Road Test: '12 Camry -- new looks, pep

The 2011 Toyota Camry.

The 2011 Toyota Camry. (Credit: Handout)

The 2012 Toyota Camry comes from a well-known brand that is reliably middling; it is free of drama, superfluity or excess cost; it will simply get the job done.

Starting at $22,755 when it rolls into dealerships next month, it is an apparatus, a means to an end.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s mid-size sedan has served this purpose for years, and Americans have rewarded it with corresponding success at the dealership. Since 1997 more Camrys have been sold each year than any other car in the United States, except in 2001.

The most notable changes are the Camry's looks. The car wears all-new sheet metal while maintaining the same length, width and wheelbase of the previous model. The new look is evolutionary, with added creases and angles replacing softer lines. It's a good look.

The new aesthetics continue inside as well. The design of the dashboard and instrument panel is cleaner and simpler. Most surfaces are covered in pleasing, soft-touch materials.

Overall, Toyota managed to wring out an interior that is marginally bigger than before, despite the car's footprint remaining the same. Rear legroom and interior space are among the most in the class, and five people can ride comfortably.

Although most spatial concerns are nicely addressed, the quality of the Camry's features leaves something to be desired.

The navigation screen on the preproduction XLE model tested was smaller than it was in the previous Camry, creating a cramped screen.

The interior looked good and precisely assembled, but if you elbowed a door panel or prodded the plastic pieces in the lower part of the dashboard, they seemed flimsy.

Finally, although the trunk grows slightly, its overall capacity still lags behind most competitors. Also unfortunate is the surprisingly small pass-through space when you fold down the Camry's rear seats.

Driving the new Camry isn't as overwhelmingly boring as you'd expect. The base engine pulls 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque out of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a hearty degree of pep and enthusiasm.

This engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting and sport mode. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the combination at 25 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. Over 240 miles of testing, I averaged 25 mpg. No zero-to-60 times were available from Toyota, but Car and Driver magazine estimated the four-cylinder would do it in 8.8 seconds.

My biggest complaint about the handling lies with the steering. Piloting the Camry is like driving while wearing a pair of Novocain mittens.

The four-cylinder Camry comes in four variants: the base L, the LE, the sporty SE and the XLE. The $29,380 XLE I tested included the navigation system, a JBL sound system with 10 speakers, backup camera, leather seats, heated front seats and alloy wheels.

Buyers looking for more power can consider the 268-hp. V-6, starting at $27,400, while green-minded buyers should consider the new hybrid Camry.

 

2012 Toyota Camry XLE

Base price: $22,755 (including destination charge)

Price, as tested (estimated): $29,380

Powertrain: 2.5-liter four-cylinder with dual intelligent variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting and sport mode

Horsepower: 178 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 170 pound-feet at 4,100 rpm

0-60: 8.8 seconds (Estimate by Car and Driver magazine)

Curb weight: 3,245 pounds

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches

Overall length: 189.2 inches

EPA fuel economy: 25 mpg city/35 mpg highway

Bottom line: Enough to keep the sale crown, but its reign is slipping.

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