Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Toyota Camry

A lighter shade of Macadamia: eighth-gen sedan attempts to break away from beige

NEWBERG, Oregon — The roads that slash through this verdant green, mountainous stretch southeast of Portland are billiard-table smooth — delicious ribbons of asphalt any enthusiast would get a kick out of attacking. Another squiggly ribbon sign with the requisite low speed number warns of more curves ahead. Here we go again. Brake hard, ease off, turn in, look ahead. Get back on the gas. We’re having fun. We’re in the 2018 Toyota Camry. Wait, what?

Toyota’s choice of roads to showcase the all-new, eighth-generation Camry is not lost on me — or anyone else in attendance. There’s a determination from group vice president Jack Hollis on down to show that the Camry can be a little bit fun and flashy in addition to everything else it’s come to represent — after all, there’s a reason it’s been the best-selling car in America for the past 15 years, with more than 388,000 sold last year.

The Camry has made its name on being a well-built, reliable, affordable, and safe midsize sedan. But when you play it safe, you also get a rep for being boring, bland, and beige. Additionally, the sedan market is softening considerably and the RAV4 may overtake the Camry as the brand’s best-selling vehicle for the first time. The perfect time then for Toyota to shake things up a bit.

As you’d expect from a new generation car, the 2018 Camry is a ground up makeover, and it starts with four letters: TNGA. That’s Toyota New Generation Architecture to you, and the Camry is the first Toyota to fully employ what Toyota officials call a “new philosophy” around how it develops its vehicles. From how it performs (a newly developed 2.5-liter four cylinder and eight-speed transmission) to how it’s constructed (improved sight lines, quieter cabin, lower height and center of gravity) to what underpins it (a new independent rear suspension and platform). Think Mazda’s Skyactiv, only without all the marketing hype. While the latest Prius deployed elements of the emerging TNGA strategy, the Camry is the embodiment of where Toyota is headed with it.

What you aren’t going to see are turbocharged engines and all-wheel drive, two elements that are increasingly being adopted by other automakers. Toyota product folks we spoke with dismissed all-wheel drive as unnecessary, and given that you can get your Camry in the fuel-sipping Hybrid form (an excellent 51/53 city/highway in the most frugal LE trim) and that most four-cylinder gas trims hit an impressive for the segment 28/39 city/highway, the need for a turbo engine other than to maybe boost horsepower seems superfluous. Want more power? That’s what the 3.5-liter V-6 with 301 hp and 267 lb-ft is for (22/33 city/highway in XLE trim).

What you are going to see though are two distinct looks for the Camry — especially up front. Dominating the face of the volume models is a blacked out, seven-slatted grille along the lines of the full-size Toyota Avalon (and maybe a high tech razor), only much wider and without the chrome trim. XE and XSE trims come with a sportier, hourglass shape reminiscent of modern Lexus vehicles, only with less hour to the glass. Both versions feature subtle creases on the hood, v-shaped snouts centered by the Toyota logo that dip into each lower grille area, and trapezoidal headlamps that venture into the front fender (LEDs are standard at the rear and at the front on most trims). At the side, the dominating feature is a sharp character line that bisects the door handles.

Out back, the defining features of the XE and XSE are twin tailpipes at each end that frame a diffuser look (we could do without the black trim piece at either side of the rear bumper, but the color-keyed sills are a slick touch), while the rest of the trims feature a more restrained, traditional looking rear bumper and single tailpipe setup at each end. And for the first time, 19-inch rims are available on select trims. All-in-all, while it no doubt cost more time and effort, the two looks offer more choice for the buyer.

Don’t expect performance changes though to go along with the appearance differences. Other than the obvious power pump the V-6 offers (which about 10 percent of Camry buyers have traditionally opted for), the overwhelming majority of customers will gravitate toward a model powered by the updated 2.5-liter four cylinder with 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, 25 more horses and 14 more lb-ft then before, hooked up to the new eight speed automatic. Depending on trim level, paddle shifters, and an eco/normal/sport button option is available.

We spent most of our time out on the Oregon roads in various iterations of the top trim XLE model with the new “Dynamic Force” four. Dynamic isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when you put your foot to the floor, but with direct injection and Toyota’s variable valve timing, it does an ample job of motivating the Camry (the XLE is rated by Toyota at 3,351 pounds). We’re guessing it hits 60 mph from a stop sign in a tick or two over 8 seconds. Like most four cylinders, it doesn’t exactly emit a sonic symphony under hard acceleration, but it isn’t too thrashy, either. The new eight speed automatic kicks down with authority when called upon and shifts smoothly and easily in every other situation. Press the sport button and, as you’d expect, shift points change and feel a smidge more aggressive.

