2020 Toyota Camry- Aiming for Above Mr. Average

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The macrocosm of automobile enthusiasts has many layers. Some car nuts get off with hydraulics that bounce their rides several feet in the air. Some raise their trucks high enough to look eye-to-eye with the Rocky Mountains whilst crushing any obstacles in-between. Some lunatics on the outer fringes add more speakers than a Drake concert or cover their cars in sod, or some type of modern art. And when you think about it, performance cars that can do 0-60mph times in less than three seconds are stuck in the same bumper-to-bumper LA traffic. They just like to make a grander entrance. But there’s one undeniable group of car enthusiasts that outnumbers the rest of them; the Toyota Camry owners.

Car aficionados snub the Camry. We joke about how it has the captivating personality of Mitch McConnell. And we laugh about how notoriously bad Camry drivers are. They’re as common on the roads as infectious diseases are in China. But maybe Toyota has the last laugh. This year will be the 22nd consecutive year that the Camry is the best-selling passenger car in America. Last year alone over 336,000 Camrys found new homes; that’s more than Volvo, Mitsubishi, Land Rover, and Jaguar’s entire lineups, COMBINED. Look out your nearest window and you’ll likely see a Camry.

I like to call the Camry buyer: “Mr. (or Mrs.) Average.” Mr. Average has 2.3 kids, a job in accounting, and a beige house in the suburbs with forest green window trim….just to spice things up. Mr. Average doesn’t care about cars or driving, and his Aunt Betty had a Camry that lasted 300,000 miles with no fuss whatsoever. Not wanting any eccentrics and just reliable wheels, Mr. Average takes Aunt Betty’s advice and finds himself at a Toyota dealer signing the contracts. After several mind-numbing, trouble-free years and gaining a few “Camry dents” while falling asleep from sheer boredom behind the wheel, Mr. Average buys yet another Camry. To quote a particular Geico ad, “it’s what you do”. Dull as they may be, Camry owners are among the most loyal buyers in the industry. In the face of the unyielding crossover craze, we car enthusiasts should be more thankful that someone has been steadfast and true to the four-door sedan.

Being a savvy carmaker, Toyota knew the Camry had an image problem and was a cure for insomnia. In response, they injected Prozac into its diet. When the eighth generation Camry arrived for 2018, Toyota promised that the new car would offer more excitement and an eye-catching style. This was a risky strategy; being outside Toyota’s comfort zone. It’s move that may upset legions of Camry buyers, as the oval 1996 Taurus did to Ford buyers. Did Toyota succeed in walking the fine line?

The styling is vaguely familiar in its basic three-box shape, but now has some spunk. There are several variants of the front grille, depending on trim level. This is still Toyota, and all are overdone by garishly taking up most of the front bumper’s real estate. The black paint on our Camry camouflaged the overbearing grille so it wasn’t as prevalent and looked quite classy. A low beltline and swoopy greenhouse are new to the Camry pedigree and the short, cropped decklid echoes a sports coupe. The squinting tailights have a passing resemblance to the Egyptian Eye of Horus. Luckily, we did without the cheesy plastic teardrop trim that pointlessly dribbles down the back bumper on SE and higher trimmed Camry’s. Without that, the rear angle is clean and nicely sculpted. Overall, it’s a pleasing look that won’t offend Mr. Average and may attract some new buyers.

Inside reveals the serious changes. Typically sensible and bland, the new Camry’s dash has daring asymmetric shapes that pay homage to the original Ford Focus. It’s obvious that designers had fun sketching this interior. Broad arcs and slashes flow into one another to form storage cubbies, the center stack, and an array of textures. This same design language is found in other Toyota products, but the Camry takes it further. The materials are a big step up as well. Back in 2013, when I tested the last generation Camry, some of the surfaces felt brittle and had the workmanship of a Russian barn. This time, even in the lower LE trim, most contact points are covered in soft touch plastics complete with upscale [fake] stitching. No trees were obviously killed for the wood grain dash in front of the passenger, but it had a convincing hue and nice gloss that reeked of elegance. The whole interior is black with tasteful silver trim and aggressively shaped seats that exuded a sporting intention, in a Camry?!

Squeezed between the expressive design is the centerpiece of the dash; the radio finished on a glossy piano black finish. I really enjoyed the overall look of the eight metallic buttons that flank the 7-inch touchscreen and have a cool- retro 80’s font. The screen itself has concise graphics, although they aren’t too imaginative and won’t wow any techies. Navigating through the radio’s options and settings was a breeze. But there were a few oddities. The volume and tune knobs, which we are thankful to Toyota for, are different sizes and tucked behind the steering wheel out of the driver’s sight making quick adjustments a challenge. Although I believe Camry owners will adjust to the knob placement, the secondary steering wheel controls proved to be more cohesive. The screen isn’t nearly as responsive as it should be with a lag between screens. Connecting a phone proved to be a slow, arduous process depending on the device. And precious space was taken on the radio face by a dedicated physical button for the navigation, despite this model not being equipped with it.

