Overview

Neither a rocket scientist nor a car critic is needed to figure out why the Toyota Camry has been America's best-selling car nine of the past 10 years. This mid-size sedan does just about everything well, and it's supported by Toyota's well-earned reputation for quality, reliability and value retention.

One year after a wheels-up redesign, the 2008 Toyota Camry changes not at all.

The Camry benefited from a complete overhaul for 2007, starting with a new, airy interior and continuing with more powerful engines, more transmission choices and increased fuel efficiency. Yet the hallmark of this sixth-generation Camry is Toyota's effort to shake the stodgy, plain reputation the car had developed in some circles. The Camry's aerodynamic styling shows more vitality than we've come to expect from a car many have labeled, and not necessarily in unkind fashion, as Japan's Buick.

Wash-and-wear, no-worries reliability is not a bad thing. Owners depend on the Camry, and they're seldom disappointed. This four-door sedan seats five in reasonable comfort, yet it's relatively compact and easy to park. It's smooth and quiet, but it can accelerate with vigor. Its cabin is attractive, functional and as refined as anything in its class. The Camry is thrilling in no respect, and no particular aspect of its performance is outstanding. Yet it's good in nearly every respect, bad in almost none, and it has a steady, set-and-forget quality that many drivers appreciate. It's pleasant to drive in all circumstances. In SE trim, with the manual transmission, it approaches fun.

Models range from the surprisingly well-equipped Camry CE to the near-luxury Camry XLE, with nearly all the bells and whistles. In between are the popular LE, a modest step up from the base CE and available with the V6, and the SE, decked out with suspension, tires and trim to please the sporty crowd. Toyota's four-cylinder engine is not the strongest, but it's more than adequate with the manual transmission. The smooth V6 is one of the most powerful in the class.

The Camry Hybrid features a combination electric motor/gasoline engine powertrain and a super-efficient continuously variable transmission, or CVT. The Hybrid is a good performer and one of the most fuel-efficient mid-size vehicles anywhere. It's also a great statement for environmentally conscious buyers, though it's worth noting that all Camry models offer good EPA mileage ratings and low emissions in their respective categories.

Since its debut in the United States nearly 25 years ago, the Camry has earned a reputation for smart design, pleasing function, build quality and durability. It's not all hype. The 2008 Toyota Camry remains the benchmark by which its competitors are judged.

Model Lineup

The 2008 Toyota Camry is a four-door, five-passenger sedan offered in five trim levels, including the gas-electric Camry Hybrid.

Camry CE ($18,570) features a 158-hp four-cylinder engine. It's equipped with cloth upholstery, air conditioning and pollen filter, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, a multi-function information display with outside temperature, a 160-watt stereo with six speakers, single CD player and auxiliary jack for MP3 devices, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat and 16-inch steel wheels.

The CE comes standard with a manual transmission; a five-speed automatic transmission is optional ($1,000).

The Camry LE ($20,025) and LE V6 ($23,640) add an eight-way power driver's seat and remote keyless entry.

All Camry V6 models get a 268-horspower 3.5-liter engine and a six-speed automatic with manual shift feature.

The sporty Camry SE ($21,240) and SE V6 ($24,915) add a firmer, lowered suspension, flashy styling cues, unique interior trim, fog lights and P215/55R17 tires on 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

The high-zoot Camry XLE ($25,000) features glossy wood-grain interior trim and comes standard with the automatic. Leather comes standard on the XLE V6 ($28,120). The XLE models add dual-zone auto climate control with an electronic ion filter, a JBL audio upgrade with 440 watts, 6CD changer, Bluetooth wireless telephone interface, power passenger seat, power sunroof, split 40/20/40 reclining rear seat, rear reading lamps, manual rear window sunshade, 16-inch alloy wheels. An automatic comes standard on the XLE.

