2015 Toyota Camry

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Has Toyota been hearing giant footsteps gaining on them, feeling the hot breath of segment competitors as they rapidly close the gap on the perennial best-selling mid-size Camry sedan? The segment is, indeed, now filled with excellent, compelling choices and even as the Camry continues to maintain an edge in overall sales on the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion, it has been criticized for falling behind in styling, performance and personality.

We ask this question because the lifecycle of most Toyota vehicles, including the Camry, is five to six years with only mild mid-cycle refreshes. Yet the current Camry, only in the third year of the current cycle, has been endowed with some major updates for 2015 including new exterior styling, improved handling, and better interior materials.

This represents a serious departure from the Toyota norm. Whatever the reasons for the rather drastic move, we found after driving virtually all trim levels and variations (hybrid, V6 and 4-cylinder) in the Camry lineup that this represents more than just the usual refresh. The Camry is a better car in several areas.

Here are the highlights:

• Toyota has made major exterior styling changes including a bigger and more prominent grille treatment reminiscent of the more costly Avalon and the upscale Lexus products, a more sculpted side profile with a character line that starts at the muscular front fender and runs across the doors and rear quarter panel, and a reworked rear end including freshly styled taillights. In fact, Toyota says the only area that wasn't restyled was the roof.

• A more engaging driving experience has been dialed into the sedan especially if you opt for the new XSE trim level that comes with 18-inch wheels, aggressive suspension tuning, and a reworking of the electric power steering. But improvements were not reserved just for the XSE and SE trims. We found all models offered a more engaging persona. Although the Camry is still not what we consider sporty, it has edged closer to the spirited driving demeanors of such competitors as the Mazda6 and the Fusion.

• More premium materials have been used in the cabin with improved seat fabrics ranging from premium cloth up to genuine leather trim and Ultrasuede with French stitching. The dashboard design has been tweaked for better ergonomics (bigger buttons and knobs for the climate controls), and classier looking gauges.  And the quality of the interior plastics has been improved, and certainly unobjectionable.

• The sedan has a decidedly quieter interior with what we perceived as an obvious reduction in wind and road noise. We were impressed. Toyota officials say window and door seals have been improved, side mirrors have been redesigned to better control airflow-reducing turbulence and noise, and the floor carpet uses 30 percent more noise-insulating material.

• Advanced safety features are now offered including a pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning with auto high beam, and a blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert. That's in addition to the myriad of standard safety including 10 airbags.

What hasn't changed are the drivetrains. That's an area that will probably be addressed in the next complete makeover in 2017. So don't expect increased performance from the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that makes 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque or the V-6 that generates 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. In our test of the 2012 Camry we listed the 4-cylinder's 0-to-60 time in 8.8 seconds. The V-6 has been measured in 6.2 seconds. Both are mated to a six-speed automatic.

Fuel economy also remains the same, about mid-pack in the segment. The 4-cylinder is rated at 25 mpg city, 35 highway and 28 overall. The V-6 is EPA-rated at 21 city, 31 highway, 25 overall.

We found both engines adequately competent for all driving situations with satisfying, smooth acceleration. The automatic transmission is responsive with quick, efficient downshifts.

What hasn't changed is interior space, which has been one of the Camry's strong suits. It didn't need changing. Trunk space remains a very useable 15.4 cubic feet.

The major mid-cycle changes should drive current owners back into the showroom to see what the "new look" is all about, and it might just attract some conquest buyers as well. We admit, the upgrades are impressive and more than we expected. It will be interesting to see what Toyota has in store for the Camry on its next complete remake in a couple of years.

— Jim Meachen