But it’s not just healthy competition that’s enfeebled the Camry, it’s that the Camry itself has grown old and tired. Despite Toyota’s claims that the 2012 model is “all-new,” it’s not so easy to spot what’s different between last year’s Camry and this one, at least from the outside. The styling of the newer car adheres closely enough to both the spirit and letter of its predecessor that this 2012 not only looks like the 2011, they have virtually identical measurements. Sure, there are a few tighter creases on the 2012, particularly in the fascias, but that’s the sort of change that merely betrays Toyota’s adherence to the auto industry’s philosophy of planned obsolescence. That said, it’s not even a particularly good implementation of said concept, as the seventh-generation Camry isn’t appreciably more modern in style than the sixth – or fifth, for that matter.
Worse than the side-step with the styling is that we’re having a difficult time finding things about the car that have been significantly improved. A lot has changed, especially inside, but most of it is a proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. The instrument panel, for instance, looks nice in photos, but in the real world, it’s a hodgepodge of different textures and sheens of plastic on its many parts. Compared to the Optima, the Toyota’s dash looks downright cheap. We do recall what seemed like real metal trim pieces on the Camry’s doors, but amidst all the fake “metal-look” plastic elsewhere in the cockpit, it’s hard to even discern.
With no unifying theme to the interior, we get the sense that the teams that designed the instrument panel only met the ones that did the door panels after the fact. While that’s unlikely, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s just no flow, no artistry to the Camry’s confines. Even the seats, which are otherwise comfortable, are covered in at least three different materials in as many colors, seeming less stylish than resulting from someone not being able to make a decision. This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to updating the old Camry’s drab interior has certainly given Toyota customers something to look at where there was once just monolithic plastic, but that’s hardly worthy of excitement.
The Camry’s 3.5-liter V6, on the other hand, is. Yes, it’s the same 268-horsepower version of Toyota’s corporate V6 that we’ve been enjoying for years, churning out 248 pound-feet of torque just like it did in the 2011 Camry. But we’re not complaining, as the powertrain is the aspect of the Camry SE that’s in the most robust health. Toyota has made some tweaks to the V6 powertrain in the Camry to pump its fuel economy up to 25 mpg combined for 2012, a two-mpg improvement over last year. We only saw 22 mpg during our week in the car, though there’s good reason for our mileage shortcoming. Toyota has goosed the SE package for 2012 by including steering-wheel-mounted paddleshifters for the six-speed automatic transmission, and blipping through the gears perks up the V6 like a pacemaker. The paddleshifters are nicely designed and well-implemented – especially considering the Camry’s deservedly unsporting reputation.
If the paddleshifters show hope, the Camry’s new driving dynamics leave us realizing that re-injecting some life into this tired old girl is still a risky procedure. Toyota got it right when it comes to putting power to the pavement, as even with full application of the throttle there’s no torque-steer from the front wheels, just seamless acceleration as the engine revs smoothly and quickly up past 6,000 rpm. But the 18-inch wheels and 45-series sidewall tires of the SE ride a bit harsh over rough pavement, and they transmit some noise into the otherwise quiet cabin. While the suspension in the SE feels firmer than in other, lower-grade Camrys we’ve driven, there’s plenty of body roll and the front end will still readily wash out under hard cornering. The Camry’s new electric power steering system doesn’t provide much feedback and the brakes are merely adequate, with a hard pedal that inspires little confidence during panic stops. Driving the SE in anger is only going to leave you feeling more angry, as it’s no sport sedan.
Not that it should be. But engineering a car that can perform well in the hands of enthusiast drivers and building an appliance for the commuting masses should not be mutually exclusive. There was once a time when the Camry was built with the objective of being the highest quality midsize sedan on the market. That no longer feels like the case – in fact, there are moments where it feels like this is built to be the least expensive Camry that Toyota can get away with.
For instance, the sticker price on our test car was all of $30,910, yet that didn’t include automatic climate control, which is not offered on the SE trim. It did include a JBL-branded audio system that sounded among the worst systems we’ve recently heard in a new car, with a tinny tone that made everything from analog FM radio to CDs to Pandora sound like they were being played out of laptop speakers. Further evidence of cost-cutting can be seen in the specifications for the Camry’s brakes: All models receive the same 11.65-inch front discs, despite the additional 230 pounds and 90 horsepower of the 3,420-pound SE V6 over the four-cylinder model. (Yes, Kia specs larger brakes for its more powerful version of the Optima.) Toyota’s attention to detail seems lacking in other areas, like in the display for the tire pressure monitor, which shows the pressures for the four tires in a straight line, with no indication of front or back, left or right.
In truth, it’s been years since the Camry really felt like a superior feat of industrial engineering. While there’s still a strong pulse beating under the Camry SE’s hood, it’s just not enough to save this patient.