The Toyota Camry is America's best-selling car, providing traditional Oldsmobile comfort with a much more reasonable size, and available in a wide range of prices to meet a wide range of tastes (and abilities). The base four-cylinder is sprightly with a manual transmission, and the top-end XLE V6 has the traditional good American straight-line acceleration. The Camry isn't made by an American company, but given the number of American engineers tuning it for the States, it ends up being a better reflection of American tastes than the European-flavored Dodge, Chevy, and Ford competitors.
With an upscale interior featuring (on XLE) a realistic blonde faux wood, leather, and numerous nice touches, a class-leading 269 hp V6, and with good noise and bump insulation across the board, we think this Camry will continue to triumph over all covers in the sales race. Aside from the larger, pricier Charger/300, nobody beats the power, and nobody in this price class can match the gentility and convenience. Those who really enjoy driving as an act in itself, however, may well do better to look at alternatives, despite the sporty (Bangle-influenced?) styling.
The Camry remains roughly the same size, in the sweet spot between interior space and parking ease; its suspension provides a soft, comfortable ride, and the drivetrain responds well to ordinary driving; and reliability is acknowledged to be superior.
The Camry’s ride remains well insulated, with rough and nasty roads translating into slight jiggles now and then, and noise that sounds as though it could be coming from another car; no subsonics disturbed the cabin even on the nastiest roads. We appreciated the ability of the Camry to keep the outside world at bay on some streets, while simultaneously allowing spirited driving (though never giving any illusion as to being a sporty car). Whipping through turns is possible, but it doesn't necessarily feel right, partly due to the high level of steering assist and to some body roll. Fortunately, most drivers prefer to drive normally (hence the term “normally.”) And for that, the Camry is quite good; and for those who need a little more, the Camry Sport awaits, with a tighter suspension, more sport-tuned tires, and other tweaks to make the Camry more amenable to rough handling.
Even base model Camrys have a good ride and sound insulation. That said, we found that the tires on our test car tended to squeal initially on acceleration, though not nearly as much as on past models. The Camry is a very comfortable car, but not a "driver's car" - not designed for high performance handling. To most buyers, that's exactly as it should be, which is one reason why the Camry is a best seller - and why Accord buyers, when convinced to drive one, often switch.
The big V6 engine, loaded with all the technology Toyota could throw at it, provides 269 horsepower, but most of it comes at high engine speeds, so that there may be a delay before you actually get moving. The transmission tended to have a substantial delay before downshifting when faced with sudden throttle changes which can be disconcerting at times. Unlike the prior (2005) Camry, this one handles sprints very well, going all the way up to the redline under full throttle, and taking off quickly right from the line after a brief tire squeal (for more tire squeal, don't order the traction control!). Indeed, acceleration was never an issue (not surprising since the 0-60 sprint is, according to Toyota, dispensed of within 7 seconds). At issue was the feel; the transmission, tuned for good gas mileage and comfort, tends to stay in higher gears as long as possible, and likes to stretch shifts out longer to avoid jolts. There is also, not surprisingly, a sizable loss of traction under full throttle as the front tires are made to do two things at once (steer and accelerate); this might be worse on vehicles without stability control. The result is a car that doesn't feel as fast as it is, and doesn't feel particularly rewarding in spirited driving. In short, the V6 will get you there as quickly as you probably want to go, but you won't be mistaking this for a BMW any time soon. If you want a sporty Camry, we suggest the slower but more enjoyable four-cylinder with manual transmission, or perhaps the sport model.
The drivetrain certainly responded well to gentle driving, with the engine providing better gas mileage and the transmission being very smooth; but on the highway the transmission sometimes hunted for the right gear, and there was usually a delay while the downshift took place so the engine could get into its power band. The five-speed automatic is good on sprints, without the disconcerting sag experienced in cars with large gaps between gears.
V6 gas mileage was 21 city, 29 highway in the last generation, and this one is, amazingly, supposed to be even better (22/31 with 268 hp!), but we estimate a mixed-driving average of about 22 mpg based on our experience (19.5 mpg on a press car that wasn’t fully broken in). The engine is unfailingly quiet and smooth; at idle, it's hard to tell that the engine is on without looking at the tachometer.
