Improved looks, solid build, quiet on road, interior and boot space
Room for improvement
Interior remains bland, four-cylinder engine is competent but hardly soul-stirring, no split-fold rear seat
IT’S funny how our perceptions have been blurred by various generations of Toyota Camry.
From being an invisible but quite acceptable five-door hatchback in its original 1980s guise, to a locally-built, very vanilla four-door in the late 80s to early 90s, to a stodgy but really quite impressive wide-body in 1993 that was followed by a more stylish but lambasted sedan in 1997, the Camry went to a slabby, try-hard model in 2002 aimed at lifting it above its unbelievably ordinary status.
A bit like Volvo, Toyota struggled for years to change how people saw the Camry. But despite the various attempts at giving it a stylish edge it remained, at the end of the day, exactly what it always had been – safe, well built and dynamically capable, but with absolutely no character.
Now Toyota is having another go, with a car that might just do for Toyota what the previous Camry didn’t.
It’s as if the stylists turned away from trying to make the Camry something it clearly never was and have focussed on simply making it look good.
The dumpy, slab-sided look of the last model has been replaced by a hunky, more curvaceous body – part of styling direction Toyota calls "Vibrant clarity" - that only begins to look disappointing when viewed from the front. The painted-out, slatted grille seen in every model but the Sportivo looks anything but classy and contrasts with the neat detail work found elsewhere.
The new Camry has a new role too. It now has to play second fiddle to the V6-only Aurion with which it shares just about everything important except the engine. Where Camry stops, Aurion begins – even if there is some inevitable overlap in prices comparing top-end Camry with base Aurion.
As a dedicated four-cylinder, the Camry is a sort of (larger) mainstream competitor for boutique cars like Mazda’s 6 and Honda’s Accord Euro.
The formula is precisely the same as the outgoing Camry except there’s no V6 version.
It has been stretched not just in bodily dimensions, but also in the chassis, with wider front and rear tracks as well as a 55mm bump in the wheelbase. In overall size it sits somewhere between the Mazda and Holden’s new Commodore – although, with a whopping capacity of 535 litres it’s got the biggest sedan boot in the land.
The body is actually all-new, has a lower centre of gravity and is stronger than the outgoing model that used a modular construction shared with the defunct Avalon. Toyota says it’s also been designed to better protect pedestrians.
The new Camry is bigger inside too, and, unlike the Commodore and Mitsubishi 380, offers a split-fold rear seat - with the only disadvantage being that the gap through to the boot is a bit tight. The release levers are located in the boot itself rather than inside the car.
Toyota spends a lot of time saying how upmarket the interior trim is, and there’s no questioning the quality of the Camry but, with the unrelenting grey it all still looks a bit bland, despite the welcome but slightly overdone centre-dash illumination at night. Switching on the ignition, a "welcome to Camry" graphic appears on the radio just in case you’ve forgotten what you’re driving.
The Altise has dual airbags (not the side and curtain bags fitted further up), standard air-conditioning (not climate-control), cruise control (easy to see and operate), power windows with auto-down on the driver’s side, a four-speaker and an MP3/WMA-compatible single CD sound system.
Between the front seats is a deep, lidded, wonderfully useful storage bin with a built-in sliding tray inside.
The Altise driver sits in front of a two-way adjustable, large-rimmed steering wheel (with integrated radio controls) on manually adjusted seats that allow a greater range of movement to maximise the internal dimensional increase.
They feel big and comfortable enough, while leaving plenty of rear-seat legroom even for tall people, and offer power lumbar adjustment, if nothing else. Foot room beneath the front seats is a bit tight though, and the rear seat itself is quite flat and unyielding – a demerit, but one that could apply to any number of competitors.
In the end, though, the Camry contradicts its newness by fitting like an old boot.
Hopping behind the wheel for the first time is a genuine no-brainer. The driving position is adjustable enough to suit just about everybody and the controls are simple, straightforward, exactly where you expect them to be.
About the only thing that separates it from much of its opposition is the lack of a sequential-shift auto transmission – manual override is via a gated slot similar to old Mercedes models that, to some degree, allows a bit of driver control.
If you’re worried that the slightly-buffed 2.4-litre DOHC four-cylinder might struggle with the weight – don’t.
There’s nothing frantic about the 117kW VVT engine, but it really deals with the Camry’s 1.4 tonnes – or so – comfortably. Toyota avoids telling us how quickly the new car accelerates, but we’d reckon it would be pretty close to the old model, the auto version of which was capable of reaching 100km/h in around 10 seconds.
The five-speed auto transmission option delivers smooth, progressive performance, with the ability to downshift on deceleration and a tendency to avoid hunting between gears unless severely taxed. The engine’s lack of torque shows up in the need for downshifting to keep pace on hills.
But, while you’d never say the Camry was over-endowed with low-speed torque, it’s still reasonably spritely off the line and executes passing manoeuvres briskly enough with the aid of the auto. It gets a bit rowdy at revs though, and doesn’t feel particularly refined despite the existence of a couple of balance shafts.
You might say none of that’s ever going to bother Camry owners because this is hardly a car that would factor in any enthusiast’s consciousness, but there is a contradiction in that the Toyota actually handles, rides and steers very well.
Thank the local engineering group for that.
With its regular, hydraulically assisted steering and well-tuned spring/shock absorber combinations, the Camry is none too shabby on tight, winding roads. It turns in accurately and goes from lock to lock in a reasonably quick 3.4 turns.
No nasty surprises, even if the base models miss out on the electronic stability control fitted to the top-level Grande.
And this generally sums up the new Camry.
Despite the improved looks it still has a taste of vanilla about it, and does its level best not to shock anyone.
Competent, drawing no criticism in build quality and certainly a safe long-term bet, the new Camry is still a Camry when the chips are down.