The Toyota Camry has been a mainstay in the market since its introduction in 1983, consistently placing at or near the top spot in everything from the sales charts to quality and reliability rankings.
It's consistently the best-selling car in the U.S. and, while it's well short of that title in Canada, it is currently the best-selling mid-size car in this country, having survived claims of unintended acceleration, since proven unfounded, and doubling its sales volume over 2011.
The 2012 Camry gets more power AND more fuel efficiency from its standard 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, which is standard in the LE, SE and XLE models. A 3.5-litre V-6 is available in the XLE trim level and standard in the SE. Both engines are paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Camry is also available with a hybrid powertrain, which combines a variation of the 2.5-litre four-cylinder with an electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). There are two trim levels of hybrid for 2012, LE and XLE.
Subtly changed outside, more so inside
All the exterior sheet metal on the 2012 Camry is new, as are the lights at both ends. But visually, those exterior changes are subtle to say the least. You have to park the new seventh generation Camry alongside its predecessor and look closely to detect the differences.
The dimensions are identical but the chassis has been stiffened and the suspension tweaked.
Inside, the updates are much more evident, and from a practical point of view more important. More room has been discovered in the rear seat area, including almost 5 cm of added legroom. Some of this has been accomplished by moving the front seat rails and pedals ahead slightly, but the majority by scalloping out the backs of the front seats.
That added rear space is useful in a car of this nature, a traditional family sedan where the rear seat is often in use. The added space is especially useful in the centre rear-seat position, which now becomes habitable by full-sized occupants. There is plenty of headroom, even with a sunroof, and visibility is excellent.
Elsewhere the interior has been bumped up a notch in terms of quality, with attention to detail evident everywhere and soft touch materials where you used to touch solid plastic.
My XLE tester came with soft leather upholstery with contrasting stitching. A similar but more weather- and sun--proof synthetic material covers the top of the doors and instrument panel. The upgrade here lends an air of refinement missing form the outgoing model, one that would be quiet at home in a more expensive vehicle.
While I’m on the topic of expense, a close look at the price tag on the test vehicle reveals how much of a wise buy the Camry has become. With compact cars now costing $20,000 - $30,00, the Camry slots into the top end of that range offering considerably more interior room, especially in the rear seat and a full slate of features.
At just under $30K, my tester came with dual -zone automatic climate control, tilt and telescope steering wheel, 17-in alloy wheels, satellite radio, aux and USB inputs for the audio system, navigation system, wireless connectivity, eight-way driver and four-way passenger power-adjustable heated leather seats, cruise control, tilt & telescope steering wheel, heated mirrors, keyless ignition, power sunroof, exterior thermometer and even reading lamps for those comfy rear seat occupants. Whew!
A gripe, however. I disagree with Toyota’s practice of equipping its vehicles with a warning light that glows when there is someone in the front passenger seat. The light tells you that airbag is activated. The purpose of a warning light is to advise you of a problem, not something as obvious as a passenger. The light should only glow when there is a passenger and there is a problem with the airbags relative to that seat position.
The safety bases are all covered with the now-mandatory ABS and electronic stability control and 10 airbags
Frugal on fuel
Don’t think for a minute that buying the bigger Camry means you have to spend more at the pumps. This is a very frugal big car that rivals many much-smaller and less-capable vehicles in this respect.
Like the exterior styling, the drivetrain improvements for 2012 are subtle, including lower-viscosity oil to reduce drag, provisions to heat the transmission oil more quickly from a cold start and a revised final-drive ratio so the engine is turning fewer rpm at highway speeds.
The four-cylinder engine is perfectly adequate for all but the speed-crazed or those who regularly carry several passengers. Smooth and quiet, it goes about its tasks with minimal fuss. The transmission is well programmed to be in the right gear at the right time and shifts are all but imperceptible.
The Camry is often accused of being bland, and that character has not changed for 2012. It seems the most popular colours are beige, white and grey, an all fit within the "bland" reference and help define the fact that the vast majority of car buyers are looking for quality, value and reliability with standout looks and performance many notches down the priority ladder.
The Camry’s road manners are equally bland. It offers a truly comfortable ride, which combined with supportive seats and the spacious interior make it an excellent highway hauler.
But push too hard into a turn and understeer sets in immediately. It becomes more pronounced and is accompanied by plenty of body lean if you push harder.
The electric power steering is light and there is a modicum of feedback. The brakes proved strong and fade-free after repeated stops from speed.
While this is not a car for the enthusiast, the majority of owners will be enthusiastic about its comfort, convenience and safety attributes – and its frugality.