The Toyota Camry has long been the automotive equivalent of eating mac and cheese while wrapped in a warm blanket in front of a cozy fireplace. Even as the uncertainties and hardships of the past decade have taken their toll on our collective psyches, that comfort quotient is one of the main reasons the Camry has perennially remained America's best-selling car.

While maintaining all that down-home comfort, the completely redesigned 2012 Camry is more than just a familiar face. Representing the car's seventh generation after 28 years in the U.S., it manages to inject a bit of excitement, style and additional value that promise to make this iteration at least as popular as those that came before it.

 

Edgier Styling in the Same Size Package

The current generation Camry has suffered from a case of generic design, with an interior that has started to feel ho-hum compared to the competition. And with intense challengers ranging from the Kia Optima to the Hyundai Sonata, and the Ford Fusion to the Chevy Malibu, the battle for mid-size family car dominance has never been hotter.

With the 2012 Camry, Toyota appears to have borrowed some of the best exterior design elements from other vehicles. There certainly are bits of Acura, VW and Subaru in there, all combined into a package that looks classy and sleek. Toyota calls this new design language "rational tech-dynamism." One effect of these changes is that the car looks smaller, yet it has exactly the same dimensions as the current generation.

On the inside, Toyota looked to the elegance of a leather saddle for inspiration, with all trim levels now sporting high class stitching and an overlapping panel appearance on the dash.

Knobs, buttons and controls are intuitive and within easy reach. The 2012 Camry also has the option of including Toyota's new Entune connected mobility package, which uses your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to do things like play Pandora radio, search movies and buy movie tickets, locate restaurants and make reservations, conduct internet searches on Bing and more.

 

Better Fuel Economy, Especially in the Hybrid

The 2012 Camry will initially come in the standard four flavors: LE, SE, XLE, and Hybrid. At some point in the future, Toyota will also sell an L trim, but with only bare-bones equipment, the L is aimed primarily at fleet sales. Where the Hybrid once had only one trim level, Toyota will offer the new version in LE and XLE grades.

Both the 178 horsepower four-cylinder and 268 HP V6 engines are carryovers from the previous generation. However, Toyota was able to significantly improve fuel economy through overall vehicle weight reductions, aerodynamic improvements, and new low-rolling resistance tires.

Toyota estimates that the four-cylinder powerplant, found standard on the LE and XLE, will return 25 miles per gallon in the city, 35 MPG on the highway and average around 28 MPG in combined driving. That's compared to current generation's 22-city/32-highway/26-combined MPG for the current generation.

Likewise, on the V6-found standard on the sporty SE and as an upgrade on the LE and XLE, Toyota estimates a modest 1-2 mpg improvement of 21-city/30-highway/25-combined mileage.

While those numbers are up from past models, the Hybrid trim is where the fuel economy improvements become more drastic. In the Hybrid, a variant of the four-cylinder engine found on the conventional models is paired with the company's well-developed Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system. Several enhancements to that drivetrain result in a very good estimated 43-city/39-highway/41-combined MPG for the LE and 41-city/38-highway/40-combined MPG for the XLE. That's a substantial improvement compared to the 31-city/35-highway/33-combined MPG of the current generation.

Over the course of a 25-mile loop of both in-town and moderate speed country road driving in "Eco" mode, we were able to return about 43 mpg in the Hybrid XLE, even better than Toyota's prediction for that kind of driving.

 

Performance Remains Comfortable

For 2012, moderate changes to the Camry's suspension and aerodynamics have slightly altered the car's driving dynamics, all for the better. This is especially true in the Hybrid, where weight distribution between front and rear is more even. The suspension performed comfortably and expectedly in emergency maneuvers, with the only hiccup arising from the sport-tuned SE with the heavier V6 engine. In that vehicle, the extra weight in the front end made for some unexpected roll in tight corners.

While the car handled twists and turns in relative comfort, the standard front seats lack appropriate bolstering, which allows average-sized drivers and passengers to unnervingly shift around in their seats in those same corners. The effect can be rather distracting if you choose to drive the LE or XLE aggressively. The SE, on the other hand, comes with sport seats that have much higher levels of bolstering to keep drivers planted.

 

Improved Pricing For Upgraded Trims

Certainly the Camry has always had a strong value equation, but price drops in the upgraded SE, XLE and Hybrid models for 2012 make those trims even more enticing. The base LE will start at $22,500, about $200 less than the current LE, not including destination. The SE will start at $23,000 for the four-cylinder model, almost $1,000 less than the 2011 model, and the SE V6 will start at $26,640, around the same price as the outgoing Camry SE. The XLE with a four-cylinder will start at $24,725, $2000 less than the 2011 XLE, and the XLE V6 will cost $29,845, around the same price as the current car. It's no wonder that Toyota expects the better-equipped models to make up a significantly higher portion of sales.

With consumers more focused on fuel economy than ever, and interest in electric vehicles growing by the day, Toyota has decided to bring the Camry Hybrid into more of a mainstream pricing bracket than in the previous generation. By making the Hybrid available in two trim levels, the barrier to entry for the hybrid has been lowered. The Hybrid LE will start at $25,900 and the Hybrid XLE at $27,400, whereas the current generation Hybrid costs $28,200.

 

The 2012 Camry is still doesn't qualify as a "sexy" vehicle, but with the changes made for 2012, it's certainly more handsome than ever. In any event, when it comes to kind of car, it's not really about how the vehicle looks; even with a few quirks, the 7th generation Camry offers Toyota value and quality in spades, intended for families that yearn for stability, dependability and safety.

author photo

Nick Chambers is a "next generation" car enthusiast, recognized for his green automotive coverage in Gas 2.0, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com. In addition, he's been syndicated in Matter Network, AP and Reuters.

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