2020 Toyota Camry TRD Drives Better Than We Expected

Toyota’s new TRD Camry is an alternate reality version of itself.

Early on in my career, I'd often eavesdrop on what some of the more grizzled editors would talk about, soaking up whatever industry insights they'd let slip. One pearl of wisdom in particular stuck with me: "If you ever attend a press launch in Florida, you can be sure the car doesn't handle well." The idea is that Florida, for all its natural beauty and eccentric populace, primarily consists of straight, flat roads, making it hard to properly evaluate a car's dynamic capabilities.

Those sage words were rattling around in my head as I was preparing to evaluate the all-new 2020 Toyota Camry TRD and 2020 Toyota Avalon TRD. The duo is being billed by Toyota as the highest-performing Camry and Avalon ever—making good on Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda's longstanding promise to bring the fun back to his namesake brand. The launch was held in Dallas, Texas, my old and Toyota Motor North America's new hometown, a city known for wide, flat landscapes and a robust road network comprised entirely of right angles. Though we're 700 miles from Pensacola, it initially seemed as though I was in for one of those "Florida" experiences.

All of those thoughts went out the window though as soon as I caught sight of the infield of the Texas Motor Speedway, which Toyota had rented out for a full-blown TRD test fest. Despite what we've come to expect from non-offroad TRD-branded stuff as of late, both the 2020 Camry and Avalon TRD editions are more than just tinsel and trim—these are serious endeavors developed by a group of very excited engineers. From the tone and passion of the product presentations, you could tell there was a lot of pent-up desire among the Toyota crew on hand to show off the hotter stuff.

As for the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD, according to one of the project leads, Toyota engineers have 10 parameters they adhere to when evaluating the handling and dynamics of a new model. Starting with a Camry XSE as the base, the TRD team focused on improving body control, yaw rate, and steering precision as part of the adjustments it made to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, which underpins the XSE in addition to all new generation Camry and Avalon models.

A half-inch drop in ride height sets the aesthetic tone, while stiffer shocks with bespoke internal valving, bumpstops, stiffer rebound springs, and thicker, solid anti-roll bars front and rear help reduce body roll of the 2020 Camry TRD by an impressive 44-percent in the front and 67-percent in the rear. For extra body rigidity, three extra underbody braces and a special v-brace behind the non-folding rear seats further battens everything down.

Front brake calipers gain an extra piston (now up to two total) and the rotors grow an extra 0.9-inch compared with the XSE. It's not limited to upgraded hardware; driver inputs have also been massaged and leaned-out for Camry TRD duty. The brake pedal spring and solenoid were reworked in an effort to improve feel and there's updated componentry in the electric steering to enable sharper feedback. A TRD-specific catback exhaust makes the standard 3.5-liter V-6 sound a little throatier and compliments the Hot Import Nights attitude of the exterior. Body stiffness, lap times, and downforce improvements are strictly confidential, per Toyota.

You likely already noticed the special TRD-exclusive 19-inch black rims, a design allegedly inspired by wheels found on cars campaigning in the German-based DTM motorsports series. The idea of DTM-inspired wheels on a Camry is a bit preposterous, but we have to admit, in person, they look aggressive and suit the package. They're 3.1-pounds lighter and a half-inch wider than the XSE's alloys, and if you ask nicely and spec it correctly, will shed the standard all-seasons for optional Bridgestone Potenza RE050s. The black wheels go well with the TRD's body kit that includes side skirts, front and rear lower bumper trim, blacked-out badging, black mirror caps, and a low-profile rear wing.

TRD touches adorn the interior as well. The seatbelts are now red, there's TRD embroidered into the headrests, and along with red stitching scattered around the cabin, an embossed leather gear selector sets it apart from the regular car.

The end result is an experience that's rather difficult to describe. I drove the 2020 Camry TRD back-to-back with the Camry XSE on an autocross course, and the upgrades are indeed noticeable, but it's subtler than the paper trail might suggest. Generally speaking, no matter what automaker you turn to, a regular work-a-day mid-size sedan with standard all-seasons is going to be a bit of a slug on an autocross. Even the Accord Sport, the gold-standard for driving dynamics within this segment, isn't as tossable and hairpin-hungry as its smaller Civic sibling.

The same goes for the Camry. To get accustomed to the course, I first stepped out in an available Corolla Hatchback for some sighting laps. Sliding back into the XSE was like putting on earmuffs, oven mitts, and thick hiking boots, but that's both expected and entirely forgivable. From top to bottom, this segment is for inoffensive daily transportation, not clipping cone courses at speed. The most aggression these cars are designed for is an occasional run on a tight on-ramp or up the mountain pass for a weekend in the woods.

So, what about the 2020 Camry TRD? Well, on the autocross at least, it's very much the sum of its changes. Stiffer, louder, grippier, and moderately sharper than the XSE. While the summer tires likely had the largest effect, the suspension and chassis tweaks don't go unnoticed. Though the steering ratio is identical to the regular Camry, turn-in is slightly quicker, sudden directional changes more composed. When it was my turn to drive, the brakes were already a bit too hot to get an accurate feel for the reworked pedal, but stopping power is more than adequate, even for an autocross. It sounded pretty damn good, too.

Out on the arrow-straight asphalt bordering the speedway, these changes were less pronounced. I took the long drive route twice, pushing the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD through a grid of ranch roads that alternated between open fields, pole barn churches, and incongruous McMansion subdivisions. I'm happy to report that ride quality is less pliant, but mostly unaffected when compared with the XSE, and the extra body composure was welcome as I crunched over a few railroad crossings.

Surprisingly, for all the work put into the aesthetics and chassis, the powertrain is left untouched. The same 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated V-6 sends the same 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels as the Camry V-6 models, all managed by the same eight-speed automatic transmission. Straight line performance should be exactly the same as the standard Camry V-6; previous instrumented testing returned a 0-60 mph sprint in the high 5-second range. Not bad, but aside from the exhaust and comparably impressive acceleration, this isn't as sportive an experience as the TRD-ified exterior suggests. Though there is a "Sport" mode for the car and an "S" mode for the shifter, the current transmission mapping isn't one destined for effective track work, thanks to low gear change threshold and a semi-restrictive manual mode.

And that's perfectly OK. As I said before, this car isn't made for the track, or even the autocross we lapped all day. Part of me wants to complain that Toyota didn't let their engineers far enough off the leash, that maybe adding a supercharger, adaptive suspension, and upgraded transmission would have made this a more cohesive performance package. Sounds like great fun, but there's absolutely no market for something like that, not to mention those changes would result in an outrageous sticker price.

This is probably about far as anyone can really go in this market segment. Leave the hard-charging, stiffly-sprung hot hatches to the next smallest segment, and enjoy the fact that Toyota, of all automakers, is offering a hop-up kit for its bread-and-butter sedan. That's more than Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Chevy can say. What's more, with all the stylistic upgrades, killer wheels, and sport exhaust, it looks (and feels) more special than anything else in the mid-sized family.

2020 Toyota Camry TRD Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2019
PRICE $31,995
ENGINE 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/301 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 22/31 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 192.7 x 72.4 x 56.3 in
WHEELBASE 111.2 in
WEIGHT 3,572 lb
0-60 MPH 5.8 seconds (est)
TOP SPEED N/A
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