By Roger Boylan
“What’s in a name?” famously asked the Bard in Romeo and Juliet, his meaning plain: not much (“…a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”). But he wasn’t talking about cars, was he? The automotive snob value that inheres in having a Lexus nameplate on your daily wheels instead of a Toyota one, or an Infiniti badge instead of Nissan, is partly what keeps those luxury marques afloat. So, knowing that a new test vehicle of modest marque was arriving last Wednesday, but not wanting to be influenced by that fact, I played a game with myself. I pretended I had no idea what make or model it was, just that it was a… car.
Hello, car! I said, when the mysterious stranger rolled up. I was impressed. What a handsome machine. Muscular and aerodynamic; jet black, with sculpted flanks, bright alloy wheels, tinted windows, foglights embedded in restrained but eye-catching forward spoiler, snazzy side rocker panels. Just enough chrome to offset the ebony, but not enough to be garish. A muscular stance, like a Charger. An elegant black-out grille, reminiscent of some Mercedes designs; a handsome rear wing atop a rear end à la post-Bangle BMW. Truly, a fine-looking car, one you’d be proud to cruise around in. A real head-turner.
Or it would be, if its name weren’t Toyota Camry, in which case the answer to Shakespeare’s rhetorical question is: Everything. It might be (and is) the most popular midsize car in America, but what car buff would be caught dead in one? Well, if it’s a Camry SEV6, sign me up. Maybe I’m betraying car-buffdom, but I believe in true value, not perception. Consider for starters that the Lexus ES350, with which the V6 Camry shares a platform and a powerplant, is such a close relative that it’s almost a clone, but because it’s a Lexus its starting sticker is $10K more than that of a Camry SEV6 ($36K vs. $26K). And yet, if you can stand the ignominy of admitting that you drive one, what you get in your Camry—at least in the SE and XLE trims—is pretty much the same thing you get for the extra dough in the Lexus (bar the genuine wood inserts and instant groveling from the valet at your favorite restaurant).
Let’s start with the engine in my test Camry SE, a 268-hp V6 with variable valve timing and 248 lb.-ft. of torque. The standard engine on LE and XLE trim levels of the Camry is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder generating 169 hp; the SE trim exists in both versions, but receives a tweaked version of the 4 that’s good for 179 hp. Fine, sturdy engines, no doubt, but I’d skip ‘em both, unless you’re desperate for the modest savings (the 4-cylinder SE starts at $22.3K, the 6, as mentioned, at around $26K). The V6 is quite simply a magnificent powerplant, one of the sweetest I know, and reason enough in itself to put this car on your list (especially with the deep discounts Toyota dealers, at least in my area, are still offering).
Driving over a broad swath of the Texas Hill Country in both muggy wet early-spring weather as well as on the occasional gorgeous Indian-winter day, I thoroughly enjoyed myself when it came time to nail the gas pedal. I did so perhaps more often than was strictly necessary, but it took me, one fine blue morning, from 0 to 60 in (according to my trusty Swiss chronometer) just under 6 seconds: let’s call it 5.9. Better yet, the V6 is paired with a seamless 6-speed automatic that never sleeps, indeed alertly anticipates your needs and delivers right-on shifts at the right time. A couple of dozing Farmer Johns hauling the hens down a long straight ranch road never knew what blew past them; this Camry is fast. In my less-than-expert opinion, that Toyota V6 is right up there with the Nissan VQ and BMW straight-six and other legendary mills.
And the rest of the package? Well, all right, very nice indeed, but admittedly not real sport-sedan material. For one thing, all Camrys are front-wheel-drive, and, as we know, that’s unacceptable to the purist. Still, the SE V6 does a fairly convincing impersonation. Its brakes are good, dependable jobbers, four-wheel power discs well up to taming the sprightly engine. On the other hand, the steering isn’t on a par, despite the handsome fat three-spoke wheel: not Novocaine-numb, but hardly communicative. Twitchy, at times. (Hey, this really could be a Lexus.) Overall, though, handling is pretty good, better than, say, a Chrysler 300’s, but not as good as (say) a Mazda 6’s. Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), plus traction control, fine-tunes engine output and brake application to maintain control on slippery surfaces: it seems to work, too, as might be deduced from a pair of long wiggly black tread-marks I left behind on the road (indecisive squirrel, miraculously saved).
The 17-in. low-rolling-resistance tires cling to the surface like limpets, but, unfortunately, while doing so they set up a most unToyota-like drone and thrum on rough surfaces, triggering occasionally an even more unToyota-like buzz in the dashboard cowling; but this was rare, only on the most primitive blacktops and at high speeds Smokey wouldn’t approve of. On your more normal unpatched surfaces the car was tomb-silent, as befits a Camry. All in all, I had some real fun on the winding Hill Country back roads, while remaining on the qui vive for bolting wildlife (squirrels, deer) and black-and-white Crown Vics, while working the brake-gas combo, and occasionally the transmission’s shift-yourself feature, through the twisties with considerable élan. But it’s really all about the engine in this car. Fuel economy, by the way, is estimated at 19 city, 28 highway, giving a pretty good average of 23 mpg (on regular), considering the temptations of this alluring engine.
The interior layout is simple, fresh, and logical. A fool could figure out how to use it in less than ten minutes; it took this fool slightly less time than that, with no distractions. The HVAC controls are big, old-fashioned knobs, entirely intuitive. Fit and finish seemed fine, up to the standards of the old Toyotas we knew and loved. The gauges are big and clearly legible under their binnacle, and backlit at night in a kind of Miami Beach aquamarine glow; very pleasant. On either side of the sat/nav screen my car came with were matching cascades of well-labeled buttons guiding driver and/or passenger to the audio controls, voice on/off, destination input, CD player, etc. The sat/nav feature itself is easy to follow and works well, although when it starting issuing directions in the steely voice of a dominatrix, it was soon banished into silence.
Starting the car, or at least my test model, was a maneuver performed via the ever-more-common pushbutton method, reminiscent of the choke buttons on cars of yore; I’m still not used to it, especially to not having my keys dangling in front of me like overripe fruit from the key ring, swaying back and forth with every turn; but it works, and can be activated remotely from the key fob. My SE also came with a bumper crop of safety gadgets, everything from a driver’s-side knee airbag to seat-mounted side and front and rear side-curtain airbags. It’s Airbag City in there, which contributes to the Camry’s stellar safety ratings: The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) gives it the top rating of “Good” in its frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. And while we’re on the subject of safety devices, let me also mention the always-appreciated backup camera.
It’s not all about safety, though. It’s a very comfortable car. I was cosseted by plush leather-trimmed seats, ice-cold A/C, a power moonroof with sliding sun- (or moon-) shade, an abundance of cubbies and hiding places, the subtle elegance of brushed-aluminum trim, a USB port with iPod connectivity, phone capability via Bluetooth wireless technology, and a deep booming sound system that made satellite radio even more of a no-brainer. All of this was priced on the Monroney at $30K: a bit steep, but if I really wanted this car I could live without quite a few of those gizmos.
But not without the V6, thank you very much. I’ve driven many Camrys over the years. True, they were fairly boring, but they rode well, held together, and did their job without complaining. And they were all 4-cylinder iterations. This one, with its V6, took the driving experience to another level: while not qualifying as a true sports sedan in the BMW 3-series or Jaguar XF, or even Nissan Altima, mode, it has enough oomph, style, and sports-sedan DNA, thanks to its splendid engine, to satisfy Mr. Family Man who still has the urge to break a few rules from time to time. Go ahead, Dagwood, hit the gas. There’s enough sunlight left before night falls. And no one can see that Toyota badge from a distance.