The ventilation controls are housed in the same glossy stack as the radio and have a similar theme. Temperature and fan speed are controlled by dials and the air flow by buttons. I did confuse the temperature dial for being the radio volume knob several times as it was the most prominent control in sight, but once again, Camry owners will adjust. The overall presentation is simple although the climate controls are mounted too low to see at a glance.

In front of the driver are large gauges that are clear and obvious. Aunt Betty will appreciate that. The center LCD screen has an array of driving information that is also easy to read. All of the necessary information is readily at hand. Within those hands is the handsome three-spoke steering wheel. There’s a plethora of controls on the spokes for cruise, radio adjustments, phone dialing, and driving aids. They are too crowded and could be a challenge for Mr. Average to master. I do miss the days of the good ol’ cruise control stalk that Toyota used for decades and was an ergonomic masterpiece. Speaking of the cruise control, it would refuse to adjust to a new speed if already set. The chosen speed would have to be cancelled before setting a new velocity. I’m not sure if that was by design or a glitch, but it was maddening at times. Otherwise, the steering wheel had a meaty rim to grip and an array of height and reach adjustments to find the best driving position.

From the driver’s seat, there is much to like about the Camry. The front seats are nicely sculpted with tasteful patterns. Legroom is plentiful and headroom is decent, as long as the height adjustable seat isn’t raised too high. Visibility is excellent thanks to the low window sill, front cowl, large side mirrors, and thin pillars. The 1990’s called and wants its generous greenhouse back. It’s been years since I’ve been in a car with such an expansive view. Mr. Average, who hates driving and isn’t well-initiated in parking, will appreciate being able to see almost 360 degrees.. The door-mounted controls are right where they should be and touch points are also covered in high-quality, soft-touch materials. The only complaints are the seat bottoms are initially on the hard side despite remaining comfortable after several hours and Toyota’s choice of natty fabric may not be too durable, given that our eight month old tester’s already showed wear.

The back is equally generous. The bench seat is aggressively sculpted to snugly keep butts and shoulders in place yet is still a nice place to be. Two full size adults have loads of legroom although our Hyundai Sonata from a few months ago felt airier. But unlike the Hyundai’s hard plastic clad front seatbacks, the Toyota’s were cloth and would have some merciful give for knees. The latest Camry is 1.6 inches lower in height than the previous one, and that translates to less rear headroom. The headliner is scalloped, but the engineers can’t cheat the measurements. Taller folks will find their heads pressed against the roof in a matter of style over function. As a trade-off, the rear windows do go all the way down; a thoughtful rarity in the sedan segment that the 2.3 children will like. In addition, there’s an array of cupholders and storage in the doors and center armrest.

Getting in and out of the wide opening front doors was a breeze, and the lower roofline didn’t pose a problem in back. The narrow base of the rear doors did require some twisting of feet while tackling entry and exit.

At 15.4 cubic feet, the new Camry’s trunk volume is 1.3 cu.ft less than the old version, and is bested by several cubes compared to most of its competitors, including that Sonata, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima. This may seem like a downfall, but the Camry proved to be competent at carrying a week’s worth of luggage for the Average family. Thanks to a wide opening and nice usable shape of the trunk, those lower numbers weren’t obvious as we squeezed in several suitcases and travel bags. That stylish, short decklid would make loading longer items a challenge. There is a narrow trunk pass-through that is split 60/40. The floor isn’t level to the folded rear seat, and Toyota’s solution of a foam, carpet-covered triangular wedge between the two levels works, but seemed chintzy. Below the cargo floor is a temporary spare tire.

So far, the Camry equation has changed, but what is it like to drive? Camry’s were never….ahem….stimulating. Well, it hasn’t changed much but that’s not a bad thing. There’s a choice of either a 2.5 liter four-cylinder and, a rarity in this class, an actual V6 with 3.5 liters. Our tester came with the standard 2.5 liter that generates 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque and is shared with the Toyota RAV4. Acceleration times from 0-60 were about 8.7 seconds, which is normal for this class. The throttle did seem sensitive from a stop, giving the Camry a sprightly feel around town. The car never felt underpowered, even with a car load of passengers mixed with uphill grades. I did find the standard active safety features, marketed as Toyota Safety Sense, to be overbearing. The adaptive cruise control, even in its most relaxed setting, would aggressively respond to cars that were further away than Tom Brady’s average throwing distance. Driving the Camry smoothly was difficult on more congested roads. Perhaps Toyota is banking on the notorious driving capability of Camry drivers and taking no chances.

