2012 Toyota Camry: First Drive

August 23, 2011

Practical, value-minded American families used to be wild about the Toyota Camry.

But a few model years ago, word started to spread among shoppers—and review sources—that the outgoing Camry felt cut-rate inside compared to the competition, and it was no longer the refinement or fuel-economy forerunner. Then came Toyota's recall hearings last year, along with some concerns that Camry resale value—long one of the best in the segment—might have taken a hit. And three-star (out of five-star) NHTSA crash-test ratings last year hardly helped.

In short, to make good, we need some extra reassurances on safety and dependability. And, above all, we need one darned good sedan to earn that love back.

Toyota was in this same mindset, it seems, and already understood this urgent need as it went about rethinking this latest Camry. In terms of layout, design, and technology, the resulting all-new 2012 Camry isn't nearly as much the flashy new car on the block as it is the car hard-bent on winning back Toyota's reputation.

Not a facelift

In fact, there's nothing radical here, and it's easy to dismiss the new Camry as a light refresh or facelift at first glance—until, that is, you stare at it for a short while, or better yet line it up next to the current 2011 Camry. While the dimensions are almost exactly the same, and the doorcuts are slightly different, and the roofline and greenhouse has been subtly tweaked.

There are a few key appearance differences within the Camry lineup, too. For instance, sporty SE models get a split, winged air dam that we saw at times as Subaru-influenced; but XLE and hybrid trims come with a more wide-open (but louvered) air dam (with XLEs getting a little extra chrome in the upper grille). Toyota also placed more consideration on the lower area's design to aid pedestrian safety, improve aerodynamics, and yield better cooling.

Essentially, the result is a Camry that from most angles looks a little boxier and more angular, and reminds us a bit more of the 1996-2001-era Camry. Toyota claims that the sharpness of the Camry's corners—they call it 'aero corners'—helps improve aerodynamics. And in back, it helps increase trunk space. While some might think the styling a snooze, we ended up really liking it for two main reasons: Firstly, it goes against the grain with respect to more organic designs like the Hyundai Sonata and the (albeit more conservative) Volkswagen Passat. And secondly it doesn't sacrifice function for form, especially with respect to rear headroom.

Japanese automakers love to come up with new design philosophies and keywords, and there's no exception here with the new Camry. According to Toyota, it's "Rational Tech-Dynamism," which "aims for a rational and advanced style with sporty exterior and a modern, luxurious interior."

Much better interior design

Thankfully, Toyota has replaced the former interior that we saw as a 'Corolla-plus' layout with one that looks part influenced by Lexus sedans, accented with some of the dash details from Toyota's newest SUVs, like the new 4Runner. Like most new models, the Camry gets a multi-layered dash appearance; Toyota says that the layered, stitched-leather look of the instrument panel was modeled after saddles, while the center gauge cluster and audio and climate controls were inspired by media players like the iPod. And we like the chunky, multi-function controllers on either side of the steering wheel, positioned right where your thumbs can be.

The improvement you'll notice in person—especially compared to the more cockpit-like layouts among mid-size sedans, like the Kia Optima, is how airy the Camry feels from the front seats. Toyota redesigned everything to increase interior space and the perception of roominess; roof pillars are reshaped in a way that will appear thinner from the inside and door-trim panels have been reshaped for more front kneeroom. Front seats have also been redesigned to get more rear knee and legroom, and the back of the center console was reshaped.

Toyota emphasizes that early everything—every piece of sheetmetal, every element of the Camry's underbody structure, the suspension, and all the interior components—is different in the 2012. The only things that carry over are powertrain-related. Instead of trying to make the new car radically different, Toyota essentially took a look at the existing car and asked how it could redesign nearly every component to make a better end result for core values like comfort and safety.

Ride quality perhaps best in class

From behind the wheel, we can't say that the Camry driving experience has changed all that much, but the new 2012 model does respond a little more crisply and have a more refined feel overall. Toyota aimed to preserve the Camry's very absorbent, isolated ride while improving handling—especially straight-line stability and steering response. Toyota has redone the suspension geometry in back for better stability and agility—especially resulting in less lift/dive during hard braking—and the combination of inversely wound coil springs in front plus a new electric power steering system are said to improve steering feel and response.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the 2012 Camry, like the 2011 model, still doesn't feel like a performance car in the way it handles. Push the Camry hard into a corner and, yep, there's still a fair amount of body lean, as well as lots of roll; what has changed is that it deals with recoveries and transitions a bit better; combined with a reconfigured electric power steering system the net effect is that it's a bit more nimble—particularly in four-cylinder form. In general, we liked the base model's lighter front end and more balanced feel. And if you want to maximize the improvements, sporty SE models get stuffer springs, rebound springs, solid stabilizer bars, and exclusive steering knuckles and lower arms.

