Toyota Camry — Mostly the same, but better

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

If you like the styling of the last-generation Toyota Camry you will probably adore the looks of the all-new 2012 model. It has been updated with small changes — a few new creases here and squarer edges there — but the current Camry’s styling remains for the most part unchanged. You might need to see the old and the new side by side to readily tell the difference.

The Japanese automotive giant elected not to mess with success.

This is actually a bold decision that was probably made with a great deal of study because virtually all of Toyota’s competitors have elected to proceed with bold, new styles, some of them very exciting. Toyota surely knew what the competition had in the works as they developed the seventh-generation Camry.

The 2013 Ford Fusion comes instantly to mind. The Fusion is months away from reaching showrooms, but it has already garnered several styling awards following its introduction at the Detroit Auto Show. Chevrolet has done less in remaking its conservatively handsome Malibu, but compared to the Camry it it’s a giant leap from its original 2008 makeover.

The newest Hyundai Sonata, now nearly two years in showrooms, is still fresh and exciting after its head-turning introduction. And yet to come are all-new iterations of the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, both sure to advance mid-sized sedan design.

Likewise, Toyota for the most part decided not to mess with the 4-cylinder and V-6 drivetrains retaining the same engines and six-speed automatic transmission.

We have been critical of Toyota’s stand pat stance since we were introduced to the car last September for a brief one-hour drive and walk-around, but we now admit that our initial negative judgment may have been hasty. For one thing, Camry’s January 2012 sales numbers are an eye opener. They were up a whopping 56 percent over January 2011 at 28,295.

If Toyota can maintain that pace throughout the year the Camry will come in at around 340,000 units sold and will surely maintain its long-running title as the best selling car in the U.S.

Our change of mind was complete after spending a week and about 250 miles behind the wheel of a 4-cylinder top-of-the-line XLE model in early February. We discovered that everything has not remained the same. Indeed, the 2012 Camry is more of a solid advance in several areas than we had envisioned.

Much of our new-found admiration concerns the conservatively styled interior from its subtle, but well done upgrades to its attention to detail and its layered dash of complementary textures and trim pieces.

One notable new feature is a Web-based smartphone-connected Entune system that integrates audio, infotainment and navigation. Entune offers services such as the Bing search engine, Pandora streaming music, and real-time traffic, sports and stock information.

One sour note. The good vibes that the interior conveyed over our first few miles were somewhat muted, however, once we were on the highway. We perceived some discordant sounds with the audio turned up, so we hit the off switch. What we were hearing was excessive wind noise at highway speeds.

While Toyota has elected to keep its 4-cylinder and V-6 engines from the last generation, both mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, they seem to be tuned for slightly better acceleration, especially in lower speed driving. And most notably, they have been tweaked for better gas mileage.

Both are credible performers and should provide the acceleration in all driving situations that most people need and desire. The V-6 is especially adept at dashing up freeway on-ramps and passing slow-moving vehicles.

The base engine and the one that will generate the most sales is the  2.5-liter 4-cylinder making 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. It is the one we tested, and we were pleased with its overall performance. Optional is the 3.5-liter V-6 making 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.

Although the 4-cylinder is not best in class, it returns an EPA-tested 25 city and 35 highway miles per gallon. The V-6 is impressive with its 21/30 rating. Last year's ratings were 22/33 for the 4-banger and 20/29 for the V-6.

For the most sporty driving, the standout is the SE model with larger tires and sport-tuned suspension. For those desiring a more athletic feel, that’s the model to buy. But note, the manual transmission option has been dropped. Toyota officials say there simply are not been enough takers.

The Camry hybrid has received the most drivetrain updates.  It comes with a new-for-2012 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engine making 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. Combined with the two electric motors, the horsepower rating rises to 200. The hybrid is rated at 43 mpg city and 39 highway with a combined rating of 41 mpg.  The hybrid is no slouch in performance, measured at about 7.5 seconds from 0 to 60.

Although the Camry retains basically the same size as the outgoing model, the interior feels roomier with narrower door panels and redesigned seats that provide a bit more elbow, leg and knee room.

We liked the driving position, and found the seats very receptive to our rather aging and spreading backsides.

The Camry 4-cylinder starts at $22,750 including destination charge and tops out at $25,485 for a well equipped XLE. The V-6 SE edition starts at $27,400. The base hybrid is $26,660. Our XLE 4-cylinder loaded up with such features as navigation, backup camera and Smart Key system came in at $27,995.

Despite our new-found admiration for the 2012 Camry, we still think Toyota would have done even better by taking some chances with more provocative styling and new drivetrains. But based on the early sales figures, perhaps they took the correct path to continued success. Time will tell.

Base price, $22,755; as driven, $27,955
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 178 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 170 foot-pounds @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 189.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,190 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 35 highway, 25 city
0-60: 8.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord

The Good
• Refined, upscale interior
• Web-based Entune infotainment system
• Better gas mileage over 2011 models

The Bad
• Noticeable wind and road noise at highway speed

The Ugly
• Platform and power choices largely unchanged