Thu08282014

On The Road

Basic transportation, and then some

Photo Gary Anderson/Special To The Town Crier The Toyota Camry has four trim levels and three powertrains.

 

For the past 28 years, the Toyota Camry has been a mainstay for families looking for solid, reliable, basic transportation.

For 25 years, those Camrys have been coming out of the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., with more local content than any other foreign-brand car sold in the United States. For 13 of the past 14 years, the Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S., and 90 percent of those cars are still on the road today.

Those are pretty impressive statistics, so it was no surprise that in the recent press introduction of the 2012 Camry lineup at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, Rick LoFaso, Toyoto’s U.S. corporate marketing manager, led off with them.

But we weren’t there just to admire the shiny new cars. We were there to get some intensive time behind the wheel of each of the models to see if they were at least as good as the previous generations that have been so successful and to see how they compared with one another.

After a quick drive over to Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, we spent several hours thrashing the cars around a coned course on the large paddock, gaining many days worth of driving insight in a short time.

Our conclusion: The new Camry is noticeably better than any previous generation of this all-American model. If you’re looking for a practical sedan for less than $30,000, then one of these models should be perfect for you. All you need to do is decide which one you want.

We’ve always respected the Toyota Camry for being exactly what it was built to be – a good, solid, four-door sedan, inexpensive to buy and maintain, frugal in its use of gasoline and not wasting any money on fancy interior or exterior adornments. Of course, in return for meeting these requirements, we were willing to forgive it for its utilitarian interior and less-than-exciting handling and performance.

With the 2012, there’s no forgiveness required. All of the models – including four trim levels and three powertrains – are not only better at the basics, but also easy to admire and fun to drive.

Even the smaller 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine now puts out 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, while producing 25 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway, both significant improvements, and adequate for most basic needs.

Bump up to the 3.5-liter V-6 and you’ll get 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, respectable hot-rod specs only a decade ago, but still getting 21 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway, the best of any midsize V-6 sedan on the market.

But perhaps you’re starting to think about your carbon footprint. Perhaps you’re looking enviously at your neighbor’s Prius but don’t want a vehicle that looks a little, well, functional. In that case, it’s nice to know that you can have the same attractive lines and interior as the gas-powered cars in a Camry powered with the same Hybrid Synergy Drive as the Prius. The Camry Hybrid will give you the same 43 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway (the Toyota hybrids get most of their economy by using that electric power as much as possible in town and taking advantage of regenerative braking for additional battery charging, neither of which applies to highway driving).

Those numbers add up to just one thing: Driven back-to-back with the previous-generation versions on the fast but tight course, the new Camrys were clearly peppier than their predecessors. Even better, they handled much better under braking and didn’t plow into the corners. The engineers demonstrated with diagrams how a few inches difference here and there on the suspensions had really paid off when they were encouraged to build a little driving passion into the cars.

That same touch of additional emotion had also been applied in the design. On the exterior, the lines on all the models are just a little smoother and drawn with a little more verve than the previous generation, especially around the headlights and grilles.

In the interior, the contrast with previous Camrys is even more marked. All the materials have a softer touch. There are actual contours and layers accented with exposed stitching, and the metal or wood trim is tastefully integrated into the overall design.

Over lunch at the track, in between blasts around the autocross course, we started playing the game of “Which one would I buy?” Even with 10 possible trim-level and engine combinations, that answer is actually more straightforward than one might think.

If mileage and cost matter more than driving performance, perhaps for a young family of three-soon-to-be-four, then a 2.5-liter engine in an XLE with its nice wood touches, nav system and cushioned suspension would be perfect, at an MSRP of $24,725, 7.5 percent less than the outgoing model.

On the other hand, if the children are grown and gone, and mom and dad are ready for a little fun without spending BMW money, try the more powerful V-8 engine in the sportier SE. With its firmer suspension and more functional interior, the SE will make the drive over to Half Moon Bay for Sunday brunch a bit more exciting.

That additional zip adds a bit to the price – at $26,640, the same as the outgoing model – but definitely allows its owners to put Camry and performance into the same sentence.

For the owner more concerned with energy independence and technological progress than performance, the Hybrid XLE, with the practicality of that Prius powertrain but the lines and luxury of a nice sedan, would be the correct answer.

At $27,400, it might cost a little more than the traditional powerplants, but that’s still less than the outgoing model, and the 2012 version is really the best of both Toyota worlds.

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