SE models also also get sport seats, 17-inch (four-cylinder) or 18-inch (V-6) alloy wheels, a special three-spoke leather-trimmed steering wheel and, perhaps most importantly, a Sport mode with downshift rev-matching for the transmission, along with steering-wheel paddle shifters.

Not all that much has changed about the way the Camry accelerates and responds. The 178-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that was introduced for model-year 2010 remains the base engine in the Camry, and it's uncharacteristically smooth in the way it starts and idles; though you can hear a hint of coarseness if you push it hard, this engine provides plenty of power for most needs. The 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is still available and gives the Camry a completely different, luxury-car personality. In either case, the six-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively and doesn't balk to downshift.

Toyota has also kept the existing transmission but increased its lockup range; most of the line also gets low-rolling-resistance tires. And underhood, the engine also gets a new cover for quieter operation. On V-6 models, the engine now uses lighter 0W-20 oil, and the transmission gets a fluid warmer.

Fuel economy for the four-cylinder is up to 25 mpg city, 35 highway, for a Combined rating of 28. Meanwhile mileage for the V-6 is improved by 1 mpg this year, to 21/30.

35-mpg four, 43-mpg Hybrid

Notably, Toyota has refocused the Hybrid model, offering it in both LE and XLE trims and giving it many of the improvements to the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and Hybrid Synergy Drive that the Prius got last year. Hybrid models get an Atkinson-cycle version of the four, making 156 hp and 156 lb-ft, and altogether the powertrain makes 200 horsepower. Just like the previous-generation Camry, the Hybrid version feels about as quick as the base four—possibly al little more so when you tap into full electric-motor boost. And the mileage improvement is phenomenal: 43 mpg city, 39 highway for the LE, or 41/38 for the XLE (because of different tires and more component weight).

Toyota has also redone many of the structural components underneath, with the aim of increasing rigidity and safety. It's quite a feat that in the process, Toyota has cut a total of up to 220 pounds in the Camry—including about 150 pounds even in the base four-cylinder models. At the same time, they've increased sound insulation, and even added things like sandwiched metal layers at the firewall.

Toyota clearly hasn't wasted any opportunities with respect to safety in the new Camry. It packs a class-leading ten standard airbags, including new front passenger knee bags and rear side airbags for outboard occupants. A blind-spot monitoring system will also be available, and Toyota expects five-star performance and Top Safety Pick status.

As before, there are four different trim levels offered: value-priced CE, mainstream LE, sporty SE, and luxurious XLE. There's also a limited-availability, base L model. And for the first time, Camry Hybrid models come in more than a single trim: Hybrid shoppers have a choice of Hybrid LE models, which include dual-zone climate control, a Smart Key system, and Optitron meters, while the new Hybrid XLE comes with all the goodies that the V-6 XLE includes.

Each of the models get different upholstery and trim combinations; L and LE models come with Silver trim and fabric seats; SE models get silver-grain trim and synthetic leather; XLE models come with faux-woodgrain and leather, and Hybrids come with Metallic Tech grain and in XLE Hybrid (or available on the SE) a leather-trimmed ultrasuede.

Bluetooth for all; improved audio systems

All 2012 Camrys will come with a Bluetooth hands-free interface, and a new Display Audio system—adding a large display screen, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a iPod connectivity—will come in 90 percent of models. Even the base audio system below that comes with USB connectivity, an aux-input jack, and a CD player. But JBL sound, HD Radio, and satellite radio are all available, as is a navigationi system and voice recognition.

Toyota says that the Bluetooth interface has been dramatically improved; however the combination of fringe cellphone reception at the remote drive location, combined with several pre-production bugs, kept us from putting it through the paces. Entune is also available, bringing a suite of connected services, including access to Pandora streaming audio, for example (although sound was particularly poor—again probably from bad cell-network reception).

Overall, the Camry rides and drives in a more refined, responsive way, and the package and features have been much improved. Although we only had a quick sample with each major model in the Camry lineup, Toyota has turned around its trajectory and, from what we've seen, offers a set of solidly competitive mid-size sedans.

Is that enough to bring back the love?

Should Toyota have gone with a bolder design? Is it everything that the last generation really should have been? Those are all points for you to discuss; we'd love to see your comments and thoughts below. 

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