The Toyota Camry does just about everything very well and it's supported by Toyota's well-earned reputation for quality, reliability and resale value. It's the best-selling midsize sedan in America.
The Camry is exceptionally good in nearly every respect, bad in almost none, and it has a steady, set-and-forget quality that many drivers appreciate. This four-door sedan seats five in comfort, yet it's relatively compact and easy to park. It's smooth and quiet, but it can accelerate with vigor. Its cabin is attractive, functional and as refined as anything in its class. It's pleasant to drive in all circumstances.
The Camry benefited from a complete overhaul for 2007, starting with a new, airy interior and continuing with more powerful engines, more transmission choices and increased fuel efficiency. The Camry's aerodynamic styling shows more vitality than we've come to expect from a car many have labeled, and not necessarily in unkind fashion, as Japan's Buick. The only change of any significance for 2009 is that what was the base model, the Camry CE, is now known as just the Camry.
Models range from the well-equipped base Camry to the near-luxury Camry XLE. In between are the popular LE, a modest step up from the base and available with the V6, and the SE, decked out with suspension, tires and trim to please the sporty crowd.
The standard four-cylinder engine is not the strongest, though it's more than adequate with the manual transmission. The available V6 is one of the most powerful in the class and it's very smooth.
The Camry Hybrid features a combination electric motor/gasoline engine powertrain and a super-efficient continuously variable transmission, or CVT. The Hybrid is a good performer and one of the most fuel-efficient mid-size vehicles anywhere. It also makes a statement for environmentally conscious buyers, though it's worth noting that all Camry models offer good EPA mileage ratings and low emissions in their respective categories.
Since its debut in the United States well over two decades ago, the Camry has earned a reputation for smart design, pleasing function, great build quality and long-term durability. It's not all hype. The Toyota Camry remains the benchmark by which its competitors are judged.
The Toyota Camry makes a bold in this latest generation, which was launched as a 2007 model.
The front end is the boldest design element, with sharp points, curving cut lines and entertaining surface planes. The hood dips broadly through the middle, pushing visual heft out over the front fenders. The grille wears a Toyota emblem prominently above softly slanted, horizontal slats. The single-piece fascia blends all the diverse elements into a smooth aerodynamic look that's several steps away from looking like just another midsize sedan.
The side view is less fashionable and somewhat bulky looking, with a high beltline, symmetrical windows and square doors, graced with a barely discernible character line running through flush-mounted door handles. The wheel openings are circular, which on a car with a lower profile might suggest sporty intentions. On the Camry, they draw attention to the expanse of sheet metal between them, and instead whisper sedate.
The rear end, which looks somewhat like a miniaturized copy of the squared-off trunk lid of the BMW 7 Series, finishes the side profile. That bustle-like hump gives the trailing edge of the trunk a slight aero-lip that suggests it's there to reduce rear lift at high speeds. An oversize Toyota emblem perches atop the license plate recess. Proud taillight lenses mirror the outline of the headlights, angling down and inward across the trunk lid seam, closely tracing the pattern set by the headlights and grille. The bumper wraps around the back end, capping the corners beneath the taillights and sweeping into a soft, horizontal indentation that, on the V6-equipped models, finishes in cutouts for the chrome-tipped dual exhausts.
The Camry SE is the easiest model to distinguish, and perhaps the boldest of all. The inference of aero treatment on the trunk lid is boosted on the SE with a true spoiler. A black honeycomb-style grille sneers forward from smoked-tint headlamps, while a full body kit flares the lower edge of the car outward, emphasizing the sport model's lower ride height. Six-spoke, 17-inch aluminum wheels fill those circular wheel wells nicely.
There's aerodynamic massaging not obvious to the eye, particularly on the sport-tuned SE and the other specialty Camry, the Hybrid. Engineers focused on making the underbody as flat as possible to smooth airflow under the car and reduce noise.
On the SE, they also tuned the flow to balance downforce, or the aerodynamic force that presses the car to the pavement, nearly equally over the front and rear tires.
With the Camry Hybrid, the aerodynamic focus was on efficiency. Unique wheel spats and underbelly pans reduce the coefficient of drag (Cd) to a low 0.27. This reduces the amount of energy required to move the Hybrid at a given speed, and in turn helps increase fuel economy.
Inside, the Camry offers a welcome counterpoint to its exterior styling. While the outside has been touched with a splash of pizzazz, the inside has been brushed with shades of elegance. The treatment is not quite up to, say, Lexus-level luxury, but, especially in the top-of-the-line XLE, this Camry sets a high bar on interior polish for mid-price, mid-size sedans.