The interior of the Camry is nicely done; this time, it's rather unusual, with the trapezoidal center stack nicely blended with the surrounding dashboard in terms of color and forum, but with a remarkable and attractive green striped background behind a plastic cover á la Onkyo stereos. The effect is striking and handsome. Color choices on our XLE model were the usual palette of grays, but well-matched grays that worked together, with bright and dull chrome as well; there was no striking overall theme (e.g. ovals everywhere!) but everything worked together. The use of faux wood trim (so good it fooled one wood expert) on the XLE is sparing but effective, surrounding the door controls on all four doors, and applied to the center console and gearshift between the seats.
The navigation system/stereo on our vehicle desparately needed a usability expert’s time, and quite a bit of it. Though the screen is very attractive, with shadowing for detail, it proved to be rather hard to accomplish many simple tasks, and the tendency of the unit to respond with slowness did not help. Turn the radio dial and you expect to hear something change, not a few seconds of silence before the next station comes on (this was only a problem with satellite stations, though FM and AM had a slight lag as well). As usual with these systems, accomplishing simple tasks such as changing bass and treble was unnecessarily hard and involved a lot of distraction from the road and reading of the screen. The bright side was that the screen is bright and easy to read, the graphics unusually attractive, and you can choose whether to have the virtual keyboard for entering addresses set to ABCD or ASDF (typewriter style). The list of local attractions seemed haphazard, so that locating something involved remembering what was near it than just typing it in; but letting users provide areas to avoid is a nice touch that can compensate for local construction or heavy traffic (or restraining orders, we suppose). Allowing entry by phone number is clever too.
The climate control, integrated into the dash below, had large, easy to use buttons and knobs, set rather intuitively, but it seemed to want to have air recirculation on most of the time; we had to manually deselect it to get fresh air. The fan was quiet even at its highest speed, and air conditioning seemed effective, yet didn't sap the V6 engine power at all.
At the bottom of the center stack was a large storage area with a rubberized bottom to avoid rattles, and a cover to let people think you're neat (and avoid that big ugly hole in the dash). There were also map pockets on all both front doors and on the back of the front seats; the latter were the tough and rugged kind that don't sag after a little use and look ugly and shopworn, but had solid backs that flexed out from the seat to hold larger items. Other small-item holders included Toyota's usual dashboard tray on the left (this time, with a drawer), a sunglass holder overhead, a covered bin and a pair of covered cupholders in the center console (which can easily be converted to a larger space by removing a piece), a large covered center storage unit (with an integrated sliding armrest), and clever small-item storage areas on either side of the center stack where it met the center console. Altogether, a nice use of space designed to make it easy to live with the Camry over time and over commutes and long trips.
Up above is an integrated console with the sunglasses holder, sunroof controls (if applicable), dome light with touch-activated map lights, and, if equipped, universal garage door opener. A clock and some warning lights sit in a shaded area in the center of the under-windshield area, and a compass is in the auto-dimming rear-view mirror (in models with that mirror). All four doors have grab handles.
The speedometer and tachometer were large and easy to read thanks to day-and-night backlighting, with a small temperature gauge and fuel gauge on either side. The speedometer went up to 160 mph, a bit on the high side, but the other markings were still clearly readable. The usual, convenient Toyota cruise control stalk was accompanied by two stalks for most other functions; and as usual, the rheostat for interior lighting was awkwardly placed on the instrument panel, so we had to reach around the steering wheel to get it. Lighting options included daytime running lights as well as the usual headlights on and off, and running lights. Being able to shut off the DRL system is a nice feature, but not having a "driving lights on" feature without any automatic interference was less handy. In that position, the headlights went on and off based on the computer's opinions, brightening and dimming the gauge backlighting along the way.
XLE buyers get a nice little trip computer in the center of the speedometer, which tells distance to empty, average gas mileage for the tank, and distance and average speed for the trip. You can't reset any of these; it's all automatic.