The Camry Hybrid ($25,200) has a 147-hp version of the four-cylinder engine, mated with a 40-horsepower electric motor and continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. The motor augments the gas engine's performance and captures energy that would otherwise be wasted as the car slows and brakes, so it can reduce fuel consumption substantially. The Hybrid is equipped comparably to the XLE four-cylinder, and adds Toyota's Smart Key pushbutton-start feature.

Options include premium JBL audio ($1,000) for the LE and SE; it can be packaged with a voice-activated navigation system in the SE ($2,200) or XLE ($1,200). Stand-alone options include power tilt/slide sunroof ($940), leather-trimmed interior ($1,040), heated front seats ($440), auto-dimming rearview mirror ($150), heated outside mirrors ($30), 16-inch alloy wheels ($410).

Safety features on all Camrys include a full complement of airbags: dual-stage front impact airbags, a driver's knee airbag, upper body-protecting side-impact airbags for front passengers, and head-protecting side air curtains for the front and rear seats. All models come with anti-lock brakes (ABS), which aid steering control during a panic stop. The ABS features Brake Assist, which applies the brakes more quickly and consistently when it senses the onset of a panic stop, and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which balances brake application front and rear for optimal stopping distance. A tire-pressure monitor is standard. Vehicle Stability Control and Traction Control are optional ($650) on the CE, LE, SE and XLE, and we strongly recommend getting it.

Walkaround

This latest Toyota Camry is as bold a statement as Toyota makes with its top-selling, bread-and-butter vehicles. The message in that statement? Reliability and consumer confidence do not necessarily require blandly conservative styling. A year after the current Camry was turned loosed on American roads, the 2008 model's visual impact has diminished only a little.

Yet if Toyota wanted to make a stronger fashion statement with the country's best selling car, it couldn't risk doing so at the expense of function. This sixth evolution of the Camry is the largest ever, though not by much. Its wheelbase is more than two inches longer than models built before 2007, and its track is a hint wider, with wheels pushed further toward the corners of the car. Yet, thanks to a shorter rear overhang, or that portion of the body that extends past the back wheels, this Camry maintains the same overall length as the previous generation. The result of this reconfiguration is more interior space, and particularly fore-aft length, with the same external footprint as before.

The flashy new styling (first introduced on the 2007 models) starts at the Camry's nose. The front end is fresh, and easily the boldest element of the new look, with sharp points, curving cut-lines and entertaining surface planes. The hood dips broadly through the middle, pushing visual heft out over the front fenders. The grille wears a Toyota emblem prominently above softly slanted, horizontal slats. The single-piece fascia blends all the diverse elements into a smooth aerodyanamic look that's several steps away from the pro forma, overly inoffensive, just-another-midsize-car-from-Japan look.

The side view is less fashionable and somewhat bulky looking, with a high beltline, symmetrical windows and square doors, graced with a barely discernible character line running through flush-mounted door handles. The wheel openings are circular, which on a car with a lower profile might suggest sporty intentions. On the Camry, they draw attention to the expanse of sheet metal between them, and instead whisper sedate. An odd but increasingly popular, miniaturized rip on the squared-off trunk lid of the BMW 7 Series finishes the side profile.

That bustle-like hump gives the trailing edge of the trunk a slight aero-lip that suggests it's there to reduce rear lift at high speeds. An oversize Toyota emblem perches atop the license plate recess. Proud taillight lenses mirror the outline of the headlights, angling down and inward across the trunk lid seam, closely tracing the pattern set by the headlights and grille. The bumper wraps around the back end, capping the corners beneath the taillights and sweeping into a soft, horizontal indentation that, on the V6-equipped models, finishes in cutouts for the chrome-tipped dual exhausts.

The sportier Camry SE is the easiest model to distinguish, and perhaps the boldest of all. The inference of aero treatment on the trunk lid is boosted on the SE with an honest spoiler. A black honeycomb-style grille sneers forward from smoked-tint headlamps, while a full body kit flares the lower edge of the car outward, emphasizing the sport model's lower ride height. Six-spoke, 17-inch aluminum wheels fill those circular wheel wells nicely.

