Driven: 2012 Toyota Camry

By Brandon Turkus

August 23, 2011

—Cle Elum, Washington
First, we need to applaud Toyota. With the Japanese earthquake and tsunami’s effects still lingering, the manufacturer has gone into overdrive, announcing 20 new or updated products by 2013. That product onslaught begins with this, the all-new version of the brand’s bread-and-butter family sedan, the Camry.
For Toyota, it doesn’t get any more important. The Camry has been America’s best selling car for the past nine years (and 13 of the last 14), and Toyota expects almost 50 percent of 2012 Camry buyers to have been previous owners, so there is an expectation of what the car will deliver. The question is, will it deliver?
The Camry wears new sheetmetal for 2012 that gives it a wider, more aggressive look. The front fascia features a more angular design, with the headlights taking on an almost Acura TSX-like appearance. The revised upper grille now stretches the full length between headlights, giving the new Camry an added feeling of width, while a larger lower grille optimizes aerodynamic efficiency. Sharper-looking fog light surrounds finish out the front fascia revisions.
Enhancements to the profile consist of a character line that begins low on the side of the front bumper, and extends upward, running the length of the car and terminating at the rear deck lid. The C-pillar also sees a revision, with a sharper angle than the previous car. While the change looks good, we found it impeded our view slightly, making lane changes and parking lot maneuvers slightly more difficult.
Out back, redesigned taillights deliver a more aggressive look, while a chrome strip links them together, giving a similar widening effect as on the front fascia. Overall, we’d certainly classify the exterior reshape as a case of evolution over revolution.
The same can be said of the interior. The goal here was to increase both actual and perceived cabin space. This was done through a variety of changes and reductions in the size of interior items. For example, the A- and B-pillars feature a reduced cross section, giving the cabin an airier feeling. This also helps with forward visibility, as the smaller pillars create a better line of sight. There were some significant changes to major touchpoints as well.
For a start, the steering wheel has been redone across the Camry lineup. A four-spoke wheel is standard, with the top-level XLE getting a leather-wrapped piece (base L, and mid-level LE buyers get a urethane wheel). Buyers of the sportier SE will get a leather-wrapped three-spoke wheel that delivers extra padding, a smaller diameter, and a surprisingly nice set of plastic paddle shifters to deliver a more involving driver experience. We found both the XLE’s leather-wrapped wheel and the SE’s three-spoke to be pleasant to the touch, although the addition of multi-directional buttons on gave them a slightly cluttered appearance that took some time to learn. We also would have liked real metal shifters as opposed to the plastic pieces.
The seats also see a redesign across the line. A longer seat cushion and a higher seatback gives more room for the big and tall, a feature that we appreciated during our time in the Camry. The standard seats were comfortable enough, although we would have liked a bit more support for our lower back. SE buyers get a set of “sporty” seats that deliver increased bolstering and support. While the additional side bolsters were certainly nice, the new seats never really put us in the mood for the sort of driving the more aggressive SE was supposed to deliver.
Camry SE 3.5
Our first sortie was in what we thought would be the most involving Camry, the V-6-powered SE. The SE features more aggressive styling than the rest of the Camry range, with a narrower lower grille, and mesh inserts on both upper and lower grilles. A rear-deck spoiler accents the rear fascia, along with a revised rear bumper. Four-cylinder SE’s receive seventeen-inch wheels, but our V-6 tester came standard with eighteen-inch rolling stock. Sport seats and the unique SE steering wheel round out the interior changes.
Mechanically, the Camry SE’s spec sheet talks a good game. Spring rates are 15 percent stiffer, while the damping firmness sees a 50 percent increase. A solid, 16-inch rear sway bar replaces a 15.9-inch tube bar, which limits lateral body motion. The SE also gets unique tuning for the electronic power steering that promises increased responsiveness.
