For all the Toyota Camry's success -- it's been the bestselling car for the last nine years -- the Camry is also a frequent target of critics. The overarching theme is that the Camry is boring. With the new 2012 Camry, you get the impression that Toyota has taken some of that criticism to heart.
The company seems to have gotten the message that it needed to make the Camry more visually interesting. The old car's amorphic exterior has become more angular, and the front end features huge lower air intakes; the success of this styling you can decide for yourself. Inside, the design is a lot flashier than in Camrys past. The dash has a layered appearance and SE models, like my test example, are liberally splashed with aluminum-look trim. Two different touch-screen audio systems are offered. The SE's unique front seats have prominent side bolsters and unique upholstery: man-made faux leather and strangely patterned cloth inserts, the latter of which could have come out of a 1960's Rambler. (A leather and Ultrasuede combination is also available.) Other interior materials leave something to be desired. Yes, there is a padded dash topper with contrast stitching, but the door panels are largely hard plastic, and the sides of the console have molded plastic pieces that are cheesy imitations of stitched panels.
Get back to its traditional virtues, however, and the latest Camry is better than ever. The standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is now makes a healthy 178 hp -- 9 hp more than before. The normally aspirated four provides plenty of motivation for this family sedan. Toyota also continues to offer an optional V-6; it has 268 hp. With either engine, fuel economy is quite good. The four-cylinder's EPA ratings of 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway put it near the top of the mid-size class. (The only hybrids or diesels do better). I got an indicated 27.5 mpg overall, a very good showing for a week of suburban driving.
The Camry has a cavernous interior, and the back seat is particularly roomy. Commendably, the 2012 model's additional space (1.8 inches of rear-seat knee room, for instance) results from re-shaped and re-positioned interior items -- seats, door panels, pedals -- rather than from increased exterior dimensions. Length, width, height, and wheelbase are all unchanged, which is one reason why the latest Camry hasn't suffered any weight gain; in fact, it has actually shed a few pounds.
All Camrys use electric power steering. The SE model's is uniquely tuned and is not the overly light, one-finger setup seen previously. The SE also has specific suspension tuning, and while it doesn't suffer the old car's nodding, floaty body motions, there is some impact harshness. The tuning in other Camry trim levels may strike a better balance.
Overall, the latest Camry has been less successful in adding new strengths to its repertoire than it has been in polishing the ones it already had. Considering that the outgoing model once again beat all comers to remain America's bestselling car -- despite tsunami-created supply shortages that dragged down Toyota's overall sales -- that's probably enough to keep the Camry on top despite tough challenges poised by Hyundai and Kia. We'll see whether it's enough to survive the onslaught coming this year, as Chevrolet, Nissan, Honda, and Ford all launch redesigned models in this ultra-competitive segment.