Would you believe that we once described the Toyota Camry -- the whipping boy of the enthusiast automotive media -- as "the gold standard of mid-size motoring?" Back in 1992, the Camry was Toyota's first mid-size car and the first one designed just for the American market. It was stunning -- not just in its looks, but in the way it offered Lexus levels of refinement to the masses.
In the two decades since, the Camry's standard horsepower jumped 30 percent and torque more than 15 percent. Thanks to 50 percent more gears in the transmission, fuel economy also increased -- by more than a fifth. While other cars puffed up like marshmallows in a microwave oven, the Camry grew only about two inches in each exterior dimension, yet thanks to constant packaging improvements (and a wheelbase stretched half a foot) the cabin became larger and larger. Despite ever-increasing safety and equipment levels (seven air bags instead of one, sixteen-inch wheels instead of fourteens, and the addition of antilock brakes, stability control, Bluetooth, keyless entry, and twin variable valve timing, to name a few), the Camry bucked the obesity trend and gained far less weight than the person writing this -- proportionally, that is, as the 3100-pound sedan put on only 250 pounds. Best of all, adjusted for inflation, Toyota's mainstream sedan has even become less expensive.
So why on earth would anyone complain about it? Because, even though each successive generation of Camry demonstrated improvements on paper, it became less appealing to car enthusiasts. Last year's Camry, like the 1992 edition that changed the game, was quiet, smooth, comfortable, and reliable. But it was also dull as dishwater, displaying not a single ounce of visual interest. Hot new contenders like the Hyundai Sonata and the Kia Optima had changed the game, bringing sex appeal back into a class of cars where the leader had precisely none.
Now, it seems, Toyota is back in contention. There's a new Camry for 2012, and although it's not a radical change, it's a substantial revision on the formula that, for two decades, has proven nearly unbeatable in dealerships. Your knees won't get weak when you look at the Camry's styling (unless you're a Subaru designer lightheaded with anger because Toyota heisted your Legacy's taillight design), but you won't be offended, either. And when you step into the seventh-generation Camry, you won't see, smell, or feel rental-car-grade materials anywhere.
The 2012 Camry's single biggest improvement is its interior. Rather than an exercise in computer-aided ergonomics, the cabin's styling looks as though it was created by a human -- a stylist, even -- able to convince the bean counters to splurge a little. There's an unnecessary, but hugely welcome, band of contrasting thread stitched into the Camry's attractive, horizontally themed upper dash. The center stack pours down over the middle of the dashboard, riding atop the rest of the soft-touch material. It feels several classes richer than the last Camry's cabin, and the elegant styling sacrifices nothing in terms of usability.
Moreover, the Camry's liquid-butter driving experience is better than ever. Road and wind noise are noticeably reduced, and the overall structure feels more rigid, with less impact noise and apparent chassis flex over big bumps. The improvements come despite a significant weight loss (about 110 pounds versus last year's Camry) and additional equipment, including three more air bags, for a total of ten. The only evidence of weight (or cost) savings we could find is that the Camry now has but one automatic power window -- all four of last year's windows had auto up/down.
The powertrains -- a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V-6, both mated to a six-speed automatic -- carry over with slight revisions (including incrementally taller final-drive ratios) that have resulted in dramatic improvements in fuel economy. The 268-hp V-6 model is expected to score EPA ratings of 21 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, which equal the four-cylinder Camry of a couple years ago and nearly match the Sonata's 2.0-liter turbo four. The new four-cylinder Camry, meanwhile, jumps to the top of the class with expected 25/35 mpg ratings.
That highway rating matches the current Camry Hybrid's, which would be a problem for Toyota's marketing department if the 2012 Camry Hybrid didn't leap all the way to 39 mpg. In fact, combined fuel economy for the hybrid increases 25 percent, from a mediocre 33 mpg to a class-leading 41 mpg. Best of all, the Camry Hybrid is no longer painful to drive -- the soupy handling, artificial steering, bouncy ride, grabby brakes, and clumsy throttle response we complained about have all vanished without a trace. The electric power steering (now fitted to all Camrys) is precise and almost natural, the brake pedal feels as good as any hybrid's, and the suspension tuning is nothing short of a revelation. Best of all, the new hybrid Camry is not only 250 pounds lighter than before, but its four-cylinder engine has gained more than 100 cc's of displacement along with 9 hp and 18 lb-ft of torque. The trunk is 24 percent bigger to boot.
Hot-blooded car enthusiasts may not yearn to drive this new Camry, but at least they will no longer be dismayed to find themselves behind the wheel of one -- especially if it wears an SE badge. Toyota hinted that the premium for an SE will be less than $800, and that includes a full body kit, firmer suspension, more supportive seats, and a three-spoke steering wheel that commands the car through dramatically heavier steering. It's certainly no sport sedan, but the SE further improves what is already a big step in handling. In fact, when stability control is turned off, the 2012 Camry no longer understeers embarrassingly, gradually transitioning into lift-throttle oversteer without a trace of last year's nautical body roll or wallow.
What?! Why, yes, we just said that about a Toyota Camry. It's been twenty years, but the Camry might have just leapt back to the front of the pack as the worry-free car you'd gladly recommend to your mother -- without being afraid to be seen in it yourself. We predict that it'll remain the gold standard in sales volume, but we look forward to pitting it against the Hyundai Sonata to see if it's regained its crown as the gold standard of mid-size motoring.
ON SALE: Late 2011
PRICE: $21,000 (base, est.)
ENGINEs: 2.5L I-4, 178 hp,
170 lb-ft; 2.5L I-4/electric hybrid,
156 hp, 156 lb-ft (200 hp net);
3.5L V-6, 268 hp, 246 lb-ft;
THE STANDARD: Buttery smoothness, now with handling and a nice interior