First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry LE
On the odd chance anyone missed it, Toyota has now unveiled the 2012 Camry, which is obviously a rather big deal for the automaker—and the U.S. market, of course. Toyota’s mid-size sedan has been the best-selling car in the U.S. for nine straight years, and 13 of the last 14; what’s even more amazing is that it also was back at the top of the heap in July, despite the production challenges poised by this spring’s disasters in Japan and any lingering effects of the Great Toyota Recallathon.
Yet that sales performance can’t disguise Toyota’s ongoing struggles, and the automaker is clearly expecting the new Camry to be a cure-all. In fact, the passion in the voice of Akio Toyoda—the company’s president—was nearly palpable as he spoke of his significant involvement in developing the car.
“I personally tested the Camry until I was satisfied it outperformed its competitors,” he said, speaking live from the U.S. Camry plant in Kentucky as part of the company’s multi-location reveal strategy. “It’s our opportunity to again show the world what Toyota is all about.”
Unfortunately, however, not much of Toyoda’s passion seems to have actually made it into the driving experience, but that was really the only complaint I had after a short test drive of the 2012 Camry LE.
The LE trim is considered the Camry’s “value-driven” grade and is currently responsible for some 60 percent of the car’s sales, a mix that isn’t expected to change dramatically for the 2012 model year. It holsters Toyota’s 2.5-liter I4 engine, which gets a minor bump in power from 169 hp/167 lb.-ft. of torque up to 178/170, along with a noticeable increase in fuel efficiency. The 2011 model posts an EPA line of 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway/26 combined, while the new one goes 25/35/28. More interesting is that the MSRP of the Camry LE goes in the other direction, dropping by $200 as Toyota seems to be making a concerted effort to attract customers based on price. The MSRPs of all “popular” models either remain flat for 2012 or drop, in some cases by thousands of dollars. The 2012 Camry LE I drove will retail for $22,500, and it showcases—at least in some areas—the kind of details and quality one would expect from more expensive rivals.
Fit and finish were very strong, especially considering this was a pre-production model, and the interior overall was quite nice. The fabric seats were surprisingly comfortable and skin-friendly, with an attractive pattern, and the other materials that get touched most often were relatively soft and appealing. Much as is the case at Chevrolet, Toyota also has greatly improved its molded plastic trim, which in the Camry was about as sophisticated as molded plastic trim can be. Particularly sharp was the “metallic” finish used on the interior door handles and the gearshift.
Toyota engineers also put a lot of work into giving the Camry a more spacious cabin, even though its exterior dimensions remain unchanged from 2011, with the result being an interior that both feels bigger and truly is bigger than in the past model. A notable example of Toyota’s efforts can be seen in the way the A- and B-pillars are trimmed. Instead of having space between the trim and underlying structure to allow for design flexibility, the trim in the Camry is “thinner” and more closely follows the shape of the pillars themselves. It’s a subtle but effective difference, and changes the feel of the cabin—and improves visibility—enough that I noticed it even before it was pointed out in the Toyota press materials.
Audio and climate controls were clean and simple to use, with a premium-ness that was evident in a number of ways. As just one, the audio knob turned with some amount of built-in resistance and didn’t feel as if it would just fall off in your hand. Toyota made a big deal about the Camry being the most “connected” vehicle on the road, too, and the automaker’s Entune voice-control infotainment system is expected to gain a lot of buzz in the Camry thanks to its superior voice-recognition functionality. But I didn’t get a chance to try it out on the road, as it wasn’t in any of the cars on hand.
I also want to call out two more specific interior style element that caught my eye: In the current Camry, Toyota uses the space in the center of the car’s gauges to house further driver information readouts, and designers took this a step further in the 2012 model. The resulting appearance is tidy and symmetrical, although, as you can see in the pictures, the gas gauge and analog(!) average fuel-efficiency gauge are right on top of each other, giving the right side of the gauge cluster an appearance that was too busy for my tastes. Also, the thickly stitched dash on the passenger side, which adds a visually intriguing sense of dimensionality, does seem to be borrowing from the Chevy Volt’s playbook.
All told, and even with a cheap-looking, cheap-feeling rear deck area behind the back seats, the Camry’s interior was quite impressive, especially at this price point. The exterior? Not so much. Toyota says 100 percent of the car’s sheet metal is new—it does ride on a carry-over platform—but you’d be hard pressed to pick out the changes unless you had both the 2012 and 2011 models right next to each other, and even then it might be difficult.
Its face has obviously been worked on, as the current Camry’s “melting” grille bars have been reduced in number and massaged into a more traditional “wings around the badge” appearance, and the new shapes of the lower air inlets are quite radical. From the right angle, it’s almost as if the Camry has fangs now. But the rest of the exterior, although again displaying high levels of craftsmanship, strikes me as even blander than that of the current Camry. Here, I’ll point to how the 2011 Camry has a subtle concavity along its flanks above the rocker panels, which blends in smoothly with the rear wheel arches to give the car a dynamic, forward-leaning stance—a design cue that’s been regrettably removed from the 2012 model.
This is a surprising turn of events, because Toyota is explicitly trying to up its performance cred by touting a more athletic and sporty SE model, as well as a wide range of suspension upgrades across the Camry family. Heck, a new Camry is even going to pace the 2012 Daytona 500. And I can tell you this: The Camry LE is a shockingly fast car—at least in the sense that I was shocked at how strong the acceleration is. The car isn’t any kind of true high performer, but stomping on the go pedal did bring a smile to my face and a sense of alacrity to the driving experience. The Camry packed a six-speed automatic transmission but moved with the speed of a manual, provided I didn’t try to adjust the gears myself via the setup’s rather ineffectual sport-shifting mode. This is counter to my experience in nearly every other mid-sizer I’ve driven, and Toyota deserves kudos for its ability to combine acceleration and fuel economy in the Camry LE. No doubt helping models were Toytoa’s efforts to reduce the Camry’s curb weight, which is down nearly 120 lbs. in the LE trim and now comes in at 3,190 lbs. To put that into context, the current Chevy Malibu weighs almost 3,500 lbs.
On the other hand, beyond its energetic straight-line acceleration, I was pretty disappointed in the rest of the driving experience. Despite those suspension improvements, which did a good job of helping the Camry hold its line in the turns, there was a disconnect between what was going on beneath the car and what was happening on the inside, where an off-putting degree of body roll greatly diminished the fun level. The steering was about average for a car with electric power assist, which means it was loose and with a noticeable lag in response. The effectiveness of the car’s brakes was a plus, but their actual operation wasn’t exactly precise. I could feel the system engage with a brief touch of the pedal, but actual stopping required too much effort.
The bottom line on the new Camry: Excellent fuel efficiency, peppy acceleration and an extremely strong value proposition should outweigh the car’s bland styling and too-soft handling for most folks, particularly those already in the Camry’s target audience. A bigger problem going forward will be with that audience itself, because the biggest surprise of the Camry event came when it was revealed that the average Camry buyer is now 60 years old. And I doubt the 2012 Camry is going to change that number much.