2012 Toyota Camry: First Drive Page 3

August 23, 2011

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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