Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Sportivo sedan
Handling, ride, body control, comfy cabin, big refinement qualities, Toyota reliability and durability, inoffensive styling
Room for improvement
Uninspiring engine, boring gearbox, fuel economy not fantastic
18 Aug 2006
IN THE 1950 Hollywood film All About Eve, a fading actress first fights against – but then resigns herself to – a scheming starlet whose ascension is based on her deception of pretending to be an ingénue.
Today we have the grand old dames of the Australian family car scene – Holden’s Commodore and the Ford Falcon – suffering at the hands of smaller and more efficient upstarts like the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3.
The Commodore may have just had the makeover of her life – and the reality is that the VE is the best car ever made in Australia, and probably one of the great vehicles for the money in the world today – but will family car buyers feel the talent, empathise with the performance and give it the standing ovation it deserves?
No doubt it deserves to, but another family-car contender – with more of what the buying public want (four-cylinder economy, a lower ticket price) is waiting in the wings, like the large-car understudy, ready to strike at the most opportune moment.
Of course her name is Camry, and she is, to paraphrase Holden’s latest advertising tag line, absolutely raring to go.
Over the decades, old Camry hasn’t exactly been superstar material to look at.
The 1983 original was a little left-field its boxy 1987 successor homely the 1993 MkIII version dorky 1997’s MkIV was just plain vanilla while the last one, with its gangly American styling, verged on the baroque.
Lucky then that the good old reliable Camry has always had a dependable, accommodating and forgiving personality.
The sixth-generation 420L model works, however, because while the design is still Toyota-conservative, the detailing is interesting, the silhouette is better balanced, and the overall effect more upmarket than before.
In fact, there appears to be plenty of Lexus styling going on here.
And as well as being more visually stimulating, the Camry drives a whole lot better than ever, courtesy of a reengineered platform complete with a 55mm-longer wheelbase and wider tracks.
You’ll find nothing outrageous in the MacPherson strut-front and multi-link rear suspension set-up, but for folk familiar with the dynamics of the old Camry (pleasant handling, light steering and fairly low limits of finesse), this chassis’ tightness, tautness and strength may as well be a whole new world.
The helm turns in sharply, with a linearity, weightiness and controllability that are hitherto unheard of in a car carrying the Camry badge. And it does so at far greater speeds than before.
Great bump absorption, coupled with impressive wheel travel and superb body strength and rigidity, are further dynamic discoveries that the Camry has come across.
Up there with Mitsubishi's 380, it's one of the best handling front-wheel drive family sedan ever produced in Australia, and one that most drivers will feel is on par with the excellence of the VE Commodore.
After such brilliant chassis advances, the Sportivo’s 2.4-litre twin-cam variable-valve timing four-cylinder engine comes across as a bit of a disappointment.
It delivers 5kW more power, producing 117kW at 5700rpm and 218Nm of torque at 6400rpm, but in a hefty (1475kg) package, so there simply isn’t the oomph you might expect from a car of this size wearing 17-inch alloy wheels, a bodykit and rear spoiler.
Sure, it is smooth and adequately powerful both at launch speeds and when you are preparing for a dose of quick overtaking – providing that you are willing to use the gears in the five-speed manual model tested.
But where is the zing or passion in this powerplant’s performance? Remember that the Sportivo is up against the fiery Falcon XR6 and VE SV6 slingshot.
Are we unfair comparing four-cylinder apples with six-cylinder oranges?
Well, then, what might be fine for the fleet-favourite Altise just does not cut it against the swift and suave Mazda6.
It would not be so bad if the Sportivo’s underwhelming performance paid off with parsimony at the petrol bowser. But in real world driving scenarios, we recorded between 9.9 and 10.3L/100km, which – while a little better than the local big ‘6s’ – isn’t really the economy bonanza buying a four-cylinder Camry is meant to bring.
The five-speed manual gearbox is another source of sobriety, since – while fast, slick and easy to use, also feels lifeless. Much of the joy in handling cars like the handsome and honed Honda Accord Euro is in the left wrist action.
At least drivers will have fun flinging the Camry into fast and tight corners, revelling in the rigid body control and strong, effective brakes.
Inside, the Camry is better than any of its pedestrian predecessors, and easily eclipses the efforts of the otherwise wildly underrated Mitsubishi 380 VR-X.
The fit and finish seems first class in Sportivo guise, backed up by a pleasant T-shaped dashboard flanked by nicely integrated door trims, a beautifully simple centre console layout and expert use of silver trim and contrasting black material.
Great seats, with the front pair being very accommodating and supportive, instrumentation dials big enough to read from space, equally sizeable heater/vent controls and an excellent driving position further add credos to the Camry’s sporty and contemporary aspirations.
Like all of today's Toyotas, the 420L Camry makes life very easy for its inhabitants, with huge exterior mirrors going some way to redress the restricted rear vision, a veritable plethora of storage places, absolutely superb ventilation and a smart quality feel to the cabin’s look and presentation.
The back seat is also a comfy place to perch yourself onto. And you won’t be assaulted by a cacophony of road and tyre rumble either.
At 504 litres, a big boot too is part of the package, although – in the name of upgraded body strength for even tighter handling, we presume – the lack of a folding rear backrest is an omission many buyers may not forgive it for – after all, there ain’t no Camry wagon no more.
However, some people might be put off by the obvious American flavour of it all. Which neatly sums up the real character and feel of the latest Camry Sportivo.
It is designed for the US, and there is nothing that Toyota can do to hide that fact, no matter how European the handling or ride feel.
Yet the Camry has been created like a Hollywood blockbuster to have mass appeal, so it has crowd-pleasing looks, comfort and features.
That the Toyota also possesses bags of talent in the way the Sportivo moves about might also just be enough to score it the main role in the life of the everyday family car, which despite their renewed efforts would render the local ig sixes as has-beens.
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