Other controls are spread out a bit, with the seat heater switches in a little nook in the center console and the remote gas tank and trunk openers side by side on the floor, easy to reach with the door open or closed; an arrow on the fuel gauge pointed to the side of the car with the filler cap. Overall, controls felt good and were easy to use, including the center-mounted shifter - which allowed the choice of any gear as well as Drive by using a sequential shifter (this is on the six-speed automatic with sequential shift, standard on the XLE V6). To get there, the driver just knocks the shifter to the left from Drive; then forward is up a gear, back is down a gear. While the gear is supposedly displayed in the instrument panel, that just shows you the gear you selected; it will change gears as it thinks best while in sequential mode. However, this is still good for hill descent (or climbing) and winter driving.
The interior space is generous, with good head and shoulder room, and enough space in back to allow adults to sit in comfort. The trunk is sizable, and includes a small area for small things; while the interior provides all sorts of nooks and crannies.
Visibility was good, with built in side window demisters and big mirrors, though the rear pillar presented a minor blind spot. Headlights were strong, and the white backlighting was clear and not distracting. Interior lighting was good as well, with push-activated front map lights. The horn was easy to press, despite the airbag, and nicely loud.
One standard feature on the XLE was a rather clever rear sunshade with little holes in it so you can see through it, but it also absorbs sunlight, lowering interior heat and preventing annoyance (and sunburn) to rear passengers. When not in use, it retracts into a holder that is clearly designed to be part of the car; when you need it, it goes right into two openings in the ceiling. The system looks good and is so useful we wonder why it isn't more common. Less useful was the automatic rear-view mirror, which failed to dim sufficiently, a common problem in these units (which are almost entirely made by just two companies), though its compass worked well.
Our test car had some unusual options, the biggest being the smart key system with push-button start, taken directly from the Toyota Prius. If the keys are on your person - in a backpack or handbag or in your pocket, perhaps - you can open the door simply by putting your hand on the handle (to open all doors, touch the passenger door handle). Then you can start the car (electronically) without taking the keys out by hitting the brake while pushing a large button on the dashboard. You can lock the car by pressing a button on the outside of each front door, but there's a one or two second delay after pressing before you get any feedback.
The smart key system is clever and if you live in a cold climate where you always wear a coat, or if you always carry a purse or briefcase, it's a bit of a convenience. On the other hand, it costs $450 extra. Perhaps more worthwhile is the vehicle stability control, optional even on the XLE at $650. It isn't often needed, but when it is, it can be invaluable in avoiding an accident (or just avoiding embarassment). The stability control includes and uses traction control, and is really a good idea in a front-drive car with a 268 horsepower engine.
Other options on our test car were heated front seats ($440), the navigation system with 440 watt stereo ($1,200), floor mats ($200), and XM Radio ($449). These prices are a bit high, and took our reasonable $28,100 luxury Camry up to $31,488 (along with the fancy keys and stability control). We think most people would be happy with the normal XLE package (adding in stability control), which includes the 268 hp V6 and six-speed automatic, 16" alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, front and rear side and curtain airbags, tire pressure monitor, fog lights, power heated mirrors, “wood grain style” trim, dual exhaust, dual zone a/c with pollen filter and rear vents, 440 watt JBL eight-speaker stereo with Bluetooth, power windows and locks, tilt/telescope steering wheel, and variable wipers.
Other notable cars in this class include the Dodge Charger, which is in an overlapping price class; while gas mileage can't meet the four, it is apparently as good as the six even with the Hemi V8 option. Interior amenities on the Dodge are nowhere near the Camry, but then, the Camry's performance and road feel are nowhere near the Dodge. More comparably priced is the Mitsubishi Galant, which, again, has a bit more of a performance feel at the cost of some luxury, but is otherwise similar to the Camry. Other cars to look at in this general range include the Toyota Avalon for more space, Toyota Corolla for less space and more fuel economy, Chevy Malibu, and Subaru Impreza.
The Camry is far from the Honda Accord, though their sales figures are similar. The Accord emphasizes sportiness over comfort, so the ride is harsher but corners taken more quickly; overall, we preferred the Camry. We accounted for one "conquest" from the Accord, by dedicated Honda lovers, who were converted by the softer ride, the nicely done interior, and, of course, Toyota's reputation. That's one thing other automakers will find hard to beat.