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Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Atara SX

Our Opinion

We like
Usual Camry smoothness/spaciousness/comfort, meaningful handling improvements, enthusiast ethos provides emotional connection to otherwise pedestrian range
Room for improvement
Fidgety ride on 18s, dated interior doesn’t match exterior update, old-school instruments, average-to-use touchscreen lacks navigation

Gallery

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Toyota logo5 Aug 2015

Price and equipment

DESPITE the swish black-on-black looks of our test vehicle, stepping aboard the Camry Atara SX reveals its lower-mid status in the Camry range.

Interesting price positioning places the Atara SX close to or slightly above the base model price of most competitors, so it is undoubtedly a lot of car for $31,990 plus on-road costsIt feels far from poverty pack inside considering the sporty two-tonne leather upholstery and 6.1-inch touchscreen providing a reversing camera and sophisticated media interface.

Money has been spent on oily bits, cashing visual cheques written by the black painted 18-inch ROH forged alloys that save 1.5kg per corner and wear Bridgestone tyres.

A quicker steering rack delivers 2.85 turns lock-to-lock compared with the standard 3.12 while a unique Australian-tuned suspension setup with uprated dampers, a chunkier front stabiliser bar, Teflon-lined bushes, forged aluminium links and more.

The above paragraph might be meaningless to the average Camry buyer but the Atara SX tweaks are the result of a little skunkworks project within Toyota Australia that only got the green light from Japan after some in-depth evaluation.

It is a small but fitting tribute to Australia’s soon to be diminished role within Toyota globally and the abilities of local engineers.

You can’t put a price on that.

Interior

IN STARK contrast to the sheetmetal changes – and under the skin of the Atara SX tested here – Toyota lavished little on the ultimate Australian Camry’s interior.

A smaller, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel with paddle-shifters and a revised central touchscreen are pretty much the extent of the interior update package. So it’s a little dated. And we’re tired of whacking our shins on foot operated parking brakes.

That said, it remains spacious, comfortable and solidly put together. It is mostly quiet and refined, though those big 18-inch tyres rolling along beneath occasionally make themselves known.

We found the touchscreen a little unresponsive in operation, which could be distracting on the move. However, it was easy to pair a smartphone via Bluetooth and stream music through the decent-sounding speakers. The voice control seemed to work better than in a recently tested Corolla, too.

First impressions last, and in this car we cannot shake off thoughts of the dated instrument cluster, which even has an old-school trip computer operated by the type of long push-stalk that evokes distant memories of the reset on an analogue trip counter.

Imagine striding up to the swish-looking new sedan in the showroom and then being faced with instruments from the 1990s upon stepping inside.

How hard or expensive would it have been for Toyota to install the Hybrid’s modern clocks and colour multi-function display?In the Camry’s defence, the big speedometer is a paragon of readability compared with almost all analogue units in recent memory.

Engine and transmission

THE Atara SX is more about being marginally quicker and more fun point-to-point compared with your average Camry, as opposed to outright performance. This shows in the carry-over 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine (135kW/231Nm) and six-speed automatic transmission combo.

Like a Canberra pen-pusher with an eye on their comfortable retirement package, the Camry does the job adequately (power and torque delivery) but without flair (engine note) or haste (gear changes). In the Atara SX it’s dress-down Friday and the theme is sportswear.

As such, despite the funky wheels and fettled suspension the driveline does not share a driver’s enthusiasm when faced with a hilly and serpentine stretch of road or boost their confidence when overtaking a B-double.

Response from the paddle-shifters is less than instant and we found them most useful for invoking some engine braking during long descents.

As ever, the Camry’s step-off acceleration is assertive and gear changes are smooth. It all seamlessly blends into the background under most driving scenarios from urban grind to motorway cruising and rarely feels strained.

Biggest news is the “pre-load” differential Toyota has fitted across the facelifted Camry range, which is claimed to improve things such as steering feel, low-speed manoeuvrability and straight-line stability.