There's also aerodynamic massaging that isn't obvious to the eye, particularly on the sport-tuned SE and the other specialty Camry, the Hybrid. Engineers focused on making the underbody as flat as possible to smooth airflow under the car and reduce noise. On the SE, they also tuned the flow to balance downforce, or the aerodynamic force that presses the car to the pavement, nearly equally over the front and rear tires.

With the Camry Hybrid, the aerodynamic focus was on efficiency. Unique wheel spats and underbelly pans reduce the coefficient of drag (Cd) to a low 0.27. This reduces the amount of energy required to move the Hybrid at a given speed, and in turn helps increase fuel economy.

Interior Features

Inside, the Camry offers a welcome counterpoint to its exterior styling. While the outside has been touched with a splash of pizzazz, the inside has been brushed with shades of elegance. The treatment is not quite up to, say, Lexus-level luxury, but, especially in the top-of-the-line XLE, this Camry raises the bar on interior polish for mid-price, mid-size sedans.

The cabin is trimmed with a brushed metallic finish in the CE, LE, SE, and Hybrid. Real-looking glossy wood grain is used inside the XLE, including surrounds for the door-release handles. The fabric upholstery combines breathable, waffle-texture insets with smooth bolsters and backing. The leather upgrade isn't quite kid glove, but it feels expensive. On the less positive side, the hard plastic covering the roof pillars looks cheap, and the mouse fur headliner disappoints.

Today's midsize sedans are roomy vehicles, yet the feeling of roominess in the Camry is tempered by direct comparisons with the competition. In headroom, for instance, the Camry matches the Ford Fusion, but trails the Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata by almost an inch and a half in front. Camry loses to all four in front-seat legroom. It's mid-pack in hip room, and near the top in rear legroom. The seats are comfortable front and rear, though the seat bottoms are short on thigh support for taller occupants. Rear-seat passengers in the XLE enjoy a luxury rarely seen in this class: reclining seatbacks.

The sloping hood delivers good sightlines from the driver's seat. The thick C-pillar, or that part of the body supporting the roof behind the rear doors, looks less imposing to the driver than from outside the car. Low-profile rear-seat head restraints leave the view in the rearview mirror mostly unblocked. Outside mirrors are placed farther rearward than we'd like, forcing us to physically turn the head for quick checks instead of just glancing sideways.

Almost everything inside the Camry speaks refined function. The speedometer and tachometer are large, circular and easy to scan, save for brief periods at dusk and under certain types of street lighting, when the luminescent instruments on all but the SE can wash out. Those in the SE, which are black on white with sharp blue-ish backlighting, avoid this eye-straining fade. They're part of this sporty model's unique interior treatment, which features dark charcoal or Ash gray hues and a grippy leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel.

The window switches are clustered nicely on the driver's door armrest, just below the mirror switch and door lock, so they sit right where the hand rests when the driver sets forearm on the door. However, only the driver's window switch is lit at night, and it's not very bright. That means the other switches in the cluster, including the locks and mirrors, must be located by touch when it's dark, rather than by sight.

Controls for audio and air conditioning are easily manageable, clearly labeled and logically positioned in the center stack, with audio above and climate below. The pastel blue-green lighting around the optional navigation system reminds us of Miami Beach, and we love the separate on/off switches for the audio and navigation systems. The dual switches are a departure from most other vehicles today, which have a single on/off switch. So if you want the nav but no audio, you have to crank the volume all the way down, and still run the risk of picking up interference.

The cabin offers lots of usable cubbies for storing things. Cup holders and assorted nooks and covered bins are located conveniently about the center stack and console. A large glove box spans the lower dash between the center stack and passenger door. Only the front doors get map pockets, which are fixed, hard plastic that allows most everything stored there to slide. A similar material forms the magazine pouches on the back of the front seatbacks. A covered storage bin in the fold-down center rear armrest doubles as cup holders for rear passengers. On the SE and XLE, it also conceals a pass-through to the trunk. The SE offers only this pass-through, rather than the folding rear seat on other models, thanks to an extra brace behind the seat the stiffens the body for sporty handling.

