For some people, cars are emotional purchases. Others approach them like an Excel spread sheet, ticking off purchase price, fuel economy, insurance rates, predicted maintenance costs, and resale value. Argue all you want about what method is best, people are people and we all have our ways of justifying our particular actions. Talk to Kim Kardashian about that.
If you’re a by-the-numbers person here are some figures. For 13 of the past 14 years, Camry has been the best selling passenger car in America. Since its launch in 1983, we Yanks have bought 9.7 million of them with 15 million copies purchased worldwide. 6,500,000 of them have been built in Georgetown, Kentucky. If you’ve bought one in the past 15 years, there’s a 90 percent chance it’s still on the road.
Impressive stuff. There are those who have knocked Camry for being plain or vanilla. Ask yourself this (and answer truthfully): If you had a machine that printed money, would you tamper with it in any way, shape or form? I’ll take that as a no.
Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
When Toyota began redesigning Camry for 2012, they checked in with their loyal customers to see what they wanted. Their answer? Familiarity. First off they responded, “Don’t change the size.” So Toyota didn’t, on the outside anyway. The design is all new, adapting a crisper, more formal look. It’s easy to ID as a Camry from 100 paces, especially in profile. Personally I’d like more advancement to the familiar design but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t… well, you know. If design is your thing, Sonata, Optima, and 2012 Malibu offer up more emotion.
The big news is the interior. It’s a huge upgrade from the outgoing car and good thing. It’s what owners constantly stare at. Even number crunchers will fall for it. My last outing with a 2010 XLE found a drab and generic cabin with pieces that didn’t always fit flush and seat seams that were less than straight.
The instrument panel now has a pleasant three-dimensional sculpting to it with real stitching on the instrument cluster hood and passenger-side dashboard (though there’s faux stitching down near the console shifter). All models get it. Toyota engineers also winnowed away small spaces here and there to create more space throughout the cabin.
Seats get better fabrics and contrasting colors to catch the eye. Gauges are bright and clean, the center stack rises away from the main dash. The whole experience is much like the exterior, crisp and formal. My only gripe is that against the elegant interior, the large steering wheel controls look like X Box controllers.
Powertrain Are Familiar Too
Toyota sees the classic LE, sport-tuned SE and gas-miser hybrid models as three different cars. Gas engines pretty much carry over from last year, the 2.5 liter four-cylinder makes 178 horsepower, the 3.5-liter V6 delivers 268. The hybrid system is extensively reworked and now delivers 200 hp to your right foot.
Fuel economy? EPA rates the four at 25 city, 35 highway, the V6 at 21/30, and the hybrid at a lofty 43 city 39 highway. Toyota emphasizes all powertrains deliver best-in-class efficiency. These are numbers everyone can embrace.
Gas models get six-speed transmissions with the V6 version of the SE model scoring exclusive steering wheel paddle shifters and rev-matching downshifts. The hybrid gets a CVT and a new battery pack that’s a few cubic feet smaller than the last one.
With no seat time in the hybrid, impressions on it will have to wait. The six-cylinder that I spent most of my time in is powerful, Toyota claims a 0-60 time of 6.8 seconds. The popular choice four does it in a respectable 8.8 seconds, most drivers will be happy with it. Surprisingly, the hybrid slots in between the four and six when it comes to performance (Toyota says 7.6 seconds).
A Race Track? Really?
Turns out that Akio Toyoda, Toyota President and CEO, is a driving enthusiast so Camry gets a crisper driving dynamic this time around. To prove the point, they’ve brought us to Portland International Raceway. Not exactly Camry’s natural habitat. With a wide-open playground of asphalt and orange cones, auto writers are first put in 2011 Camrys, then 2012s. There’s a noticeable difference.
For starters, with more high-strength steel in the chassis, Camry is now 150 pounds lighter (the hybrid looses 220). The structure is also more rigid, making suspension tuning more precise. All this makes the 2012 car more engaging in hard maneuvers, feeling similar to an Accord now.
SE used to be a badge and trim package. Like Sienna SE, the 2012 suspension gets tuned for more fun in the twisties. Let’s get something straight - Camry isn’t a sport sedan. Better? You bet. A BMW 5-Series? That’s not Camry’s mission. Consider it an olive branch to enthusiasts who have never been amped about Camry. Score one for the emotional buyer.
It’s the open road where the comfortable Camry will be appreciated. With added sound insulation plus tiny aerodynamic fins near the side mirror and rear turn signal lenses, the cabin is as hushed as some luxury sedans on the highway. It would be an excellent road trip machine, especially with those gas mileage numbers.
My XLE tester at $33,3000 tester gets heated leather chairs, a very good JBL sound system, backup camera, plus all Camrys get knee airbags upfront and rear side impact units. In total there are ten airbags. Phone and iPod integration is standard across the board. There’s no “tap for three blinks” for the turn signals, a feature that’s becoming more common.
New this year is Toyota’s available Entune system, which allows a driver to hook up a registered Android, Blackberry or iPhone smartphone and run apps like Bing search, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. The service is free for the first three years, Toyota hasn’t determined pricing after that. Toyota Safety Connect will call first responders in the unfortunate event of an accident and pinpoint your location. It can also locate a stolen vehicle.
Room For Friends
Camry’s backseat has never been described as cramped. For 2012 it only gets better, there’s almost two more inches of knee room. Foot room isn’t going to be a problem either and the floor is pretty flat. Put a passenger in the middle and even though the seat is raised there’s still decent headroom. Door and seat pockets are here, so is a foldable armrest but no 12v power port to charge electronics. Back seats cushions don’t get heat.
Since I’m on a press launch there’ll be no TP trunk test, but I can use my luggage. I might travel light for a TV crew but my camera and tripod case, suitcase and computer bag still take up a good amount of space. It’s equal to what most couples would travel with and stows without any problems. Eye balling the cargo hold I’d say it’s the same as the outgoing Camry which took 6 bundles of the two-ply.
Like many sedans, the gooseneck hinge arms will pinch your stuff if it isn’t loaded carefully. The seatbacks split and fold to expand cargo. Also, there’s a spare tire, which is becoming more rare.
What Is Value?
Base model Camrys are now $200 less than last year and get added equipment such as those four extra airbags, a large LCD display for the audio system and that posh interior. A base L model starts at $22,700 with destination. Toyota has cut the price of the high-end XLE by two grand, my well-equipped car stickers for $33,300.
This leads us to the definition of value. Comparing my V6 XLE tester with a loaded Kia Optima SE Turbo finds the Korean to be about $3,000 less. Optima also offers a panoramic glass roof to Camry’s standard sized unit, and adds heated seats in the rear, heated steering wheel and ventilated seats up front. So what it comes down how a buyer defines value. For some it’s a low price and loads of features. For others it’s the peace of mind additional airbags and Toyota’s reputation of reliability. Toyota also picks up all your maintenance costs for two years.
Summing up, the 2012 Camry is more affordable, competitive, luxurious, fuel-efficient and handles better. All that and it remains very Camryesque. It’s all part of the by-the-numbers Toyota strategy to keep Camry familiar to its loyal owners and remain the most popular car in America for another nine years.