2013 Toyota Camry- The American Idol

IMG_20130420_081220Riddle me this: what is the Japanese word for “crown” and if you look outside your window towards the street at this very moment, you’re likely to see at least one?  Take a good look out there.  Give up?  It’s the Toyota Camry.  With the exception of 2001, the Camry has been the best-selling car in America every year since 1997.  It’s a title that every automaker wants to claim but only one can.  The popularity of this car is astonishing and as sure as the sun rises in the east, it has comfortably outsold its rivals from Honda, GM, and Ford annually.  Since its introduction in 1982, there have been over nine million sold in the US and 308,000 found homes in 2011 alone.  To put that in perspective;  that’s more sales in the same year than the entire lineups from Audi, Volvo, and Mini combined.  Interestingly enough, even though the Camry sells like hotcakes in the US and Australia, it’s not a volume seller in its home market of Japan and was even discontinued in Europe almost a decade ago.  Fellow auto journalists love to belittle the Camry, accusing it of being soulless and bland, and having no excitement to offer.  So what gives? How has a car that is condemned by enthusiasts and consumers in other markets found the elusive recipe to success in America?  It was time to find out.

IMG_20130420_205841Reliability is a strong and reassuring word, especially when it comes time to buy a car.  In a world of track numbers and performance ratings, journalists and car fanatics unfairly overlook the Camry’s true virtues.  I’m personally guilty of it.  These cars have gained a cult-like following by not being the fastest or most thrilling, but rather earning a proven record for being bulletproof and built like a brick lavatory.  There’s countless stories of Camrys going 300,000 miles and beyond with minimal fuss.  The fact that the streets are still filled with decades old Camrys still doing their daily tasks is testimony.  There’s something to be said about peace of mind.

IMG_20130421_083432In recent years, there’s been a few kinks in the Camry’s armor.  Toyota had an embarrassing series of recalls, contradicting the trusted brands image.  Additionally, the floormats in multiple Toyota models, including the Camry, were blamed for unintended acceleration with wedged gas pedals resulting in multiple deaths.  A similar situation in the 1980’s almost forced Audi from these shores.  Questions about the Camry’s durability arose. and sales dived from the near half-million mark that were sold in 2007, yet through it all, the car remained the nation’s best seller.

The Camry you see here was all-new for the 2012 model year.  With recent events still haunting Toyota, the manufacturer wanted to differentiate this new seventh generation from its predecessor as much as possible.  Not that the 2006-11 version was a bad car, but it still had the negative publicity over its head and questions of its quality were in question even at the time of its debut.  Toyota CEO, Akio Toyoda, proclaimed that this new 2012 Camry will be the best ever built in terms of  handling, fuel economy, and safety.

CAM00049The styling is attractive enough, yet very generic.  Camry’s have never been known for their head-turning looks and this one continues the trend.  It’s an evolution of the last generation, which in itself was an evolution of the prior 2002 rendition.  The look is familiar and will not startle traditional owners.  The vast greenhouse and stretched C-pillar echo the past two generations although the edges have been squared off to give more of a wedge profile .  The front fascia isn’t overly creative, there’s enough details to keep it from looking dull.  The rear taillights are the only styling detail I find questionable; the top of the tailights sweep into the trunk from the rear panel, but are abruptly cut by a straight line that slices across the decklid.  It’s becoming a common trait on all Toyota’s and doesn’t look cohesive with the rest of the car.  Overall though, this new car has the same approach as Camrys of the past in terms of styling; it won’t excite but neither will it offend.

CAM00054However, the interior reflects an immense improvement over the outgoing Camry.  The last generation was aiming for a translucent, nightclub look with the dash but it seemed out-of-place and just plain tacky..  This one seems more mature while adding a touch of sportiness inside.  The well sculpted bucket seats are as comfortable as they look and embody aggressive side bolstering that’s a CAM00055pleasant surprise in a family car.  They are quite snug and are diligent on holding the front passengers in place.  The only sore point, no pun, is that more lumbar support would be appreciated.  Otherwise, they are wonderful for long drives.  The rear bench is equally well-shaped and supportive.  The leather surfaces on our tester felt rich, supple, and also durable.  It was an unexpected delight to come across such sporting seats in a CAM00056Camry.

Cabin space feels cavernous with 118 cu. ft of interior volume.  Front and rear there is abundant legroom and headroom, even for tall passengers.  With the front seats pushed back as far as possible, there is still ample knee and leg room for three back seat passengers and the roofline clears even the tallest heads.  The front is also extremely comfortable.  The wide console intrudes slightly on precious knee room, but is modest compared to other models, namely the new Ford Fusion.  The Camry is one of the rare cars that doesn’t literally rub anyone the wrong way while sitting in it.  Entry and exit was excellent front and rear, with wide swinging doors and large openings.