Trunk space is adequate. Compared to the competition, Camry's maximum trunk space of 15 cubic feet trails all but the Accord. The XLE's reclining back seats exact a slight penalty in trunk space, dropping it 0.5 cubic feet compared to other models. The Camry Hybrid takes an even bigger hit, losing 4.3 cubic feet of trunk space to its battery. The Camry's trunk is fully finished, with a grocery hook, and utility box. The XLE comes with a luggage net that keeps cargo from sliding. There's no pull-down handle inside the trunk lid to spare fingers the grime and grit that can accumulate on exterior surfaces in winter.

Driving Impressions

A long, attentive drive in the Toyota Camry might be described as a convincing experience. By that, we mean the driver won't need further convincing as to why the Camry is the perennial best-selling car in the United States. No particular aspect of the Camry's performance is outstanding. On the other hand, it does most everything very well, and nothing badly. It's easy to see why this sedan is a favorite for small families, commuting and all-purpose transportation.

We drove LE, SE, XLE, and Hybrid models. Lengthy sessions with four-cylinder manual and V6 automatic models seriously impressed us, and only the four-cylinder automatic left us wishing for better. We were impressed not only with the overall packaging, but also with the clear distinctions among the different models, both inside and underneath.

The LE with four-cylinder and automatic was competent, but well short of inspiring. Performance-wise, this isn't surprising, given the weight burdening its relatively small engine, which is no better than average in power output. The four-cylinder is buzzy. And we felt some torque steer, a light left-right tugging at the steering wheel under full throttle. It's a common phenomenon with front-wheel drive, but we expect it more with lighter, relatively high-powered cars. The LE leans in corners. Fit and finish are very good, with zero buzzes, squeaks or rattles, and tight tolerances between panels and parts. Yet wind and road noise are audible.

The LE V6 is another story, because there is no shortage of power here. The 268-hp engine eagerly spins all the way up to its programmed limiter at 6500 revolutions per minute, and it's silky smooth throughout. It pulls without stumble from 1000 rpm in any gear, which is why it's far more effective with the automatic transmission. The driver won't feel as if he or she is waiting for the transmission to find the right gear so the car can get going. The LE V6 will feel very familiar to longtime Camry owners: just a little smoother, tighter and more powerful than older models.

The SE, on the other hand, is a fresh and welcome departure from Camry's heretofore conservative legacy. Finally, there's a Camry that's fun and entertaining to drive. Steering turn-in is more precise than we'd expect in a Camry, and cornering is solid and stable, with little body lean. While we never doubted the stopping power, brake pedal feel and travel are still sedan-grade: a bit soft and long for our enthusiast-driver preferences.

The manual transmission in four-cylinder models shifts cleanly, if not with sports-car crispness. We really liked it in the Camry SE. Clutch engagement is smooth and easily managed. The brake and gas pedals are close enough to allow heel-and-toe shifting, which enthusiast drivers enjoy, though the process is not accomplished with sports-car ease. In all, we enjoyed the four-cylinder much more with the manual transmission, because it allows the driver to keep the engine working in the rpm range where it's most powerful. It makes for an engaging driving experience.

We like the SE V6 just as well, however. It's a car in which the driver might want to actually use the sequential manual shift feature on Toyota's new six-speed automatic. In manual mode, the transmission will hold the chosen gear without shifting up, and it will downshift immediately with a click on the lever. The shifts are smooth, but quick and reassuringly certain.

