It's illuminating to sit in a conference room and listen to a parade of Toyota executives freely describe the outgoing version of the Camry, the automaker's most successful and important vehicle, as "vanilla," "bread-and-butter," "ordinary," "boring," and "uninspired." You'd think we had stumbled into some sort of twelve-step confessional meeting. Automotive enthusiasts have known all this about the Camry for years, but Toyota brass never seemed to care.
Now, they do.
Toyota had little choice but to try to jazz up the perennially banal--albeit perennially bestselling--Camry, what with the Subaru Legacy, the Ford Fusion, and the Hyundai Sonata seemingly coming out of nowhere as legitimate competitors. And, of course, the Mazda 6, the Nissan Altima, and the newly butt-lifted Honda Accord are capable of taking bigger slices of the Camry's bacon as well.
Does this mean that, in the space of one generation, the Camry has morphed into the best-looking, most exciting, most desirable mid-size family sedan? Not quite. After all, its eyebrow headlamps, high shoulders, thick waist, and high rear deck are all overly familiar styling themes, so this car hardly represents some sort of design breakthrough. We'd say it's still vanilla, but now with tasty specks of vanilla bean sprinkled throughout.
The new Camry's cabin isn't revolutionary, either, nor notably bigger, but it's well-crafted, comfortable, intelligently designed, and chock-full of useful storage bins. The top-of-the-line XLE model even has reclining rear seats. A well-designed navigation system and Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity are optional, and side curtain air bags and front-seat side air bags are standard on all models. The center instrument stacks in the XLE and Hybrid models are finished in a translucent blue plastic reminiscent of the "Bondi blue" casing of the original Apple iMac computer. It's an attractive, modern way of dressing up an instrument panel without resorting to the excessive use of fake woodgrain or faux aluminum.
Yes, the Camry will, for the first time, be offered with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, but with a more energetic version than the one in the Prius. For the Camry Hybrid, Toyota uses an Atkinson-cycle (which provides a very long expansion stroke for higher efficiency) variant of the standard, 2.4-liter Camry four-cylinder mated to a 45-hp electric motor, for a total system output of 192 hp. (The Prius provides only 110 hp from the combined efforts of its 1.5-liter four and electric motor.) At 3637 pounds, the Camry Hybrid is 150 to 350 pounds heavier than its siblings, a weight penalty that is evident on a two-lane road, where the car falls to its knees if you ask it to negotiate a corner too quickly. But in most driving conditions, the Hybrid is unobtrusive and refined, with smooth--if not terribly fast--power delivery: Toyota says it takes 8.9 seconds to reach 60 mph. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 43/37 mpg for the city/highway cycles. For those who are willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort to maximize efficiency, an "eco" button temporarily lessens the air conditioner's output. We suspect that's a response to the criticism Toyota has endured for the Prius's failure to measure up to its mileage ratings.
Although Jim Lentz, general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, predicts that the company "won't be able to build enough Camry Hybrids" to meet demand, most customers will leave dealerships in a Camry with a conventional powertrain. As in the past, they will choose between a four-cylinder and a V-6. The 2.4-liter four is essentially carried over with revisions, but the previous 3.0- and 3.3-liter V-6s have been scrapped in favor of the 3.5-liter V-6 from the new Avalon. For Camry duty, where it's optional in SE, LE, and XLE grades, the V-6 sends a generous 268 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque through a brand-new, six-speed automatic transmission.
The SE, pictured here, is again the sportier model. As before, the SE suspension is mildly stiffer, but now the SE rides nearly half an inch lower than the other models thanks to a standard body kit of dubious aesthetic appeal. The SE also gets a black honeycomb grille. More substance can be found in the SE's standard seventeen-inch tires (Toyo Proxes on our test car) and in the V-shaped brace between the trunk and cabin that increases torsional rigidity. That brace eliminates the fold-down rear seatbacks that are standard on all other models, though.
Toyota still offers a five-speed manual in four-cylinder Camrys, and an SE thus equipped is reasonably entertaining to drive, with smooth shift engagement and clutch action. The gearshifter knob is tall and bulky, though, almost as if to announce that the very presence of a manual transmission in a Camry is so incongruous as to be silly.
Our favorite model is the SE with the V-6 and the automatic, which smoothly and seemingly unstoppably propels you well into triple-digit territory, a place at which you arrive more quickly than you'd expect in a Camry. The SE doesn't have the sort of body control that begs you to throw it into the sweeping curves on the winding roads above Santa Barbara, but if you do so anyway, the chassis digs in and hangs on without too much protest, and the car loses grip predictably and controllably. All Camry models still suffer from numb and uncommunicative steering.
The new Camry is inching its way from the bland, the vanilla, and the ordinary, but it's not as bold as Toyota would like you to believe. Naturally, build quality, reliability, refinement, value, and safety--stability control is optional on all trim levels--are all here, in spades. Inspiration, though, is still a missing ingredient.