For America’s favorite car, the Toyota Camry gets more than its share of left-handed compliments, if not outright face slaps.
Yes, the Camry has been the nation’s best-selling car for 12 straight years, with a 13th title in its sights. But to people who crave a personality in their family sedan, the Camry has long been overshadowed by its sharper-driving nemesis, the Honda Accord — along with rivals including the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Mazda6 and Volkswagen Passat. Hell, just about every family car comes off sportier or sexier than a Camry.
Yet Camry nation soldiers on, a bulletproof army that saw 407,000 units march out from Georgetown, Ky. last year. Toyota might remind you that 7,000 American workers earn paychecks from building the Camry, and that 75 percent of the car’s parts are sourced from the United States or Canada.
Obviously, Toyota is doing something right, and that “obviously” begins with quality, durability and peace of mind. Of the 10.2 million Camrys sold here in the past 32 years, 6.6 million are still on the road. To legions of family sedan buyers, that’s a more impressive and relevant statistic than 0-60 mph acceleration or slalom times.
To keep the Camry a no-brainer choice for those millions of fans — and to keep the likes of Honda and Ford at bay – Toyota offers a substantial makeover for 2015. We drove the full range of Camrys on the big island of Hawaii to see if they would take us to family-car paradise.
More than 1,900 parts are new, a surprisingly thorough upgrade for a car whose seventh-generation model has only been on sale since 2012. Every body panel is new aside from the roof; that includes a rippled hood, trendy hawk-eyed headlamps and an oversized mesh grille that Toyota swears was not inspired by Lexus’ new, signature face. A new side character line, sportier alloy wheels and generous wrapround tail lamps give the Toyota more visual oomph. This Camry grows 1.8 inches longer, and its track is widened by 0.4 inches front and rear — yet Toyota claims the body is stiffer than before thanks to 22 extra spot welds.
The Camry may not be a curvaceous siren like the Mazda6 or Fusion, but the revised look seems pleasant and contemporary — and certainly more attractive than the stodgy new Hyundai Sonata or Chevy Malibu. It’s also one of the most aerodynamic shapes in the class.
The Toyota’s interior, especially, is improved with softly padded surfaces and richer materials, including French-stitched seams, satin metallic finishes and available leather. Reshaped exterior mirrors and 30 percent more carpet sound insulation helps reduce interior noise. Knobs and switches are larger and more attractive. New standard features include a smoothly integrated 6.1-inch touchscreen; a multi-information driver’s display; and a standard eight-way power driver’s seat and 60/40 split-folding rear seats.
That 4.2-inch driver’s display (standard on SE models and higher) scrolls through color-animated displays for navigation, audio, trip info and vehicle warnings, with a new tire pressure monitor that shows individual tire pressures. A central cubby holds USB and 120-volt connections, along with a class-first for family sedans: Wireless phone charging for select models of iPhones and Androids, available on uplevel Camry versions.
Bluetooth and USB connections are naturally standard, along with steering-wheel audio and phone controls. A top-shelf JBL audio system with split-screen navigation and the Entune system lets the Camry manage a slew of upgradeable phone-based apps, including Bing, Open Table and Pandora.
Ten airbags are standard, including a driver’s knee bag and seat-mounted side airbags in both front and rear. The latest, optional safety guardians include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitors and a pre-collision system with automatic braking. And the Toyota’s back seat, with its relatively broad center perch, offers more useful space for three passengers than most midsize rivals. But front passengers still get gypped, with even top-level models failing to offer a power height adjustment. Even six-foot tall riders in front often find themselves staring at the headliner instead of out the windshield, and shorter passengers can’t scooch up.
Since 2012, the sportier SE model has grown to capture 45 percent of Camry sales, and the median SE buyer is just 45 years old – extremely youthful for the family segment, and 12 years younger on average than other Camry buyers. Toyota has gotten the message, expanding those offerings with a deluxe XSE trim and an SE Hybrid version.
If you are that supposedly hypothetical Camry shopper who enjoys driving, these models are a must, with sportier shock absorbers, springs and bushings that help quell body roll in turns without sacrificing ride quality. The SE and XSE versions get a more-aggressive piano-black mesh grille, with sharp red stitching for the leather-wrapped, three-point steering wheel and thicker-bolstered sport seats. Their retuned electric power steering is noticeably firmer and more satisfying than the damp-noodle feel of other Camry models. A six-speed automatic transmission adds both a Sport mode and surprisingly well-designed steering-wheel paddle shifters. The SE also gets 17-inch alloy wheels, with handsome 18-inch, black-faced machined alloys for the XSE.
What hasn’t changed on these Camrys is the engines and transmissions: Not one more horsepower, a nary a dollop of new technology. Instead, Toyota sticks to its familiar “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” powertrain strategy.
Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes 178 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque and 25/35 mpg in city and highway. Those are so-so power and fuel economy numbers for this class, especially as some rivals move to direct injection and other advanced technologies. Four-cylinder acceleration remains anemic, as we learned on some anxiety inducing passes on Hawaii’s endless two-lane stretches.
A 70-mile run in the Camry Hybrid — with its 200-hp, 2.5-liter Hybrid Synergy Drive system — showed me a shade over 41 mpg, right in line with the Hybrid LE’s rating of 43 mpg city and 39 highway. As ever, the Hybrid’s fuel economy can be fragile: Drive this greenest Camry through hilly terrain, or with mild gusto, and your fuel economy drops precipitously. But sensible driving can indeed coax outstanding mileage from Toyota’s midsize Hybrid.
Fortunately, there’s also a V-6, the familiar 3.5-liter with 268 horses and 248 lb-ft of torque, available only in XSE and XLE grades.
More than any Camrys I’ve driven, these retuned sport models made a case as something more than a cushy family conveyance. Piloting the leather-swaddled XSE V6, we traversed the width of Hawaii on Route 200 (known as Saddle Road to locals) between Kailua-Kona and Hilo. That scenic road was once off-limits to many rental cars, notoriously dangerous with its narrow, coiled pavement; no shoulders and one-lane bridges. Saddle Road has now been repaved in many places, but it’s still plenty challenging through its desolate ranch stretches.
Now, I wouldn’t call this Camry sporty, exactly. But the XSE carved up this island road with stable confidence at speeds most Camry owners would never attempt — including a full-power stop over a blind crest to avoid carving a flock of wild turkeys crossing the road. (One bird, the clear loser in Darwin’s lottery, decided to run straight down the road, and the Camry still managed to halt with feet to spare).
And when Saddle Road spread out into glorious, sweeping curves through the high lava desert – a veritable dream road for sports cars – the Camry stayed on point at even triple-digit speeds with no nervousness and surprisingly supple body control. Driver and passenger shared the same thought: Damn good for a Camry.
Camry value remains a selling point, with an LE model starting at $23,775. Toyota claims that LE gains $1,200 in standard equipment, but the prices rises by just $340. A four-cylinder SE starts at $24,665, or $26,975 for XLE and XSE grades. Hybrid versions range from $27,615 to $30,805. And deluxe XLE or XSE V-6 models top the Camry charts at $32,195.
As ever, the Camry isn’t interested in winning stoplight races. Winning the sales race suits it just fine.
Disclosure: For this article, the writer’s transportation, meals and lodging costs were paid for by one or more subjects of the article. Yahoo does not promise to publish any stories or provide coverage to any individual or entity that paid for some or all of the costs of any of our writers to attend an event.