If there's any vestige of Buick-ism to be found in this Camry, it's in the high-trim XLE. It's more than just the entry-plush interior, but ride and handling, too. The line-topping Camry is more soft and floaty than firm and planted. That doesn't mean it's wandering or imprecise, however. We were entirely comfortable and assured piloting it at a leisurely pace along gently curving two-lane byways and on lightly traveled or rush hour-packed, multi-lane highways. It's just that the XLE is best suited for the set-it-and-forget-it mode of driving, and it doesn't actively invite driver participation in the task. In any case, we found it very enjoyable, a good place to relax and enjoy the great sound system.

The Hybrid tucked right in between the LE and the XLE, in performance. It's hybrid powertrain combines a 147-hp version of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a 40-hp synchronous electric motor, yielding a net 187 horsepower. That's more than V6 Camrys offered a few years ago, and the Hybrid can operate on just the electric motor at low speeds. The instantaneous torque from the electric motor also augments acceleration. The Hybrid isn't as quick as the V6 Camrys, which are among the strongest in the mid-size class, but it's noticeably quicker than four-cylinder models, and particularly four-cylinders with the automatic. For the most part, the Camry Hybrid is just as easy to operate as any other Camry, but there is a learning curve to mastering all of its idiosyncrasies. For example, press the push-button starter. The car comes to life, ready to drive, but this isn't always obvious. The Hybrid is a very quiet car at a stop. When it's started, and sometimes even when you press the accelerator, the gas engine does not immediately fire, so you won't hear it or feel its slight hum of vibration. As a result, you may not realize that this Camry is ready for action. So you'll press the start button again, thinking it didn't fire the first time, and actually turn the car off. The way to tell is to look for the Ready light next to the speedometer. If it's on, and if the shift lever will slide into gear, then the Hybrid is ready to go, whether the engine is actually running or not. We occasionally struggled with trying to figure out whether the car was running or not, which led to awkward parking lot situations.

Beyond that bit of familiarization, the Camry Hybrid is just, well, smooth. It's not exactly a performance machine, nor particularly fun to drive quickly, as the SE might be. On the other hand, its solid acceleration, secure-under-the-seat feeling and smooth, quiet operation are exactly what we expect the typical Camry buyer is seeking.

In terms of ride, handling and interior comfort, the Camry Hybrid could easily fool us into thinking we were driving an XLE, except for the visual differences. The Hybrid's gauges include a graphic display of the powertrain's status (gas, electric or both), a welcome, real-time fuel economy gauge in place of the tachometer and a unique, abbreviated shift gate. The transitions between the electric motor powering the car to operating gas only, to motor and engine together, are much smoother on the Camry than what Honda offered in last year's Accord Hybrid. Those transitions are noticeable, to be sure, but they're heard more than felt.

Active safety features are integrated into the Hybrid's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management package, or VDIM. This system adds Electric Power Steering (EPS) and Electronically Controlled Brakes (ECB), or a brake-by-wire system. These are unique to the Hybrid because the EPS provides steering assist when the car is operating on the electric motor alone, while the ECB allows the regenerative braking that charges the battery during stops. In short, VDIM manages a variety of steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, brake pressure, brake pedal stroke and wheel speed sensors, which in turn allow the system to anticipate and help prevent a loss of control.

Vehicle Stability Control and Traction Control are optional on the CE, LE, SE and XLE, and we consider this the weak link in Camry's safety package. Empirical evidence increasingly suggests skid-management systems reduce accidents and injuries.

Summary

The Toyota Camry sedan is still fresh from a complete redesign for 2007. It does nearly everything well, and nothing badly, and it makes comfortable, pleasant, reliable transportation for up to five. There's a model for nearly every taste and budget. All are reasonably economical to operate, and the Camry Hybrid is one of the most fuel-efficient mid-size vehicles available. The styling and interior may surprise shoppers expecting another Japanese-brand Buick. As the no-brainer choice for a rock-steady, all-purpose sedan, the Camry is hard to beat and easy to understand.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Ojai, California, with J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.

 

Copyright © 1994-2007 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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