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Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Atara S

Launch Story

Toyota logo2 Mar 2012

By RON HAMMERTON

TOYOTA has resisted the temptation to put a rocket up its Camry, instead sticking to its well-worn strategy of seemingly building the new model just like a Camry, only about 10 per cent better in every regard.

When it is one of your biggest sellers in the world’s two biggest automotive markets – the United States and China – any temptation to stray too far from a winning formula in those conservative markets is likely to be slapped down post haste.

Well, apart from adding a hybrid powertrain in the previous generation, of course, which probably rattled a few cages.

At the Camry launch, we sampled only the petrol models of the new seventh-generation NG range, as the new petrol-electric hybrid version is being held back for a 2012 surprise ahead of its launch in about March.

Once again, Toyota’s champion front-wheel drive mid-sizer (it has won its segment every year since Paul Keating was delivering free character assessments in parliament, in 1993) will roll off Toyota’s Australian production lines for local showrooms, bringing its usual blend of reliable, affordable and totally predictable transport to the table.

And again, the styling of the Camry is on the conservative side, and while we won’t stoop to cracks about cardigans, the latest set of clothes on the Camry is just like a Camry, only 10 per cent better.

This time, Toyota has at least introduced more styling differentiation, with the entry-level Altise – the fleet favourite – following the most conservative route, and the newly-badged Atara gaining a sportier nose and tail that even runs to twin exhausts.

Performance is up, thanks to a ‘new’ 135kW 2.5-litre AR four-cylinder engine (it has been powering the previous generation Camry elsewhere for some time), that elevates acceleration to a stately 9.3 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint.

In the daily drive, this engine is all anyone would ever need, and it laps up the urban crawl and country roads, quietly and smoothly, although its lack of torque on steep hills is likely to be shown up in spades when Ford’s new EcoBoost turbo Falcon arrives soon and shows what a four-cylinder can do with a bit of unnatural puff.

Will the Camry have enough to drag a whole new bunch of Gen Ys through the sliding glass doors of City Toyota as the company appears to hope? Doubtful, unless their employer is paying the bill, like about three-quarters of current Camry drivers.

If they do get to drive one, they will find that the ride and handling – tuned by Australian engineers as part of their extensive commitment to the Camry project – is top-class for an affordable, front-drive car of this ilk.

The new electric power steering delivers commendable control to the front wheels, turning then into corners with a most un-Camry-like bite.

Of course, push too hard and the cornering subsides in very Camry-like understeer, but that is par for the course in this car bracket.

When we first disengaged the infuriating foot-operated parking brake (how about push-button electric next time?) and stepped on the gas to propel the new Camry down the bumpy road in front of Toyota’s Australian headquarters this week, our initial reaction – and that of our independent co-driver – was that the ride felt a bit harsh.

But we later discovered we were riding in the Atara SX version – the replacement for the sporty Sportivo – with its tighter springs and dampers, and so in that context, it was not so bad.

We later tried the other models with their softer set-up, and found the bump suppression silky, and yet the cornering remained flat and controlled.

The new six-speed transmission delivers according to plan, and we enjoyed the Atara’s new paddle shifts with the sporty blip on downchanges, even if they are a gimmick in a car of this nature.

A big tick to Toyota’s noise and vibration engineers – they wrote the book on the black art of racket control (rivals benchmark against it) – and the new Camry is more of the same, only 10 per cent better.

The revised driving position is also a big plus, with plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustment to make almost any driver happy.

The cabin ambience also has been given a healthy boost, with the dash swathed in a wavy stitched leather-like material that is a big improvement on the acres of grey plastic of previous models.

If anything, the interior designers might have tried a bit hard to inject some class, with dozens of different elements in a frenzy of surfaces, including three colours of leather on the Atara SL seats, but better that than the alternative.

Modern touch-screens – with different levels of functionality up through the range – and other 21st century controls abound in the cabin, but the designers need to follow the lead of the European makers who are now putting a lot of effort into simplifying these controls and making them more intuitive.

The keyless entry and start is a welcome addition on the Atara variants, which is another reason to step up from the rather basic Altise.

The rear seat accommodation is now even more generous, at least in knee room (and it wasn’t bad before) but the middle seating position remains a short-trip proposition for an adult.

The 515-litre boot is slightly down on the volume of the previous model, but remains quite cavernous.

It also does a neat pea-and-thimble trick, swallowing a full-sized spare wheel under the floor while leaving sufficient space for a family’s luggage or, more likely, boxes of sales samples.

A split-fold rear seat makes the Camry even more practical for a trip to Bunnings … or carrying those shop display units.

The value equation for the Camry has also become more compelling, with prices being held in the $30,000-$40,000 band like the previous model, despite gains in equipment levels and dynamic performance.

If we have one major quibble with the Camry it would be Toyota’s claims of 7.8 litres per 100km fuel economy.

Granted, these were new cars that we drove at the launch and no doubt still on the tight side, but even with a large lump of country kilometres, we did not get close to that figure, failing to dip below 10.0L/100km.

It will be interesting to see how that pans out in a longer test of a more mature car in a more normal driving environment.

That aside, the new Camry is what it has always been – solid, dependable, affordable and adequate.

Gut-twisting excitement? That might have to wait for the next generation, by which time Holden’s all-new Malibu, Mazda’s next Six and Ford’s new Mondeo may well have set even more formidable yardsticks.

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