Secondhand Gems: $21K Camry Alternatives

By Christopher Smith

December 21, 2010

The Toyota Camry is a good car. There...we said it.

Actually, it is a good car, in much the same way that vanilla ice cream is a good dessert. It’s tasty, refreshing, and provided you don’t experience brain freeze resulting from unintended mass consumption, devouring a dish is generally a pleasurable experience. It’s also, well, rather dull. Especially if one commits to a steady diet of the stuff for more than a week. For the sake of our readers, we’ll spare the disgusting details by simply saying the ick factor hits quick—real quick. This is why we suspect ordering plain vanilla ice cream seldom happens, despite its abundance around the world. There are far more delectable dishes on the menu for pretty much the same price, and since this isn’t the latest issue of Calories Galore, you probably get the metaphor by now.

The Camry has also been so successful over the years, that is has now become the default choice in the mid-size segment. They’re well equipped, they look decent, they offer fabulous residual values, and they can be had for about $21,000 at the base end. (For that matter, you can insert the base version of just about every mainstream, mid- size car in place of the Toyota if you like. Twenty-one grand is sort of the magic jumping off point in this part of the market.)

Your mom wants you to drive a Camry, and with respect to moms everywhere, we want you to drive something else. $21K will, after all, buy some very interesting, nearly new vehicles, too. These three Camry alternatives offer similar levels of safety and equipment, while treating the driver to superior levels of pretty much everything else. And best of all, they won’t leave you feeling nauseous after a week of overindulgence.

2008 Volkswagen Passat VR6
Let’s hear it for depreciation! Once upon a time, this car breached the $40,000 mark in fully loaded, all-wheel-drive trim. And when new car shoppers realized the same dough could land them into the likes of BMW and cousin Audi, there wasn’t so much of a demand for this premium VeeDub. As the saying goes, one person’s loss is another person’s gain, so if you didn’t buy one of these rides brand new, pat yourself on the back and head to the bank. At around $20,000, it’s the cheapest car on our list.

There are several reasons why the Passat makes a great Camry alternative. We love the superior fit and finish of the interior, the exceptional comfort afforded by the front buckets, the elegant, understated exterior styling, and even the neat-o push-key ignition. This car feels like a proper German sedan, and it’s arguably the most aesthetically pleasing on this list, at least as far as the innards are concerned.

Volkswagen’s close relation to Audi is in evidence throughout the interior, but also beneath in the suspension tuning. Whereas the Camry is reasonably composed but isolated, the Passat is relatively communicative and confident in its actions. This isn’t a full-blown sports sedan, but the cornering limits are high enough to keep all but the insane (or unlucky) from reaching them on public roads. Contributing to that feel is one of the best electronic power steering boxes in the business, and though the Passat wrestles 280 horsepower through the front wheels (all-wheel-drive is available, but not within a Camry price range), torque steer is simply a non-issue. That’s impressive, because 280 ponies is enough juice to send this sedan to 60 in about six seconds, and though we’d rather bang our way through the gears to get there, having the Tiptronic six-speed automatic is an acceptable compromise.

Unacceptable compromises may stem from road noise, which isn’t necessarily bothersome but definitely higher than one would expect in a rather stately sedan. And then there is the Passat’s soiled reputation for reliability, which in all fairness primarily affects the pre-2005 models—another reason why resale figures on these cars aren’t stellar. Still, we’d happily take a Passat over the Camry, even without an extended warranty.

2007 Acura TL 3.2
We really wanted to slot the beefier TL Type-S into this comparison. Luxurious accommodations, crisp moves, six-speed manual transmission, and the harmonious 3.5-liter singing 286 horsepower make for an extremely compelling automobile. For all intents and purposes the Type-S isn’t even close to being in the same league as the Camry, and frankly, it shows in the price, which remains a few thousand smackers over the Toyota. That’s not to say the occasional high-mile Type-S couldn’t reach the low $20,000 range (we found at least one on eBay Motors that would fit), and though we feel the extra dough and/or mileage would be worth it, we have to face the facts: The sportier Acura just doesn’t meet Camry pricing.

The 258-horsepower 3.2-liter TL, however, can be found without too much issue at the lower price point if you step back a year, and trust us, that extra year won’t be missed. Aside from sporting the timeless TL lines sans the gaudy metal-tooth front grille of the current car, this sedan also happens to be an accomplished dancer. It’s not as edgy as the Type-S, but for folks using the Camry as a benchmark, the TL will feel like a five-passenger Ariel Atom without all the wind noise.

Body motions are kept in check, and minor tweaks to the suspension from 2006 manage to give the TL no small amount of balance in the corners. There are very few front-wheel-drive cars that can make the driver forget the front wheels are doing all the work, but unless the TL is pushed hard, that’s exactly what happens here. Steering inputs are fairly precise if not a bit jittery under hard acceleration, which is generally when the TL reveals its front-drive architecture. And speaking of acceleration, the standard TL still pulls 60 in just over six seconds, which is technically the slowest of the group, but still a ways better than the Camry. And since the TL draws from Honda’s parts bin, one can also expect Honda reliability. If the Passat was a good Camry alternative, the TL rates somewhere in the next dimension of awesomeness.

2007 Infiniti G35
Seriously? A G35 for the price of a Camry? We’re happy to report that, if you skip on the higher options, and if you stick with rear-wheel drive, and if you turn over the necessary tarot cards in the correct order, then yes, you can nix the vanilla ice cream for the death by chocolate supreme sundae, complete with extra nuts. That’s because, unlike the Acura, the used sport versions of the G35 generally aren’t pulling extra greenbacks.

So then, how does a rear-wheel-drive, mid-sized sport sedan with 306 horsepower, tuned suspension, and a true-blue six-speed manual gearbox sound? Actually, the G35 isn’t quite as aurally pleasing as we would like in something that can move like this car does. It sort of rasps and snorts its way through the RPM range, and though we wouldn’t describe the noise as unpleasant, it’s not the smoothest V-6 we’ve ever met. The transmission follows suit to a degree, swapping gears with quick if slightly notchy changes, and all that mechanical commotion tends to feed back into the cabin in a communicative manner not of the welcome kind.

But that’s just us being picky. Here’s the reality of the situation: For about the same price as a base model Toyota Camry, this 2007 Infiniti G35 delivers extraordinarily comfortable accommodations, a full range of standard power equipment, classy good looks, enough grunt to click off 13-second quarter-mile passes, and a suspension that could win the Nobel Prize in comfort/performance balance. The G35 can deliver aristocrats to the country club with proper style, then plaster the bowling team to the side windows while en route to league night. It’s sensible enough to fulfill family car duties, it’s comfortable enough to drive the in-laws to their winter home in Scottsdale, it’s frugal enough to serve as a decent highway commuter, and when you nab a parking space at the airport, a hapless traveler won’t mistake your car for the rental they just paid for. If you’ve ever had to hit the panic button on the key fob just to find your car in a sea of similar machines, you’ll appreciate that last point.

It may not have quite the same refinement as the Passat, or the internal harmony of the TL, but the G35 proves that, with just a bit of due diligence, no deserving auto enthusiast needs to sacrifice driving enjoyment for the sake of the status quo. Go ahead, indulge yourself. We promise not to tell your mom.