The cabin is trimmed with a brushed metallic finish in the base, LE, SE, and Hybrid. Real-looking glossy wood grain is used inside the XLE, including surrounds for the door-release handles.
The fabric upholstery combines breathable, waffle-texture insets with smooth bolsters and backing. The leather upgrade isn't quite kid glove, but it feels expensive. On the less positive side, the hard plastic covering the roof pillars looks cheap, and the mouse fur headliner disappoints.
The Camry is a roomy sedan, with comfortable seats front and rear, though the seat bottoms are short on thigh support for taller occupants. Rear-seat passengers in the XLE enjoy a luxury rarely seen in this class: Reclining seatbacks.
The sloping hood delivers good sightlines from the driver's seat. The thick C-pillar (that part of the body supporting the roof behind the rear doors), looks less imposing to the driver than from outside the car. Low-profile rear-seat head restraints leave the view in the rearview mirror mostly unblocked. Outside mirrors are placed farther rearward than we'd like, forcing a turn of the head for quick checks instead of just glancing sideways.
Almost everything inside the Camry speaks refined function. The speedometer and tachometer are large, circular and easy to scan, save for brief periods at dusk and under certain types of street lighting, when the luminescent instruments on all but the SE can wash out.
Gauges in the SE, which are black on white with sharp blue backlighting, avoid this eye-straining fade. They're part of this sporty model's unique interior treatment, which features dark charcoal or Ash gray hues and a grippy leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel.
The window switches are clustered nicely on the driver's door armrest, just below the mirror switch and door lock, so they sit right where the hand rests when the driver sets forearm on the door. However, only the driver's window switch is lit at night, and it's not very bright. That means the other switches in the cluster, including the locks and mirrors, must be located by touch when it's dark, rather than by sight.
Controls for audio and air conditioning are easily manageable, clearly labeled and logically positioned in the center stack, with audio above and climate below. The pastel blue-green lighting around the optional navigation system reminds us of Miami Beach, and we love the separate on/off switches for the audio and navigation systems. The dual switches are a welcome departure from a lot of other vehicles, many of which have single on/off switches, which means that, in those other cars, if you want the navigation but no audio, you have to crank the volume all the way down, and still run the risk of picking up interference. The Camry's dual switches eliminate this issue.
The cabin offers lots of usable cubbies for storing things. Cup holders and assorted nooks and covered bins are located conveniently about the center stack and console. A large glove box spans the lower dash between the center stack and passenger door. Only the front doors get map pockets, which are fixed, hard plastic that allows most everything stored there to slide. A similar material forms the magazine pouches on the back of the front seatbacks. A covered storage bin in the fold-down center rear armrest doubles as cup holders for rear passengers. On the SE and XLE, it also conceals a pass-through to the trunk. The SE offers only this pass-through, rather than the folding rear seat on other models, because of an extra brace behind the seat that stiffens the body for sportier handling.
Trunk space is adequate, at 15.0 cubic feet. The XLE's reclining back seats exact a slight penalty in trunk space, dropping it 0.5 cubic feet compared to other models. The Camry Hybrid takes an even bigger hit, losing 4.3 cubic feet of trunk space to its battery. The Camry's trunk is fully finished, and the XLE comes with a luggage net that keeps cargo from sliding. There's no pull-down handle inside the trunk lid to spare fingers the grime and grit that can accumulate on exterior surfaces in winter.
A long, attentive drive in the Toyota Camry might be described as a convincing experience. By that, we mean the driver won't need further convincing as to why the Camry is the best-selling car in the United States. No particular aspect of the Camry's performance is outstanding. On the other hand, it does most everything very well, and nothing badly. It's easy to see why this sedan is a favorite for families, commuting and all-purpose transportation.
We drove LE, SE, XLE, and Hybrid models. Lengthy sessions with four-cylinder manual and V6 automatic models seriously impressed us, and only the four-cylinder automatic left us wishing for better. We were impressed not only with the overall packaging, but also with the clear distinctions among the different models, both inside and underneath.
The Camry LE with four-cylinder and automatic was competent, but well short of inspiring. Performance-wise, this isn't surprising, given the weight burdening its relatively small engine, which is no better than average in power output. The four-cylinder is buzzy. And we felt some torque steer, a light left-right tugging at the steering wheel under full throttle. It's a common phenomenon with front-wheel drive, but we expect it more with light, powerful cars. Fit and finish are very good, with zero buzzes, squeaks or rattles, and tight tolerances between panels and parts. Yet wind and road noise are audible.
