Class-leading NVH, smooth drivetrain, increased space
Room for improvement
Still a bit soggy to drive, lacks sheer punch of rivals
By BRUCE NEWTON 12/11/2002
WHILE Toyota has been loudly pushing the youthful macho of the new Camry with its Sportivo range, it's also been quietly making sure the traditional audience is still being looked after.
Sure the CSi's gone but the Altise is here in its place, and then there's the Ateva to replace Conquest.
Sexier names, more equipment and a new look, but fundamentally the same job. That is to sell to fleets and the Camry's traditional, mature (read 50 years plus) private buying audience.
And there's no doubt the Altise delivers just that. It's safe but not really satisfying, a cruiser but not really a bruiser, reliable to the point of utter predictability.
Granted the styling is a bit more out there than the old car - Toyota would like us to think it's European. With its bluff nose, headlights wrapping back over the guards, rising sill line and heavy rear flanks, it is certainly distinctive for the moment. But it will look as safe and conservative as ever when there's a million of 'em out there.
The same applies to the interior. Quite a departure from the old car in presentation, but still nothing radical. Nice new seats (hooray), quality stereos and plenty more room in the rear and in the boot are the highlights, but it's as straightforward and accessible inside as ever.
Considering the importance of Camry it's no surprise it's a relatively conservative product. Toyota Australia exported nearly 60,000 last year to 33 export markets including the Middle East - many more Camrys than it sells locally. In the USA, the Camry vies to be the country's biggest passenger car seller annually.
You can get your Altise with the new locally-built 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine or with a 3.0-litre V6. In both cases there's the choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. In this case we're testing the V6 auto.
Toyota's spent $350 million on 380N but not much went in the direction of the V6 drivetrain. The V6 engine and transmissions are carry-over. Power is the same 141kW at 5200rpm, torque an identical 279Nm at 4400rpm, on regular unleaded petrol.
Performance is well down on the previous generation. Toyota's 0-100km/h acceleration claim for the new Camry is a dawdling 9.3 seconds for the V6 auto. That's 0.5 seconds slower than the original claim for the old generation auto.
You can put that down to the extra 60kg kerb weight the car has to lug around compared to the old CSi.
Yet, Toyota is also claiming an average fuel consumption improvement thanks to some transmission recalibration, now reporting an AS2877 highway cycle figure of 10.5 litres per 100km when it was 11.0. City cycle stays at 6.8L/100km. Ignore all that and expect to return between 11 and 13.0L/100km in the real world unless you're very lightfooted or a thrasher.
So why's the Altise heavier than CSi? Well, in part it's due to extra equipment (which we'll get to in a minute), but it's also due to the fact the new car is bigger in every external dimension. In fact, it now pretty much measures up millimetre for millimetre with the Avalon - the sedan that's purportedly the Camry's bigger brother.
That's because the Altise, like all 380N Camrys (the previous generation was 660T), is underpinned by a local platform called the TMP (Toyota Modular Platform) that also sits under the Avalon.
There are a bunch of reasons for Toyota Australia doing this (the whys and wherefores of that unique feature are explained in the "Standout Features" section of this road test), but one essential reason is that the two cars have to be produced on the same assembly line.
So it's easier and cheaper to lower the two different bodies onto the same underpinnings. It's called platform sharing and Australian manufacturers are becoming pretty adept at it.
One benefit of doing this is that the level of individualisation Toyota Australia can achieve for the local Camry is now higher than if it adopted the same platform as everyone else. And, like we said at the start, Toyota wants this to be a sportier car than the one it replaces.
So while the fundamental suspension design remains the same, everything's been tautened up on Altise to about the same tune as the old Touring model, which was the ultimate Camry sportster before Sportivo arrived.
Another good move has been the binning of the old rack and pinion steering rack, which was kickback and rattle central, with a new Delphi rack.
The result is a smoother riding, more comfortable and civilised car - not that the old one was bad. It's just that Altise is a significant incremental step forward over the car it replaces.
And it's not just the ride itself, which is definitely better. It's also the lack of unwanted feedback through the steering wheel. There's still some kickback but it's the good kind that you want so you know what the front wheels are doing.
Accompanying that is a pretty stunning job on noise, vibration and harshness.
On bitumen the Camry wafts along at about 2100rpm at 100km/h with barely a breath of wind or engine noise and just a little tyre roar. On gravel there's still that signature gravel splash under the guards, but even that seems to have diminished a little.
So for someone with a lot of city, suburban and freeway miles to cover this is definitely a good jigger. But, to state the obvious: if you have sporting ambitions go for the Sportivo.
This is still a car set up for ride over comfort, its basic tendency is still to understeer, the steering's definition still is a bit woolly and you can still light up an inside front tyre on sharp corners as the power, torque, steering and suspension all strive for input.
And as whisper quiet and smooth as the drivetrain is - the auto probably only gives way to the Mitsubishi Magna's INVECS II box as far as local cars go - the Camry has now been left well behind in the engine output battle.
The most extreme contrast is the new BA Falcon: 182kW, 380Nm and a semi-manual shift for its four-speed auto. That combination has simply re-set the bar for all locally built medium/big six-cylinder sedans.
The Camry is the one that could use the semi-manual shift most because on the move across winding mountain roads the engine needs to be kept above 4000rpm for real punch out of corners. And that means shifting back to third or even second gear.
While the Altise can't match the Falcon XT, Commodore Executive or 3.5-litre Magna Executive for performance. Toyota had a pretty good crack with 380N at closing the gap in the equipment stakes.
Dual airbags, ABS, air-conditioning, a CD player and power windows all round are additions over the old CSi. In the automatic you also get cruise control as standard - another improvement.
The best news is that at introduction the Altise V6 auto's pricing was virtually lineball with the old car.
That's a big achievement. Much of it is due to the increasing "Australianisation" of the car with more local content, but a lot of it is hidden under the skin of the car in places that you and I will never have to deal with.
But in the case of the Camry, the more things change the more they stay the same. And, like we've observed before, that's not necessarily a bad thing.