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Toyota Motor Corp
Honda Motor Co Ltd
General Motors Co
Ford Motor Co
Nissan Motor Co Ltd
Toyota won’t mess with success—the bestselling car in the U.S. has a better interior and mileage but don’t expect radical changes
The Good: Price, better mileage and interior, improved hybrid and sporty SE versions
The Bad: Bland exterior styling, past history of product recalls
The Bottom Line: Much improved, but tough new competition is on the way
Model Year: 2012
Body Type: Four-door, five-passenger
Price Class: Mid-Range
Product Name: Toyota Camry
It almost goes without saying that Toyota (TM) didn’t radically alter the Camry when the company redesigned America’s bestselling car for 2012. The front-wheel-drive Camry has been the top car model in the U.S. for 13 of the last 14 years, and it would be crazy to mess with such success. However, my verdict is that Toyota has done a marvelous job of improving its flagship with numerous small, incremental changes. If you’re in the market for a 2012 midsize sedan, the Camry should be at or near the top of your list.
If you can wait a bit, though, you’ll have a number of new alternative models to choose from: Redesigned 2013 versions of Honda’s (HMC) Accord, General Motors’ (GM) Chevy Malibu, Ford’s (F) Fusion, and Nissan’s (NSANY) Altima (now the No. 2 seller) are all due out between next spring and next fall. Those companies will all be gunning for the Camry.
In the meantime, the new Camry offers shoppers several distinct choices, each one better than before. The Camry hybrid is now rated to average 41 miles per gallon, up from 34 mpg previously; the base-model L remains an incredible bargain at its $22,715 starting price, especially considering the standard equipment it includes; the top-of-the-line XLE verges on being luxurious at $30,605 with V6 power and just $25,485 with a four-cylinder engine; the sporty SE (the model I test-drove) is peppier and more fun to drive ($27,400).
All versions of the new Camry are better-looking, have a classier interior, and get better mileage than before. In most cases, the list price is lower, too, especially when you factor in the additional standard equipment that’s included.
The two available engines in the nonhybrid Camrys are both improved. The base engine is a 2.5-liter four-banger rated at 178 horsepower, up from 169 hp before. With that engine, the car is rated to get 25 mpg in the city, 35 on the highway, 28 on average. That makes the four-cylinder Camry the class leader when it comes to fuel economy, at least for now.
Alternatively, there’s a 3.5-liter, 268-hp V6. That’s the same horsepower as before, but efficiency has been improved by using chain-driven camshafts and dual variable valve timing. As a result, the V6-powered Camry is rated to get 21 mpg in the city, 30 on the highway, and an average of 25 (up from 23 mpg before).
The only transmission is a six-speed automatic; the stick shift, previously standard on four-cylinder models, has been dropped. The SE comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a sport-tuned suspension.
The Camry doesn’t yet have government crash-test ratings but standard safety gear now includes 10 air bags, among them head-protecting cabin-length side curtain bags, as well as knee-protecting bags for both driver and passenger. Also standard are braking assist and brakeforce distribution, as well as stability and traction control.
The Camry remains the top-selling car in America. However, earthquake- and weather-related disruptions caused U.S. Camry sales to fall 8.8 percent, to 251,564, in the first 10 months of this year compared with a year earlier. In October, sales dropped 8.5 percent, to 22,043, even though the 2012 Camry was on the market.
The Nissan Altima has clawed its way into the No. 2 spot among midsize sedans, with sales up 18.4 percent, to 222,392, through October. In the No. 3 spot is the Ford Fusion (sales up 15.4 percent, to 206,533), followed by the Honda Accord (sales off 13.9 percent, to 203,603), Hyundai Sonata (sales up 15.8 percent, to 192,953), and Chevy Malibu (sales up 3.4 percent, to 181,505).
The Kia Optima is coming on strong. Sales nearly tripled, to 64,353, during the first 10 months of the year. The new VW Passat got off to a strong start, with sales of 5,040 in October, its first full month on the market.
Behind the Wheel
The Camry SE is no Porsche, but it’s fun to drive. The automatic transmission is tuned to shift quicker, and there’s downshift blip control to make it sound sportier. The sport suspension is quite stiff for a Camry, providing decent handling even on a racetrack, but it’s probably too stiff for most. Buyers who simply want a daily driving car should opt for an LE or XLE.
Motor Trend magazine clocked the V6-powered Camry SE at 5.8 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60, 0.4 seconds faster than before, almost as fast as the VW Passat (5.7 seconds), and well ahead of the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T (7.0 seconds). With four-cylinder power, the Camry’s zero-to-60 time rises to nearly nine seconds.
The Camry’s cabin has a roomier, airier feel, the result of numerous small changes in the interior design. For instance, the center console and rear seats have been reshaped to provide more leg space for all three passengers in the backseat. The front seats and foot pedals have been repositioned slightly to provide more room. The tilting/telescoping steering wheel tilts 33 percent more than before. The height adjustment range of the driver’s seat is now 2.4 in., half an inch more than before.
Other improvements: The Camry’s dashboard is more attractive, with flat, architectural planes and stitching in the leather across its front edge. Trunk space is 15.4 cubic feet, and all versions of the car now have 60/40 fold-down rear seats to provide extra cargo space.
The electronic systems in the new Camry are remarkable for a car in this price range. A Bluetooth hands-free phone connection and USB port are standard. The standard audio system in all trim levels except the L features six speakers and a 6.1-in. screen. For an extra $650, my test car had an upgraded navigation/JBL GreenEdge sound system that included a 7-in. screen, an eight-channel amplifier, door-mounted speakers, and HD radio. I was shocked by how much all this improved the sound quality of the FM station I usually listen to.
The Camry now has an “Apps” button on its center console. This is the gateway to Toyota’s innovative new Entune multimedia system. It gives you access to a suite of in-car services, including Bing, Pandora personalized music, and Movietickets.com, as well as an array of additional cloud-based services.
My gripes about the new Camry are few. Exterior styling has been improved, but the car still looks clunky and generic. Toyota claims the Camry’s cabin is much quieter than before, but tire noise remains considerable. Also, the product recalls Toyota has had to make on past Camrys for steering and unintended acceleration problems give me pause. Has the company really resolved its quality problems?
Buy It or Bag It?
Midsize sedans are among the best bargains on the market, and the new Camry is no exception. Starting price is a mere $22,715 for the Camry L, rising to $30,605 for a V6-powered XLE.
The 2012 Camry has been selling for an average of $24,657, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That makes the new model only slightly pricier than many of its main competitors, including the 2012 Sonata ($23,332), Accord ($23,542), and Altima ($23,757). The Camry is actually less expensive, on average, than the Kia Optima ($25,683) and VW Passat ($26,982), PIN calculates.
The Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion, both near the end of their product cycles, are being discounted and are cheaper than the Camry, at $21,926 and $23,017, respectively.
The Camry now stands up well to the Hyundai Sonata, probably its strongest current competitor. However, with so many new models due out next year, the market is in flux. If you need a new midsize sedan right away, you can buy a Camry without much hesitation. If you can wait, something even more to your liking may be on the way.
Click here to see more of the 2012 Toyota Camry.