2012 Toyota Camry

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In these times where cutting-edge styling seems to be in vogue, Toyota elected to play it safe with its all-new 2012 Camry; Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S. for 12 of the past 13 years. The 2012 version is significantly improved in several areas, but will that be enough to keep it on top wrapped in plain brown paper?

The new Camry, parked in a sea of mid-sized sedans will garner little attention. Most people seeing it for the first time will recognize it as a Camry; as an all-new Camry - perhaps not.

But what this rather nondescript exterior hides are improvements and upgrades in noise reduction, ride quality and cabin refinement. We think performance has been enhanced too, even though Toyota elected to keep the same 4-cylinder and V-6 engine choices.

Best of the new Camry is its interior with upgraded interior materials including stitching on the dashboard; the reduction of hard plastic, replaced with softer feeling materials and neat door trim and seat color combinations and textures; and revised and user friendly gauges and controls.

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.

The carryover and slightly revised 2.5-liter 4-cylinder now making 178 horsepower – up nine horses, and the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 is unchanged. As you might expect, performance is about the same as last year, middle-of-the-road competitive.

In low-speed driving (45 mph maximum) and some quick starts from stoplights, the high-volume 4-cylinder felt a bit more energetic than before, perhaps because of a 150-pound weight reduction, low-rolling resistance tires and a retuned six-speed automatic transmission. The V-6 felt competent for those desiring more performance, but lagging several competitors.

The standout was the sporty 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 have not been enough takers.

The big engine news is gas mileage, now rated at 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway for the four-banger and 21/30 mpg the V-6. Last year it was 22/33 and 20/29.

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

Toyota says that prices have been reduced on most models compared to 2011 and the difference between the popular LE and the upscale XLE has been reduced making the well-equipped top-of-the-line model more enticing to buyers. The LE model starts at $22,500 not including destination charge. The SE begins a $23,000 and the XLE at $24,725. Adding the V-6 to the SE runs about $3,600 and to the XLE about $5,000.

The Camry will also be available in a vastly revised hybrid model sometime after the first of the year.

— Jim Meachen