It is a subtle change that can be most obviously felt ducking and weaving in city traffic, where our test car felt particularly nippy and responsive for its size. It also seems to all but eliminate motorway tramlining from those big 18-inch wheels.

The most startling thing about our test car’s drivetrain was that during our week of mixed use, fuel use averaged 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres – bang on the official combined figure.

Ride and handling

INITIAL on-road impressions of the Camry Atara SX boiled down to its fidgety ride, no doubt a result of the bigger wheels and low-profile tyres combined with a firmer suspension setup.

To a degree we got used to it, but on uneven surfaces it is always there to remind the driver which Camry variant they opted for. As is increased road noise when the surface goes coarse-chip.

Better news is that combining the new differential, bigger tyre contact patch and better body control has turned the Atara SX into a surprisingly rewarding car to drive. A dynamic Camry who’d have imagined it?The quicker, weightier steering accessed through the good-to-grasp wheel provides a sharp, crisp turn-in response and there is a genuine feel of balance and tactility about the whole package even though there is obviously a lot of grip available from those big Bridgestones.

It made us wonder what the car would feel like with more power, or even a more inspiring drivetrain.

Safety and servicing

ANCAP carried over the 2013 Camry’s maximum five-star safety rating to the updated model, with an overall score of 36.27 out of 37. The frontal offset test score was 15.27 out of 16, while 16 out of 16 was awarded for side impact performance and 2 out of 2 in the pole test. Whiplash protection was deemed “acceptable” but pedestrian protection was “marginal”.

Dual frontal, side chest and side curtain and driver’s knee airbags are standard, along with anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability control and seat belt reminders for all seats. The front seatbelts are fitted with pre-tensioners.

Service intervals are every nine months or 15,000km and under Toyota’s capped price servicing scheme, the first five scheduled services cost $140 each when carried out within the first four years or 75,000km.

The Camry is covered by a three-year, 100,000km warranty.

Verdict

THE Atara SX stands out from the final Australian-built Camry range not because of its flashy gloss black wheels and sportier grille but for the sentiment that went into its creation.

Engineers at Altona, well aware of the Camry’s pipe-and-slippers image, took the humble sedan as far as they could dynamically, then had to sell the idea to their Japanese overlords. Who eventually approved.

In a vast company pumping out 10 million vehicles a year worldwide, the comparatively tiny and doomed-to-extinction Australian manufacturing outfit has a voice!We are glad they do. They have revealed hitherto unseen talents within the Camry chassis and brought them to market without diluting much of the range’s reasons for segment-dominating success.

It’s too bad that the factory will close its doors in 2017 but Camrys have a reputation for being long-lived. So the thousands of black-wheeled Atara SX models produced between now and then are sure to provide a road-going legacy that will remain visible for years to come.

And the drivers of those cars will have several reasons to smile.

Rivals

Mazda6 Sport ($32,540 plus on-road costs)The class leader, improved further by the early 2015 facelift. Sharp handling and classy interior, but the base Sport has some spec omissions and the 2.5-litre petrol shines brighter elsewhere in the Mazda range.

Subaru Liberty 2.5i ($29,990 plus on-road costs)The Liberty is desirable again thanks to a sharp redesign inside and out, backed up by high-value pricing and excellent all-wheel-drive dynamics.

Hyundai Sonata Active $29,990 plus on-road costsConvincing mid-size package with great dynamics and acceptable, if slightly thirsty engine.

Ford Mondeo Ambiente EcoBoost ($33,190 plus on-road costs)Striking looks, strong engines and decent spec but we expected more dynamically and a better interior finish from Ford’s late-arriving mid-sizer. Pricey too.

Nissan Altima ST ($29,990 plus on-road costs)Try as it might, it’s no V8 Supercar. It is a comfortable cruiser and well-equipped for the money but hard to justify over a Camry.

Kia Optima Si ($31,490 plus on-road costs)Soon to be replaced but remains handsome and generously kitted out. Dynamics and interior do not match the exterior styling’s promise.

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