Speaking of sport modes, the new Camry Hybrid has one if you pick the right model, and the SE even has paddle shifters to lend the CVT the feel of a six-speed automatic. Yes, you read that right, paddle shifters. At 208 total system horsepower, the Hybrid deploys a similar version of the new 2.5-liter four, detuned to 176 horsepower and 163 lb-ft, working with the electric motor to boost power under hard accel and optimize mpg in low stress situations. Additionally, the battery pack has been repositioned to under the rear seat from the trunk (the LE’s battery is lithium ion and the SE and XLE nickel-metal hydride) thanks to the new TNGA architecture improvements. The system’s power control unit has also been optimized to reduce energy loss and was repackaged as well, helping to lower the hood height. In fact, the Toyota folks we spoke with said the Hybrid’s new packaging actually helps make it a little more dynamically balanced than the gas models.

Indeed, through the tight bends and sweeping curves, the Hybrid proved relatively fun to drive. Yes, you read that right again, fun. Kinda, sorta. And paddle shifters. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the stronger structure and the Camry’s new platform. In addition, the MacPherson strut front suspension and new double wishbone rear, with anti-roll bars front and rear further aid the cause. Let’s be clear, this is no sports sedan, but it’s no wallowing beast either. We hustled it harder than probably 99 percent of Camry owners ever will and it almost never felt out of its element. The electric steering firms up quickly into turns, the brakes (12.0-inches in front, 11.1 at the rear) bite down adequately when called upon. We tried looking for some roads to upset the suspension, but there was nothing but glassphalt on the routes. We found a few bumps, but not enough to really gauge how the car would roll over rough stuff. Given its stiffer, sportier feel, we suspect it will be a little harsher than the previous car.

The only time we felt the limit of the suspension in the twisty stuff was in the six-cylinder car while attacking the route at higher speeds. We were in a unicorn Camry XSE with the 19-inch wheels, V-6, painted black roof option, and hot red interior trim with a panoramic sunroof. Of course, the 3.5-liter V-6 makes the car notably quicker than either of the other models. Turn off the traction control, and you can get the front wheels spinning pretty fiercely.

While the Cockpit Red interior popped some eyes, the volume models will be across the Ash and Black spectrum primarily, although there’s a beige, ahem, Macadamia option, with multiple interior trim finishes (wood grain, mesh, metal) and seating options, from fabric, to SofTex to leather. Every model we were in had a pleasing, diverse color and trim combination that was far from the cold gray or black wall of yesteryear, with plenty of soft touch surfaces throughout. While the seats felt a little stiff for our tastes up front, they were attractive and relatively supportive — and the rears fold down in a 60/40 split.

Dominating the front of the cabin is the Camry’s new “S-curved” center stack and console design that houses the latest generation of Toyota’s Entune system (with a 7 or 8-inch screen) and other vital interior controls. Apple CarPlay or Android Auto aren’t available, but Entune has a solid lineup of apps including Pandora, Facebook, and Scout GPS, which allows for turn-by-turn directions in non-navigation equipped models.

Step up to the 800-watt JBL-equipped sound system and you won’t be disappointed. It’ll blow your ears out, in a good way. Other features include either a 4- or 7-inch info screen in the middle of the instrument panel, vastly improved steering wheel controls, three USB ports, and an available, 10-inch head-up display. It’s a driver centric arrangement that makes some things harder for the passenger to access like the volume controls and front cubby, but overall, the setup is relatively easy to get used to and operate.

From a safety perspective, all Camry models now come standard with Toyota’s Safety Sense-P suite that has more nannies than a Beverly Hills elementary school parking lot waiting at 2 p.m. Standard features include lane departure, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, blind spot assist, adaptive cruise control and 10 airbags. Depending on trim, you can get blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, an electric parking brake, an around view camera system, and a sonar system that detects objects approaching from the front and behind in low speed situations and works with a rear cross traffic braking system to alert the driver and can slow the car if necessary.

So what will this all-new Camryness set you back? It all depends on how you spec it out, of course. The bare bones Camry L starts at $24,380, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone buying that car. The sporty look but lower line SE model is $26,085, the well-equipped XLE starts at $29,335, and the top of the line XSE V-6 rings in at $35,835. The cheapest Camry Hybrid L is $28,685, with the top spec XLE hybrid $4,450 more.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in this spread of models, with the two distinct exterior trims, V-6 and hybrid, et cetera, you’re not looking hard enough (OK, maybe a V-6 with a true sport tuned suspension would make sense at some point, we know Toyota’s NASCAR star Kyle Busch would approve). The new Camry is unquestionably improved across the board, offers more versatility than ever, and is even a little fun now. Not so beige anymore, more like Macadamia.

2018 Toyota Camry XLE Specifications

ON SALE July 2017
PRICE $29,335 (base)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/203 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 28/39 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 192.1 x 72.4 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 111.2 in
WEIGHT 3,351 lb
0-60 MPH 8.2 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 129 mph (est)

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Buying Guide
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EPA MPG:

29 City / 41 Hwy

Horse Power:

203 @ 6600

Torque:

184 @ 5000