The Camry LE V6 is another story, because there is no shortage of power here. The 268-horsepower V6 engine eagerly spins all the way up to its programmed limiter at 6500 rpm, and it's silky smooth throughout. It pulls without stumble from 1000 rpm in any gear, and the driver won't feel as if he or she is waiting for the transmission to find the right gear so the car can get going. The LE V6 will feel very familiar to longtime Camry owners, just a little smoother, tighter and more powerful than older models.
The Camry SE is fun and entertaining to drive. Steering turn-in is more precise than we'd expect in a Camry, and cornering is solid and stable, with little body lean. Brake pedal feel and travel are soft and long by sports sedan standards.
The manual transmission in four-cylinder models shifts cleanly, if not with sports-car crispness. We really liked it in the Camry SE. Clutch engagement is smooth and easily managed. The brake and gas pedals are close enough to allow heel-and-toe shifting, which enthusiast drivers enjoy, though the process is not accomplished with ease. In all, we enjoyed the four-cylinder much more with the manual transmission, because it allows the driver to keep the engine working in the rpm range where it's most powerful. It makes for an engaging driving experience.
The Camry SE V6 is a car in which the driver might want to actually use the sequential manual shift feature on Toyota's new six-speed automatic, and we liked it. In manual mode, the transmission will hold the chosen gear without shifting up, and it will downshift immediately with a click on the lever. The shifts are smooth, but quick and reassuringly certain.
The Camry XLE is more soft and floaty than firm and planted, though that doesn't mean it's wandering or imprecise. We were entirely comfortable and assured piloting it at a leisurely pace along gently curving two-lane byways and on lightly traveled or rush hour-packed, multi-lane highways. The XLE is a car you need not think about when driving. We found it very enjoyable, a good place to relax and enjoy the great sound system.
The Camry Hybrid tucked right in between the LE and the XLE in performance. Its hybrid powertrain combines a 147-hp version of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a synchronous electric motor, yielding a net 187 horsepower. That's more than V6 Camrys offered a few years ago, and the Hybrid can operate on just the electric motor at low speeds. The instantaneous torque from the electric motor also augments acceleration. The Hybrid isn't as quick as the V6 Camrys, which are among the strongest in the midsize class, but it's noticeably quicker than four-cylinder models, and particularly four-cylinders with the automatic.
For the most part, the Camry Hybrid is just as easy to operate as any other Camry, but there is a learning curve to mastering all of its idiosyncrasies. For example, when you press the push-button starter the car comes to life, ready to drive, but it isn't always obvious. The Hybrid is a very quiet car at a stop. When it's started, and sometimes even when you press the accelerator, the gas engine does not immediately fire, so you won't hear it or feel its slight hum of vibration. As a result, you may not realize that this Camry is ready for action. So you'll press the start button again, thinking it didn't fire the first time, and actually turn the car off. The way to tell is to look for the Ready light next to the speedometer. If it's on, and if the shift lever will slide into gear, then the Hybrid is ready to go, whether the engine is actually running or not. We occasionally struggled with trying to figure out whether the car was running, which led to awkward parking lot situations. Beyond that bit of familiarization, the Camry Hybrid is smooth, with solid acceleration.
In terms of ride, handling and interior comfort, the Camry Hybrid could easily fool us into thinking we were driving an XLE, except for the visual differences. The Hybrid's gauges include a graphic display of the powertrain's status (gas, electric or both), a welcome, real-time fuel economy gauge in place of the tachometer and a unique, abbreviated shift gate. The transitions from the electric motor powering the car to operating on gasoline only, and to both the motor and engine operating together, are quite smooth. Those transitions are noticeable, to be sure, but they're heard more than felt.
Active safety features are integrated into the Hybrid's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management package, or VDIM, which is a comprehensive anti-skid and stability program. The Hybrid also has electrically-assisted power steering, which will provide steering assist when the car is operating on the electric motor alone. The anti-lock brakes include Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), which balances brake force front-to-rear, and Brake Assist, which recognizes a panic-stop situation and assists the driver in applying optimum braking force. The Hybrid also has regenerative braking, which charges the battery during stops. The VDIM manages a variety of sensors, including those for steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, and wheel speed, and reduces the likelihood of loss of control.
Vehicle Stability Control and Traction Control are optional on the base Camry, LE, SE and XLE, and we most strongly recommend it, as considerable evidence shows these systems help to reduce single-vehicle crashes.
The Toyota Camry does nearly everything exceptionally well, and nothing badly, and it delivers comfortable, pleasant, reliable transportation for up to five. There's a model for nearly every taste and budget. All are reasonably economical to operate. The Camry Hybrid is one of the most fuel-efficient mid-size vehicles available.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Ojai, California, with J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.