Review: 2012 Toyota Camry SE
By Roger Boylan
Last year I reviewed a Toyota Camry SE V6 with pleasure. Since then, Toyota has completely redesigned its bread-and-buttermobile, so a week in a brand-new, jet-black Camry SE V6 seemed like a good idea. Well, what’s it like, you ask, breathless with anticipation? Good, is the answer. No: Better than good. The old one was good enough to almost put a smile on my jowly visage. The new one’s better. It ups the ante to a broad grin. I really liked the new Camry.
Why? Let’s start with the external redesign: subtle but effective. No Hyundaiesque swoopiness here, just traditional Toyota sobriety, with a touch of cool in the angular corners (reminiscent of cousin Prius), the squared-off creases in the character lines, and the squinting headlights that recall other Japanese family cars with sporty pretensions: the Acura TSX, say, or Infiniti FX. Or Toyota’s own Lexus IS series. The redesigned tail lights are classy-looking and scepter- shaped, appropriately for a car called “Crown”–kanmuri in Japanese, phonetically anglicized Camry.
My SE wore very regal-looking aluminum alloy 18-in. wheels with bent spokes that put me in mind of Lady Liberty’s crown, bringing the analogy around full circle, as it were…. The long and short of it is, the ’12 Camry SE is a good-looking car, especially in basic black, with its ground effects, sharp-looking wheels and matching blacked-out grille. Better still, its price is the same as or less than last year’s. The Camry family starts at $21K for the base L version, destined mostly for fleets, and going all the way up to around $30K for the near-luxury XLE V6. An SE V6 like the one I tested stickers at $26K or so in basic trim. Four-cylinder SEs and XLEs are available at a savings of a couple grand each over the V6 versions, and the 178-hp 4 is a fine, proven engine, but trust me: the V6 is worth the extra dough.
Inside are more improvements, starting with a faux-leather dashboard complete with top-stitching, for that bespoke touch you don’t associate with Toyotas; it sounds pretentious, and is, but actually looks pretty good. The (also faux) brushed-aluminum gearshift console and black suede inserts also harmonize well. The gauges, beneath their (top-stitched) cowling, are impeccably clear and easy to read, even the somewhat crowded MPG dial (a first in my experience). The HVAC controls, as usual in Toyotas, are idiot-proof, and the air blows really hot or really cold, according to your needs. In the middle of the dash is a 6.1-in touch screen behind which lurks a brand-new JBL audio setup that emits superb sound and comes as part of Toyota’s much-vaunted Entune system, the same infotainment node that’s giving Ford’s Sync a run for its money as the one-stop in-dash connectivity shop. Enthusiasts claim that it enables one to use Bluetooth, surf the Net and riffle through one’s Captain Beefheart or Pachelbel archives on iPod with the greatest of ease. This may well be the case. Entune may be the greatest invention since the cardboard box, but I’m distracted easily enough as it is, thank you very much, so I’ll have to take others’ raves on faith.
I did, however, use the nav system, which has a pleasing quasi-3D appearance, and worked well enough. (“Find me a Chinese restaurant.” “There are 37 within 25 miles of your address.”) But I can personally vouch for the superb comfort of the driver’s seat, and other family members will sign affidavits as to the plushness of the passenger seats, even the rear ones, which gained 1.8 in. in knee-room since last year and are handily split 60/40 and fold flat to further enlarge the capacious trunk. Other storage space is abundant, and small thoughtful touches abound: this is the second Toyota I’ve driven recently, for example, to boast extendable sun visors, a no-brainer that most manufacturers just don’t bother with. Other classy touches: the center console is felt-lined inside; the switches all work with a solid, high-class damping feel; and the top stitching on the leather seats looks worthy of a Maybach. Well, a Mercedes, at least. And while we’re on the subject of Mercedes, may I be permitted a politically incorrect comparison? This Camry is tighter and tauter than last year’s, with firmer suspension that renders the ride a tad more jittery but which, along with the surprisingly communicative electric steering, improves handling and maneuverability almost to the level of a Mercedes E-Class. I said almost. This is still no sports sedan, but the point is, Camrys never handled this well before. Combine the improved handling and the superb V6 with its 268 hp and 248 lb.-ft. of torque, and you have a driver’s car, or damned near.
The SE trim even has paddle shifters on the steering wheel to give the illusion of manual control; I used them once or twice, but most of the time left the shifting to the 6-speed automatic, thanks to the buttery smoothness of which I timed my 0-60 run at 5.5 seconds, faster than a V6-powered Camaro (http://www.0-60cartimes.com/). I confess to juvenile glee at putting ripsnortin’ Rams and ‘Stangs in their place, which was firmly to the rear of my sceptered tail lights. Yes, silly, I know, but there you go. And this thing went, effortlessly cruising on the highway at naughty speeds, while managing to return a respectable 25 combined m.p.g., rising at times to as much as 30 with cruise control and a light foot; the official figures are 21/30/25.
Protecting the Camry’s occupants are numerous safety features, including airbags galore–front- and rear-seat side, full-length side curtain, and even driver and passenger knee bags—as well as antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control, and a rearview backup camera. The 2012 Camry is a Top Safety Pick over at the Institute of Highway Safety (www.iihs.org/ratings/ratingsbyseries.aspx?id=291). It all makes a compelling case for this car, not that it really needs one, any more; after all, Toyota has sold 15 million Camrys worldwide since the first one rolled off the assembly line in Toyota City back in 1983 (www.lotpro.com/blog/2011/08/23/toyota-rolls-out-a-new-camry/). That’s roughly one Camry for every two inhabitants of California. Toyota also claims that 90 percent of those Camrys are still rolling happily along the world’s highways. By sheer volume and longevity, the Camry is a phenomenon; only in the driving department has it lacked the wherewithal to persuade. I submit that those days are over. Yes, driving a Camry—at least the SE V6 version–is now something to actually enjoy. What will they think of next?
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.