Road Test: Toyota tweaks its reliable Camry model

The new Camry doesn't look much different, says David Booth, but improvements lie elsewhere, with the exception of the model's increasingly outdated engines.

LE shown in Magnetic Gray Metallic.

Courtesy of Toyota
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Toyota did not make its mark on the automotive world by making the most technologically advanced cars available. Nor has it ever been the most stylish of brands. Or the most comfortable, roomy or fastest. Indeed, seldom has a Toyota been even one of the above, let alone all.

Yet Toyota is - or, more accurately, briefly was - the planet's most prolific car maker and its Camry was North America's most popular passenger saloon for 13 of the past 14 years. And Camry owners have proven over and over again that they are among the most loyal of repeat customers. Why? It's simple really. Styling, performance and luxury aside, what they want is a car that will reliably get the groceries - for 300,000km, with no unscheduled maintenance, thank you very much. And would you mind tossing in some decent fuel economy, by the way?

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It should be no surprise, with such a conservative clientele, that the seventh-generation Camry is a Darwinian development of the sixth. The car is, for instance, about the same size in height, overall length and even the wheelbase. The styling, while not identical, is equally somnolent and the Camry's inline four and V6 engines are carryovers.

Thus the base engine is still a 2.5L, though it is the upgraded 178hp version that was previously only available in the SE. The V6 is the same 3.5L, still with 268hp and probably still the most reliable engine on earth. Toyota, more than any other car maker, takes to heart the adage that one doesn't fix what isn't broken.

That's not to say that the new Camry performs or even feels the same as the outgoing model. For one thing, it has shed some weight - roughly 50 to 100kg depending on the trim - in its most recent transition so, despite the lack of a power bump or the influx of a raft of new gizmos, the 2012 Camry is just a tad quicker and more sophisticated than the previous version.

It's also more frugal thanks to the aforementioned weight decrease, a new six-speed automatic transmission (with a torque converter that locks up at the earliest possible convenience) and new brakes with a lower rolling resistance. According to Toyota, the four-cylinder Camry is the most fuel-efficient saloon in this segment, averaging 7.0L/100km overall. All this without the direct injection EFI systems that almost all manufacturers are touting as the latest breakthrough in emissions reduction technology and better fuel economy.

Indeed, while the four-cylinder Camry trails cars such as the latest Hyundai Sonata by 20hp or more, its biggest deficit may be that it's a little thrashier at high revs. That said, there's plenty of low-speed torque available and the new six-speed gearbox means that wringing the 2.5L past 4,500rpm is only needed in the most urgent of passing situations. If you're looking for an overall rating for the four-cylinder powertrain, give it a solid 7.5, the Russian judge deeming it adequate but hardly spectacular.

Though the inline four will be the most popular option, the Camry, of course, has two other powertrains available; the 3.5L V6 and the hybrid's combination of a 2.5L, Atkinson-cycled four and an electric motor. While the V6 is unchanged, the hybrid gets a monumental 39 per cent bump in fuel economy and, in a trick that defies convention, does so with a larger and more powerful (200hp) 2.5L engine. And the 2012 Camry Hybrid LE almost matches the previous generation Prius for parsimony. Its overall 4.7L/100km is superior to the Kia/Hyundai/Ford hybrids, says Toyota, and the upgraded 2012 version will also wax the Fusion and Sonata Hybrid in a drag race.

If the engines - other than the hybrid's - are unchanged and not worthy of boast, it's because Toyota spent its development dollars elsewhere. Though outwardly the same, the chassis is much improved. The ride is much better, the Camry now having some actual damping rather than porpoising. The sportier SE, dare I say it, almost handles well, something no previous Camry could be accused of. The steering, despite a switch to fuel-conserving electric power assistance, which confounds many car makers, is communicative and the grip more than adequate. The brakes, too, are powerful and relatively fade resistant.

If Toyota spent some money on the chassis, the company broke the bank in redesigning the interior. As staid and nondescript as the exterior may be, the cabin borders on the luxurious, even in the mid-priced SE model. No, there's no leather or high-powered stereo, but the decor is very well executed. The analogue gauges, the air conditioning/stereo controls and even the steering wheel look like they were lifted from a Lexus. And, even though the materials are all synthetic, their emulation of the organic is better than I've previously seen. The upper dash, for instance, is soft-touch plastic with leather-like stitching, a formula normally predisposed to the tacky and obvious. But, in the Camry, it works. Same goes for the SE's faux brushed aluminium that is, of course, plastic but so authentic looking that you have to clang it with your keys to be sure.

And therein lies the story of the 2012 Camry. Trying to match Sonata and the like on price point, there was only so much money to be spent in the redesign. Toyota could have spread that cash across the board and tried to update all the pertinent bits, all to mediocre results. Instead, it focused on improving the interior and the chassis at the expense of the engines (except, again, the hybrid) and possibly the exterior styling.

Besides, the Camry's engine technology is adequate while its comportment and interior are excellent, if not class-leading. If Toyota is smart and dumps two all-new, high-tech engines into it in the next two years or so, as part of a mid-model refresh, it's more than likely that this entire redesign will be deemed a success. But, if Toyota really is thinking that it can soldier on with these two ageing motors for this generation's entire four- or five-year lifespan, the competition is going to eat it up.

You can see the new Camry at the Dubai Motor Show this weekend; the company has no information yet on availability or pricing.