Large expanses of room doesn’t mean compromising interior storage.  All doors have generous storage bins complete with cupholders, there is a fold-down armrest in the rear, and the covered storage bin between the front seats is massive.  The glove box is lit and well damped when opening, and there is a small bin perfect for random knick-knacks to the left of the driver’s knee below the steering wheel.  Lastly, a small storage tray at the bottom of the center stack conveniently houses the AUX and USB outlets.  It’s obvious that Toyota paid attention to the details here.CAM00065

On a strange side note, the floormat’s came with large warning labels about the dangers of unintended acceleration and are tied down to the floor of the car with heavy duty clips and twist knobs.  It’s the most intricate arrangement I’ve ever encountered for something as simple as floormats.  Obviously, Toyota is still paranoid about their recent sagas and rightfully so!

Controls are mostly as straightforward and easy to use as possible, which is good news for the masses that will purchase this car.  The ventilation controls are simple large knobs for temperature and fan speed, and the air flow is directed by comprehensive buttons.  It’s not the most exciting, but it works.  Now standard on all 2013 models is a six-inch touch screen radio.  Typically I’m apprehensive on touch screen displays as they can overcomplicate simple adjustments, but the Toyota system is user-friendly and intuitive.  It was easy to master and the old-fashioned and trusty volume and tuning knobs helped supplement the screen.  The steering wheel also features stereo buttons on the left spoke, but there are too many cramped controls with vague graphics clamped together.  Simplifying the commands to volume, tuning, and source would beCAM00071 helpful.  The radio display is similar to the one in several Prius models and also shows fuel economy stats for each trip and refueling in the form of graphs and charts.  It can be entertaining to see your progress with each journey and it was interactive enough to challenge me to squeeze as many MPG’s as possible from the car; almost like a money-saving, environmentally friendly video game! 

CAM00073Fuel economy plays a big influence on the new Camry and is an underlying theme throughout the cabin.  In addition to the touchscreen bar graphs, there’s a digital trip computer and analog gauge in the instrument panel that’s equal in size and priority to  the fuel gauge showing average miles per gallon.  The Camry does not hide the fact that it encourages the driver to be as economical as possible.  The gauges, including the large speedometer, are CAM00062all crisp and clear with no-nonsense white backlighting.  The steering wheel is a nice, grippy three spoke design with leather trim, and the cruise control switch is the same one that’s been used for 20+ years, but as they say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  It all adds up to a driving position that feels comfortable and familiar; like settling down in your mother’s living room couch. 

Visibility also supplements that sensation.  Large windows and relatively thin roof pillars make judging where the corners of the car are a undaunting task.  However, small side mirrors do a mediocre job of exposing the car’s blind spots and giving a clear view of adjacent lanes.  There were several times that nearby cars would disappear from view; a scary situation while changing lanes on the freeway.

CAM00063Quality inside comes with mixed conclusions.  The dash top and door panels are covered in an upscale soft-touch plastic and the leather stitching along the dash adds a touch of luxury and belies the Camry’s modest price.  There’s a lot of attention to detail in parts of the cabin.  However, some pieces are just plain cheap and haphazardly constructed.  The swath of plastic on the center piece of the dash top around the clock CAM00060has too much sheen and looks like it was swiped from a 2004 Chevy Aveo.  Not only that, it can be popped out-of-place and separated from the car with little pressure.  The top of the console also pops from its roost with a light tug.  Lastly, the door panels that house the window and door lock controls were also able to be easily popped out.   Although these incidents may not mirror the reliability of a new CAM00066Camry, it’s reflective of some of the cost-cutting that has taken place. This would not have happened in Camrys from a different era.   The Camry’s main selling point is top-notch construction, hence why I’m being discretionary on this issue (although it would be pointed out on any other car as well).  On a bright note, noise suppression is impressive in the cabin.  It’s almost as quiet and serene as St. Paul’s Cathedral inside.  Barely a trace of wind, road, or engine noise make it inside to passengers and there’s never a need to turn the radio up to override the noise.

CAM00057Trunk space is sufficient at 15.4 cu. ft., which is average for this class.  It’s more than an Accord or Altima, but less than a Fusion or Sonata.  The opening is large and the trunk lid swings easily out-of-the-way.  The trunk does get very narrow between the wheel wheels and under the rear parcel shelf, and fitting wider objects toward the back could pose a challenge.  The rear seats fold 60/40, but the pass through is too measly for largeCAM00058 suitcases or items to fit.  The releases for the seats are in the trunk, which requires the operator to open the decklid and then to walk around to the back seats to fold them down.  The hinges are gooseneck, but didn’t seem to overly intrude into the trunk.  Below the trunk floor is a temporary spare tire.