As we mentioned, we opted for the big boy 3.5-liter V-6. Boasting 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, it was the most potent powerplant on offer, and is still capable of delivering 21 city and 30 highway miles per gallon. Aiding the V-6 is a six-speed automatic transmission shared by the rest of the Camry V-6 range. The SE though, benefits from quicker upshifts and rev-matched downshifts.
This is a darned good powertrain. The Camry never feels quite as fleet-footed as a Kia Optima Turbo, but it’s certainly no slouch. We made more than a few wide-open throttle runs and never noticed any instances of torque steer. What we did notice was power. After a brief squealing of the tires, the Toyota took off with some vigor. Power felt abundant throughout the rev range, making acceleration an easy task.
What we really enjoyed though was the excellent six-speed automatic. Left to its own devices, it delivered unobtrusive performance. Slot it into Sport and work the silver-painted paddles though, and it became some serious fun. The paddles themselves were decent to use. There was none of the shift lag that we’ve seen in other Toyota’s when using manual mode, and downshifts were accompanied by a surprising and pleasant exhaust blurp.
Unfortunately, the sportiest Camry’s handling never quite came together as well as the powertrain. Despite the nice, new wheel, the heavier sport steering didn’t really deliver any extra feedback. It was more communicative than the Hybrid’s steering we tested later in the day, but only just. At the same time, the firmer suspension never delivered the performance it promised. For a start, there was too much bias towards the front wheels. On the sweeping, Alpine-like roads outside of Cle Elum, the Camry quickly resorted to understeer.
The firmer suspension also had the undesired effect of messing with the Camry’s primary and secondary ride. Crashiness over larger bumps and suspension float over smaller imperfections was more noticeable in the SE. To be fair, there was less body roll, as well as less fore/aft movement in the SE, but the loss of stability simply didn’t seem worth it.
Camry Hybrid
For an entirely different cup of sake, we snagged a Camry with Toyota’s new version of its Hybrid Synergy Drive. Featuring a version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder found in the rest of the Camry range, the second-generation Hybrid features more power and better fuel economy.
Horsepower is up from 187 to 200, while the electric motor delivers its peak 199 pound-feet of torque between zero and 1500 rpm. Fuel efficiency, meanwhile, is up from 31 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway to 43 city and 39 highway on the base Hybrid LE. (The top-level Hybrid XLE sees city and highway mileage dropping to 41/38 mpg, city/highway.)
Like the Camry SE, the Hybrid features a seriously good powertrain. This is quite possibly the smoothest, most refined, most unobtrusive hybrid vehicle we’ve ever driven. It requires a good deal of attention to even notice the transitions between gas, EV, and hybrid mode. It’s that smooth.
On the road, the hybrid Camry is actually quite quick for the class, thanks in no small part to the 199 pound-feet of instant-on torque coming from the electric motor. Toyota actually estimates that this new model is half-a-second quicker to 60 miles per hour than the one it replaces. Off-the-line acceleration is impressive, but that tapers off rather quickly. Mid-range grunt is adequate, but it lacks the urgency of the low-end power (again, thanks to the electric motor’s 1500 rpm torque peak).
Unlike hybrids from Hyundai and Kia, the Camry still makes use of a continuously variable transmission. While we are usually opposed to CVTs because of the constant engine noise under heavy throttle, the Toyota seemed noticeably quieter. Even under wide open throttle, the amount of engine noise that infiltrated the cabin was considerably less than what we’ve experienced in older Toyota Hybrids. That being said, this isn’t exactly an engine that will set hearts aflutter with its exhaust note.
For increased fuel savings, the Camry also boasts an Eco mode, as well as an EV mode, allowing drivers a greater deal of flexibility in the comings and goings of the hybrid drivetrain. We weren’t able to conduct an extensive test of the EV or Eco modes, but can report that Eco mode seems to dull the driving experience. By decreasing throttle response and limiting the throttle opening to a maximum of 11.6 percent, Eco essentially forces the driver to conserve fuel through reduced speed. EV mode allows the driver to travel up to 25 miles per hour for up to 1.5 miles without the gas engine kicking in—in theory. We were never able to drive a car with enough of a reserve charge in the battery to allow EV mode to work its magic.
