves, V-6 developing 185 horsepower. Type Front-drive, four-door, mid-size sedan. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested. 8.3 seconds. Top speed, manufacturers estimate, 125 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 18-24 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,053 pounds.