CAM00059Driving the Camry is a humbling experience.  Much like the rest of the car, it’s unexciting and easy to master.  Power comes from a 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine with dual-overhead cam which produces a respectable 178 horsepower.  A 3.5 liter V6 is optional on the SE and XLE trims, but is not available as a stand alone option and is part of a package; adding $3800 to the price and sipping 4mpg more than the quad cylinder.  I’m pleased to say that the 2.5 is sufficient in hauling the Camry around, even with a car load of passengers.  Although not to be confused with a rocket, accelerations were sprightly enough and the engine had strong pull from a standstill.  Freeway merging and hill climbing were never an issue, even in the high Sierra, and the car never felt out of breath.  With the traction control off, it was even possible to encounter some wheel spin.  The noise level was low and only during hard acceleration did noticeable  racket originate from the engine, and even then, the quality of the sound was smooth and refined.  It’s yet another example of how Toyota sweats the details on making driving relaxing and in some ways, dull.  My suggestion is to avoid the added the cost and fuel consumption of the V6 and go for the four-cylinder.

CAM00052The transmission is a slick six-speed automatic.  Shifts are silky smooth, transparent, and very well-timed.  Downshifts were readily available on uphill climbs and for passing, and even under the strain of a full throttle acceleration, the system would send the right amount of power to the front wheels fluently and without a hitch.  This automatic also features a shiftable mode controlled by the gear selector or toggle switches on the steering wheel.  The toggle switches seemed a little silly at first on a Camry but proved their worth on mountain passes and downhill descents.  Using the toggles was sometimes challenging on windy roads, as they would move with the steering wheel. Otherwise, they worked great and added a sporty flair for the more demanding driver.   As is becoming the trend among family cars, no manual transmissions are available on any Camry due to low demand.

IMG_20130421_083259Handling has never been a Camry drawcard and this example was no exception.  This SE model does feature a firmer suspension setup than other trim levels which translated into minimal body roll.  Other Camrys have been floaty and would wallow their way like a harpooned whale through tight turns, but this sportier setup translated into better body control and flat cornering.  Regardless, there was plenty of understeer and the car seemed ready to give up mid-corner, usually with the tail-end fighting the front wheels and the stability control trying its best to hunker the car down.  It resulted in sloppy cornering and a unenjoyable drive.  The stability control, if deactivated manually by a control button on the dash. would automatically turn on if it felt the situation was getting too dicey.  Luckily, most Camry drivers won’t dream of pushing their cars to these limits.  Steering feel is also vague and non communicative, but wasn’t as bad as the recent Hyundai Sonata that I tested..

The four-wheel independent suspension with traditional MacPherson front and rear struts proved to competent at keeping road imperfections out of the cabin.  Overall, the ride is very smooth and serene.  With the SE’s tighter setup, it was a little firmer than other Camry’s I’ve experienced, but was still comfortable and didn’t have the floatiness that would plague those cars. 

Our tester had 8k miles on it and there were no defects.  Aside from some of the trim pieces that could be easily dislodged, the car felt tight and well-built and there were no mechanical issues.

The EPA rates the 2.5 liter Camry at 25mpg city and 35mpg highway.   After a 400 mile run in a mixture of heavy city driving, freeways, mountains, and some aggressive track testing, the car returned an admirable average of 31mpg.  On a 100 mile stretch of flat highway, I received an astonishing 39mpg.  That tops every other full-size car tested thus far and is near hybrid territory. 

Prices start at $22,235 for the base “L” trim which comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, split-folding rear seats, a trip computer, Bluetooth, the 6-inch display and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, HD radio, satellite radio, an auxiliary input and a USB/iPod interface, but does not come with power door locks.  The next level “LE” starts at $22,680 and adds automatic headlamps, power door locks with remote keyless entry, audio controls on the steering wheel and an outside temperature display.  The SE trim, like ours, starts at $23,400 and ups the ante with sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, heated exterior mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, sport seats and unique interior and exterior styling treatments.  The only option our SE came with was the five piece floormat and trunk mat kit- adding $225  and once destination was included, the total as-tested price was $24,420.  It’s comparable to other similarly sized cars and not a bad value.  A more expensive XLE trim is available adding a sunroof and Toyota’s multimedia system- Entune, but reverts back to the more sedate suspension and styling treatment.  The SE really has the right combination of performance and comfort, and if you really want a sunroof, go for the optional Moonroof Package instead of paying more for the XLE.

CAM00048So there we have it- America’s best-selling car.  What this test has proven is that many car buyers don’t care about track numbers and glitz.  They just want consistency and a pleasant driving experience.  With those demands, the Camry does deliver and is sportier than ever.  But the problem is that many other competitors do the same tasks just as well, and are continually getting better.  Many Camrys are bought solely on the basis of the perceived high quality and durability.  I personally feel the Camry isn’t as bulletproof as it once was and that quality has slipped in the past decade, as proven by some of the poor workmanship in the cabin.  Thankfully for Toyota, the car has a well-earned reputation from decades ago and is still riding on the coat tails of that legacy, but it’s a matter of time before the cost-cutting catches up.  My suggestion is not to remove the Camry off your shopping list if you need a comfortable, satisfying, and competent family car; it’s all of those things.  But don’t blindly purchase one based on the car’s durable heritage without checking out the competition as well.  A decent 4.0/5.0 boomerangs

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