At idle, the 2.5 liter was silky smooth and could not be heard in the cabin, a Camry tradition of isolationism. The motor only made itself known under hard acceleration. Unexpected was the amount of wind, tire, and road noise at highway speeds. Over the years, Toyota has strived to give Mr. Average a Lexus-inspired, vault-like experience. Wind noise is obvious around the A-pillars and mirrors. The road noise isn’t loud enough to be annoying, but its presence is known on the freeway. It was surprising, as a secluded driving experience had long been a Camry strength.

Every Camry comes with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Toyota is proud to keep its technology simple and proven, and has avoided the latest CVT and turbo-charged fads. The automatic has smart shifts and is transparent. Just what Mr. Average wants; no need to know what’s going on under the hood. It’ll only make itself known on a steep climb or if passing when it may downshift two gears. Otherwise, it will happily do its job without anyone knowing.

The electric power steering is overly light and effortless. That works well in parking lots and city streets where maneuvering the Camry is stress-free, as it has always been. The relatively tight 37.4 foot turning circle is good for this class. But the feedback through the steering wheel is lifeless on a twisty road. It doesn’t inspire confidence when pushed to the limit, but then again, Mr. Average has little intention of getting frisky on the commute. For adventurous weekday warriors, the SE trim has unique tuning that promises a more exciting drive.

That’s too bad because the Camry, even in LE trim, does grip the road well. The tires tenaciously hold the road and body roll is nicely controlled. Freeway expanses display a refined ride that is firm without being uncomfortable. The independent MacPherson strut front suspension and rear multi-link are standard fare in the segment, but do the job effectively. This does not ride like your father’s Oldsmobile.

The EPA rates the 2.5 liter at 28mpg in the city and 39mpg on the highway; quite the variance based on conditions, but still amazing numbers for a full-size family sedan. Our wide array of fuel economy numbers echoed the EPA’s recordings. This Camry scored an incredible 45mpg on a 150 mile freeway run with a carload of passengers; entering the troposphere of hybrid territory. After some city and mountain driving, that number dropped to an average of 31mpg. Still good, and Mr. Average will appreciate not having to spend more money on his car. Mindful of the Camry’s 15.8 gallon fuel tank, a bladder-busting 600 mile range is obtainable.

Our tester had 29k miles of rental duty under its belt. Mechanically, the Camry felt as solid as the day it was built. One of the center air vents had been damaged so that it no longer swiveled, and as mentioned earlier, the seats were prone to showing scuffs after only eight months of use.

Prices on the Camry in base L trim start at $24,425. At that price, the L trim comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, LED headlights, the 7-inch touchscreen, a USB port, a Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, and a six-speaker sound system. Standard on every Camry is the overprotective Toyota Safety Sense system. Our LE was the next level up and for an additional $545 includes a power-adjustable driver’s seat, alloy wheels, a 60/40-split folding back seat, and two charge-only USB ports. Once the destination charge was added, the final price on our Midnight Black Metallic Camry rung in at $25,965. This is on par with many similar sedans, although our test Hyundai Sonata from earlier this year was about $2,500 less. Toyota has been aggressive with rebates, and the Camry is an excellent value if the timing is right.

This generation Camry carries the same tried-and-true formula that has worked for decades. It excels at a few things, and is merely average at tackling most suburban tasks. It doesn’t do anything wrong and will happily go about its business without complaint. Mr. Average couldn’t ask for more and unless the Camry strays off course, there’s no reason to look elsewhere. The new Camry does have more personality than ever before, yet not enough to appeal to hardcore car enthusiasts. Then again, the true enthusiasts speak with their wallets and Toyota has that massive market of Mr. Averages cornered. The Camry isn’t perfect but is likable, competent, and deserves a solid 3.5/5.0 boomerangs.

https://studio.youtube.com/video/FPW-74twcNk/edit

The basic three-box sedan shape remains the same on the new Camry
Look into my eyes! The taillights do have a passing resemblance to the Eyes of Horus
Unlike the latest Accord or Altima, the Camry has a simple, clean side profile.
Black does a great job at hiding the overwrought grille.
The 16-inch alloys are included with the LE trim
Our LE trim does not have the plastic “teardrop” trim for the taillights. It makes for a smoother appearance
A series of swoops and curves cleverly form the Camry’s dash.
A three-spoke steering wheel and sporting bucket seats used to be reserved for performance cars.
The [fake] stitching and wood trim do add to an opulent feel in the cabin
The door control placement is perfect and contact points are soft-touch plastics.
The radio volume and control knobs are hidden from the driver by the steering wheel.
The deep center storage bin is standard, but getting the LE trim does add dual USB ports.
Thanks to thin pillars and a low beltline, visibility is excellent.
The back bench seat is aggressively sculpted and proved to be comfortable.
The rear windows do go all the way down, a rarity for a sedan.
Toyota loves proven technology, and in an age electronic parking brakes, the old foot pedal was refreshing to see.
The rear seats fold down 60/40, but the pass-through is narrow and not very tall.
The seat does not fold level with the trunk floor and the foam triangle that bridges the gap is cheesy.
A spare tire comes standard.

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