Pros: Roomy interior, smooth and quiet ride, surprisingly capable handling, plentiful standard features, great fuel economy (especially in the hyper-efficient Hybrid), optional V6 is best in class.
Cons: Entune smartphone integration isn't available on L or LE, inconsistent build quality, hybrid's regenerative brakes can feel grabby.
The all-new 2012 Toyota Camry illustrates just how competitive the midsize sedan segment has become in recent years. When the Camry first rose to prominence in the 1980s, reliability was its calling card. The pitch was simple: "Our product won't break; theirs will." American drivers naturally liked the sound of that, so the Camry became a fixture on American roads, creating millions of Toyota loyalists in the process. But rival automakers have managed to close the reliability gap since then, and their bolder designs and feature sets have underscored the Camry's plainness. Accordingly, the outgoing Camry, produced from 2007-'11, received unprecedented criticism for its appliance-like character, and discerning car shoppers increasingly looked elsewhere to fulfill their commuting needs.
With the launch of the redesigned 2012 Camry, Toyota has signaled that it's no longer content to rest on its laurels. The technology offerings, formerly an afterthought, are now top notch, including standard iPod/USB even in the base L model, and a standard 6.1-inch color touchscreen interface in the practical LE. Fuel economy is once again a Camry strength, ringing in at a Corolla-like 28 overall miles per gallon for the base four-cylinder engine and a whopping 41 mpg for the Hybrid engine. Exposed stitching on the dashboard evokes more exclusive marques, even if a few interior bits feel a little flimsy. And the classic Camry virtues are present and accounted for, so you still get the luxurious ride quality, for example, that has long distinguished Toyota's midsizer from less isolated competitors like the Accord.
Although the 2012 Camry's styling remains conservative (adventurous taillights aside), we think the redesign is otherwise a resounding success. The new Camry puts Toyota back in the conversation about the best midsize sedan you can buy, and not a moment too soon - heavy hitters like the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu are also all new.
Comfort & Utility
The Camry is offered in four basic trim levels: L, LE, SE and XLE. The base L is mostly, well, basic, from its manual cloth seats to its 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers. But it does provide a six-speaker stereo with iPod/USB - which is pretty cool in an entry-level model. The LE adds automatic headlights, variable intermittent wipers, keyless entry, a touchscreen interface, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. If you want navigation or Entune smartphone integration, you'll have to step up to the SE, which also features sporty exterior styling cues, 17-inch alloy wheels (18s with the V6), sport-tuned suspension and steering, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with shift paddles, and what Toyota rather generously calls "sport seats." The top-of-the-line XLE drops the SE's sport-themed goodies but adds standard power front seats (optional on LE and SE), dual-zone automatic climate control with rear vents, and wood interior trim. Note that the Camry Hybrid is only available in LE or XLE trim and comes with an exclusive suite of gauges and hybrid monitoring displays, while the V6 is only offered in SE or XLE trim.
The Camry L and LE's standard manual front seats cover the basics, including a height adjustment for the driver, but we think the power front seats - optional on LE/SE and standard on XLE - are a worthwhile upgrade. Unlike in previous models, the power driver's seat has a bottom cushion that tilts independent of the seatback, so drivers of all sizes can dial in perfect seating angles. The back seat is palatial, providing ample leg- and headroom along with excellent under-thigh support for taller passengers. You can buy a bigger sedan than the Camry (Toyota's own Avalon comes to mind), but we doubt you'd really want more passenger space than this.
The Camry's primary gauges haven't changed much with the redesign, and that's a good thing, as they're among the simplest and most legible in the business. The dashboard is basically all new, though, and we like it, particularly the graceful curves and exposed stitching of the upper dash trim. It reminds us a little of Jaguar's interior flourishes - not a bad association for a family sedan. As usual, Toyota has ergonomics nailed, too, thanks to big knobs and clearly marked physical and virtual buttons. Build quality may be a question mark, however, as the plastic trim pieces at the bottom of the center stack don't seem to line up just right leaving an unsightly gap.
