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.

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