First Glance: Credibility at last!
I have been writing positive reviews of the Toyota Camry for years, which I imagine is why Car & Driver magazine has never offered me a job. The Camry has always been a perfectly good car, but recommending it is a bit like a restaurant critic recommending Olive Garden: It fulfills the basic needs, but there are so many more interesting choices out there. That is why I am so grateful to Toyota for finally giving the 2012 Camry a little personality. At last, I feel like I can recommend the Camry without tarnishing my reputation among my colleagues.
And before you ask, no, I'm not talking about the sheet metal. The all-new 2012 Camry is styled so as not to upset existing owners; it's the same basic shape as the old car, but the skin has been pulled tight over the bones, as if it's undergone deeply-discounted plastic surgery. But the shape has a more pronounced wedge to it, which provides tall rear doors and excellent rear-seat access. (Thank goodness -- I'm tired of mid-size sedans with swoopy rooflines that threaten a head injury every time you get in the back seat.)
Four models are on offer: Loss-leader L, volume-seller LE, sporty SE, and luxury-oriented XLE. The L model includes Bluetooth, cruise control, and air conditioning, and while it's a bit more expensive than last year's base Camry ($22,715, up $710), other models have dropped in price -- the 2012 Camry LE, priced at $23,260, is $200 cheaper than last year; the SE starts at $23,760, down by $965, and the XLE is an impressive $2,000 cheaper, now listing for $25,485. And like all Toyotas, that price includes 2 years or 25,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance.
In the Driver's Seat: This is a Camry?
Remember the part in the movie Grease where Sandy ditches her dowdy old skirt for hot pants and a teased hairdo? That's what has happened to the Camry's interior. For decades, Camry cabins have exuded quality while excluding style, but the new Camry looks like someone in the interior design department woke up and decided they did give a damn after all. In place of the old car's monolithic blobs of plastic, the new Camry has a variety of shapes, materials, and textures. Compare this photo of the 2011 Camry LE's interior with this one of the 2012 LE, and you'll see what I mean. The new interior is as un-Camry-like as can be, and I can't think of any higher praise.
Still, not all is rosy in the garden of Camry. The dials and buttons don't have the same expensive, perfectly-damped, feel as the old car. All Camrys save the cheapest L model get a touch-screen stereo that buries many basic functions behind a system of menus, complicating basic tasks like changing the bass or treble. On navigation-equipped cars, I couldn't browse my MP3 player by folder or playlist, not even with the high-end JBL stereo. This came as a bit of a shock, frankly, because simple, no-nonsense controls have always been a Camry hallmark.
In terms of mid-size-sedan-ness, the Camry scores straight A's. Visibility for the driver is excellent, and back-benchers will find a comfortable, supportive rear seat that, while not as roomy as a Honda Accord or the new Volkswagen Passat, is still a great place to spend time. And I love the aforementioned roofline, which is squared off to provide easy entry and exit. The trunk is even a bit bigger than last year, up to 15.4 cubic feet, which puts it just half a cube behind the class-leading Volkswagen Passat. Oh, and you want airbags? How about ten? The Camry has front airbags, front and rear seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain airbags, and two knee airbags.
On the Road: Excellent engine, business as usual
The Camry is once again available with two engines, a 178 hp 2.5 liter four-cylinder and a 268 hp 3.5 liter V6, both attached to a 6-speed automatic. I can't say enough good things about the four-banger: It's quick off the line, has as much passing power as a small V6, and gets great fuel economy (25 MPG in town and 35 MPG on the highway). It sounds great when you rev it hard and it's quiet as a gasoline-powered mouse when cruising. This may well be the perfect engine. The V6 does offer extra oomph, but considering how well the four-cylinder works, I think it's a waste of money.
Camrys are best known for their quiet, comfortable ride, and Toyota worked hard to make the new Camry even quieter and even more comfortable. Mission accomplished, especially in the LE and XLE models. The SE model comes with a stiffer suspension and heavier steering. It's a bit more sporty, in the sense that Dan Rather is a bit more sporty than Walter Cronkite. If you're looking for true driving pleasure, the Camry is not the car for you.
For 2012, the Camry has switched to electrically-assisted power-steering, because it's more fuel-efficient than traditional hydraulically-assisted power steering (which uses an engine-driven pump). This may only be of interest to geeks like me, but I noticed that Toyota has managed to perfectly replicate the feel of the old Camry's hydraulic steering -- which is rather like hiring the great art forger Han van Meergeren to replicate Dogs Playing Poker. The old Camry's steering was numb on center and had all the feedback of an elastic band. The feel should have been improved, not copied.