While the Camry SE’s handling had a jack-of-all-trades feeling, the Hybrid seemed clearly designed with passenger comfort in mind. We can’t help but to appreciate the single-mindedness of Toyota’s suspension engineers in this regard, as the multi-faceted nature of the Camry SE was its biggest demerit. In the case of the Hybrid, it’s just a properly comfy cruiser, and was arguably more neutral than the understeer-prone SE.
There was a goodly amount of body roll, and squat and dive were a bit too prevalent. On top of that, feedback through the suspension was essentially non-existent. But the bumps and imperfections you do come across are soaked up easily, making the Hybrid a seriously stable highway cruiser.
Whether Toyota intended to or not, the soft suspension does a fine job of limiting the amount of road noise that infiltrates the cabin. There is very little suspension noise, and only a hint of tire roar from the fuel-efficient tires. As for wind noise, it was more difficult to measure, as we were in the gusty mountains of Washington, and the vehicles we were driving were pre-production units, meaning that things like panel gap might not be 100-percent production ready.
The Camry’s electronic power steering was light, lifeless, and dull, pretty much all of the time. The lightweight tiller was clearly engineered with parking lot maneuvering in mind; so much so that we’d argue high-speed stability was potentially compromised.
End Result
We came away from the Camry drive with mixed feelings. The Camry Hybrid proves that the manufacturer that kicked off the hybrid craze (with respect to Honda and its original Insight) is still the champ when it comes to refinement and fuel efficiency in this class. The gasoline/electric Camry sets a new benchmark for hybrid system smoothness, and is generally an inoffensive package dynamically.
The SE, meanwhile, which may have held out a glimmer of hope for those shoppers that are at least occasionally interested in dynamic driving, doesn’t deliver much more on that front than added speed. The Camry SE probably tries too hard to split the difference between comfort and sport, when all it really need do is give a mild ego boost to what is likely to be an extraordinarily conservative car shopper.
VS: Kia Optima Turbo
While the Optima boasts a slight power advantage over the V-6-powered Camry SE (274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque versus 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque), the Toyota goes about delivering its power in a more linear, and therefore more controllable, fashion.
The Toyota also wins points for its quick-shifting six-speed automatic. Whether in Sport or standard automatic, the shifts in the Camry seemed smoother, better timed, and faster than what we found in the Optima.
While we thoroughly enjoy the frenetic nature of the Optima’s powertrain, the level of smoothness and refinement in the Camry make the power trade-off a worthwhile loss.
VS: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
The Sonata Hybrid is the better hybrid in that it’s easier to access the EV mode in daily driving. You don’t need to push a button, and you aren’t limited to 25 miles per hour. A careful foot can keep the Sonata in EV mode at normal road speeds.
On the other hand, the Hyundai’s hybrid system lacks the seamlessness of the Toyota. Where we had difficulty detecting changeovers in the Camry, the Sonata Hybrid’s changes were more noticeable, delivering a slight jolt through the vehicle as the power switched over.
The Camry also bests the Sonata in city fuel efficiency, boasting 41 miles per gallon compared to the Hyundai’s 35. And while the Sonata is more efficient on the freeway (40 miles per gallon compared to the 38 in the Toyota), the two mile per gallon drop for the Toyota is well worth it when you factor in the added comfort and refinement.
2012 Toyota Camry SE
Engine: V-6, 3.5 liters, 24v
Output: 268 hp/248 lb-ft
Weight: 3420 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 21/30 mpg
Base Price: $26,000 (est)
On Sale: Fall 2011
2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE
Engine: Inline-4, 2.5 liters, 16v with electric motor
Output: 200 hp/199 lb-ft
Weight: 3441 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 41/38 mpg
Base Price: $29,000 (est)
On Sale: Fall 2011