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Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Atara S

Our Opinion

We like
Dynamically capable, drivetrain refinement and performance improvements, fuel economy, Camry practicality and dependability
Room for improvement
Generic cabin dullness, rack rattle on fast corners, low-fi plastic ambience, random dash noises, needs more steering feel

2 Mar 2012

FOR millions of motorists around the world, this unassuming – some might even say dull – five-seater sedan (that’s been created for Middle America, though ours are manufactured in Melbourne) provides reliable, dependable and fuss-free transportation, year in, year out, so they can get on with more important stuff.

If this sounds like faint praise of the Toyota Camry, it isn’t meant to. There are people who, for all sorts of reasons, value trust and financial security in an automobile above all else. It’s just one less thing to worry about, and one extra thing to rely on in life. This is a feeling more important than being thrilled. No Surprises, just like Radiohead sing so sweetly in the track of the same name.

We admit to being less than enamoured with the latest Camry – tested here in private buyer/user-chooser-focussed Atara S guise – when it was unveiled last year. More of the same, we thought, but with even less flair. The fussy front fascia, terrible tail-light treatment, and pedestrian profile were – and still are in the era of the stunningly styled Kia Optima – a profound disappointment.

But what do we know? Ordinary folk almost universally praise the design. “A bit like a Passat, innit?” one friend quipped. “This is very nice,” mum remarked. That (Australian-created) body kit and lower bumper work really lift the latest Camry. But we’re still bored witless by the sheer visual timidity.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in late 1981 the original turned the Tokyo Motor Show on its ear with progressive front-drive engineering and quasi-futuristic liftback design, at a time when the Corona, which the Camry eventually usurped, was, well, a backwards beige cardigan of a car that started with ‘C’ and rhymed with trap.

But while some might say that, seven generations on, the new Camry is the Corona of today, that’s just wrong. Because no Toyota of that era was anywhere near as accomplished as this Atara S.

Let’s start with the driving experience since there’s an all-new drivetrain fitted for the first time in almost a decade.

Capacity is up (by 100cc), power’s up (15 per cent) and torque’s up (eight per cent), but weight’s down (by 35kg), consumption’s down (by 1.0L/100km) and so are emissions (CO2 dips by 25g/km). That’s a promising start.

Put your foot down and the Atara leaps forward decisively. But, instead of the old car’s flat spot followed by coarseness as the revs rise rather reluctantly, there’s a metallic timbre to the engine as it spins more freely to just under 7000rpm – so it’s smoother and more sonorous, too. We’re not talking Alfa twin-cam acoustic ambrosia, or even Mazda melodic, but it’s a massive improvement.

The Camry feels like a rapid performer as a result (zippier than the 0-100km/h time of 9.3 seconds suggests), eager to accelerate on call (without a turbo or dual-clutch gearbox and so no lag), remaining quite strong in the upper ranges, with the new six-speed auto reacting quickly and quite intuitively to downshift requests.

Being an Atara, is has well-placed paddle shifts behind the steering wheel, as well as a Tiptronic-style gate tipper, which come in handy for engine braking or when you want to feel part of the action. While the electronics will up-shift at the red-line in manual mode, the auto default will select the highest ratio and lowest revs.

Punting the Toyota around our usual demanding driving route, we discover: a) The (now electric) steering is responsive without being nervous B) The car arcs through tight turns with more composure and less body roll than expected C) Running wide in messy understeer is still ultimately the name of the game D) There’s too much rack rattle when the going gets rough E) We’d like more connection with and sensory feedback from the front wheels.

Camry doesn’t get an F for fun, then. More like a solid C-plus.

The stability control nannies always have their palm poised on the big red ‘stop play’ button, but it’s a modulated slow hand with a gentle touch, if we’re to paraphrase The Pointer Sisters, and not the ‘CUT!’ cry of a dissatisfied director.