Trunk space ranges from a healthy 15.4 cubic feet in regular Camry models to 13.1 cubic feet in Hybrid form. The regular Camry's rear seatback folds down in a 60/40 split, but the Hybrid's folds down all at once, so you can't carry both a rear passenger and extra cargo in the Hybrid.
The big technology news is the 6.1-inch touchscreen display, which is unavailable in the L but standard from the LE on up. On the LE, its primary purpose is to operate the stereo, though it also displays your Bluetooth phonebook and affords access to various vehicle settings. We think the touchscreen looks sharp and works intuitively, but we're disappointed that the LE's touchscreen is ineligible for two key upgrades: the navigation system and Toyota's new Entune smartphone software, the latter of which uses your compatible phone as a platform for handy mobile apps like Pandora and OpenTable. These upgrades are only offered on SE and XLE; moreover, only the XLE is eligible for a premium 7-inch touchscreen with a hard-drive-based navigation system. Still, for a car that has not historically been a technological trendsetter, this is all neat stuff.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive Camry starts with a 2.5-liter inline-4 rated at 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Optional on SE and XLE is a 3.5-liter V6 good for 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard with both engines, though shift paddles (with rev-matched downshifts) are included in both four- and six-cylinder SE models. The Hybrid pairs a 2.5-liter inline-4 with a battery-powered electric drive system to produce an even 200 horsepower; its transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT).
We like the 2.5-liter four a lot more than we expected to. Those 178 horses are hard workers, lending the Camry an eager nature through the gears that's unusual in a four-cylinder family sedan. As such, if the V6 were anything other than the best six-cylinder engine in its class, we'd be hard-pressed to recommend it over the four. But it is the best, from its creamy refinement to its sports-car-grade acceleration, so we'd advise springing for it if you value performance more than efficiency. As for the Hybrid system, it's actually a shade quicker than the base four-cylinder, and the CVT is surprisingly responsive, so you aren't punished in the performance department for going green.
EPA fuel economy ratings for the regular four-cylinder Camry are 25 city/35 highway, while the V6 checks in at a still-respectable 21 city/30 highway. Predictably, the Hybrid blows them both away with ratings of up to 43 city/39 highway (the Hybrid XLE drops slightly to 40 city/38 highway).
The Camry has the usual assortment of safety equipment and then some, boasting stability control and no fewer than ten airbags (front, side, side-curtain and knee). A blind spot monitoring system is optional on XLE. So how does it all work? In government crash testing, the 2012 Camry wasn't perfect, but its scores of four stars for frontal protection, five stars for side protection, and four stars for rollover protection were good enough to earn the maximum overall score of five stars. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2012 Camry its top rating of "Good" in every category.
As mentioned above, the new Camry retains the smooth, quiet ride that Camry-philes have come to expect. So that's no surprise. What is surprising, though, is the Camry's newfound surefootedness around corners. Even the non-sporty trim levels acquit themselves pretty well in the handling department, while the sport-tuned SE, which benefits from both sharper steering and a firmer suspension, brings the Camry's athleticism close to that of class leaders like the Nissan Altima. That Toyota has managed to incorporate this sprightliness without compromising the Camry's ride quality is impressive indeed.
Other Cars to Consider
Kia Optima: The recently redesigned Optima is blessed with exceptionally crisp styling from the pen of former Audi designer Peter Schreyer. It's the supermodel of midsize sedans, and it comes in regular, performance, and hybrid models, just like the Camry. Take a look at the turbocharged EX model as a cheaper, more fuel-efficient alternative to the Camry V6.
Volkswagen Passat: Designed specifically to compete with the Camry and company, the new American-built Passat certainly has the size and softness to win the hearts of Toyota devotees. It also features an attractive interior, a turbodiesel model that's nearly as frugal as the Camry Hybrid, and an optional 3.6-liter V6 that gives the Camry's six a run for its money.
Well, there's really not a bad apple in this barrel. The four-cylinder LE is certainly the value leader, given that it's just $545 pricier than the L while offering considerably more standard and optional equipment. But if you want extra fuel economy or performance, you can't go wrong with the Hybrid or V6, respectively. The Camry lineup is exceptionally well rounded.