Still, cornering the Camry quickly on wet and slippery roads, there’s some progressive sideways stepping out of line (instead running wide as it does in the dry), but it’s all reeled in instantly with the accelerator and ESC, while the brakes are reassuringly effective washing off speed. The fat Bridgestone 215/55 R17 tyres, which grip like an early True Blood episode, help.

We began this appraisal by appealing to pragmatists, but you already know this Toyota does all the mundane stuff well. Still, before moving on, let’s just say we prefer the Atara S as a driving device to the Peugeot 508 GT, Renault Latitude, Kia Optima, Hyundai i45 and maybe even Subaru Liberty. This isn’t middle-of-the-road vanilla, then it’s better than that.

Anyway, around town, the steering is light enough (and turning circle tight enough) to make manoeuvring child’s play. Parking is super-easy with the standard reversing camera, helping negate the blind spots caused by the thick pillars behind the driver.

Bumps and humps are felt on the 17s, but not uncomfortably so – this feels like a tightly sprung car – and there’s sufficient quelling of road noise, helping make the big Camry feel easy and comfy.

Don’t think everything’s peachy-keen though. It’s still dullsville with a capital D inside. There is nothing but size to differentiate this generic Toyota interior from any other generic Toyota interior, and that’s a crying shame.

We’ve seen everything before, from the familiar instrument dial arcs and decades-old digital clock display to the coarse, cheapo door plastics. There is nothing even remotely intimidating about a Camry’s cabin, but there’s nothing memorable or charming, either. The locals apparently had to tizzy this one up so we can’t imagine how coma-inducing the US one is.

But seen-it-all-before ambience aside, there is nothing at all wrong with the way the dashboard operates, the seats support or the space accommodates. This is a family car designed and developed for one of the most litigious societies in the world and Toyota wasn’t about to risk getting every single basic thing right.

Aided by wide-opening doors front and back, five adults can be seated for hours without feeling pinched for space. While the front passenger seat’s jutting glovebox might rob taller folk of some knee space, even six-footers should be happy with the amount of room available for heads, legs, shoulders and buttocks. There’s nothing ‘medium’ about a Camry these days.

Focussing on some of the Toyota’s finer details, the seat fabrics are soft and inviting, and the leather-clad steering wheel is an attractive and pleasant item to operate, tilting and telescoping to fit, and is packed with useful features (audio, phone, cruise control and auto trannie shift paddles).

Ice-cold air-con with temperature selection and ample air vent access front and rear make the Toyota an extremely comfortable place to get away from the summer heat.

Every storage compartment – including the well-placed centre armrest-cum-bin – is voluminous and the 515-litre boot is a bit of a bonanza, with a full-size spare beneath the vast floor and the now de rigueur (unless your name is Holden Commodore) split/fold rear seat access into that workmanlike cabin.

While the Bluetooth audio and phone streaming capability is second to none, with simple connection steps and on-the-move adjustability, the central screen’s graphics are comically crude. Someone at Audi is probably rolling on the floor laughing at the amateurish font and colour coding. It’s just awful.

Of more concern was the twisting-a-lolly-wrapper noise coming from various areas of the front fascia, the archaic foot-operated park brake and the lower black plastics that scuff too easily. And don’t look too closely at the mismatched lower rear door trim or under-seat finishes, either – both of which are all-too-clearly visible.

Yet the Camry interior is ultimately a safe and soothing place to be. In driving rain in the dark with the headlights blazing, we felt safe and secure, while our mobile cocoon just as effortlessly repelled the blazing sun just a few hours earlier.

The Atara S, then, is a Camry with more driver appeal while still erring on the safe side, maintaining the series’ hard-won reliability and dependability elements while easily being better than ever.

It’s not expensive at $33,500 and includes goodies such the aforementioned body kit, paddle shifts and reversing camera, as well as electric driver’s seat adjustment, keyless entry and starting, and dual-zone climate-control.

Maybe Toyota dealers ought to conduct test drives at night so prospective buyers can feel the difference before letting their prejudices take over.

Perhaps the last laugh is for the thousands who will enjoy easy and trouble-free motoring as that’s what the Camry enables and why more respect is due.

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