Posted: March 22, 2012

Executive wheels: The car the world copies

Toyota Camry: The real deal

Jeff Rundles

2012 TOYOTA CAMRY SE V6

I have written often about what I call venerable cars; that is, models that have been around for a long time and, therefore, those that have stood the test of time. Think VW Jetta, BMW 3, Mercedes E.

And think Toyota Camry. Introduced in 1980 as the Celica Camry, and simply called the Camry since the 1983 model year, this vehicle ranks right up there with the greats. Heck, that’s why it is the largest-selling model in the country, regularly posting sales in the 400,000 per annum category for the last several years.

No wonder really. It’s a Toyota. I am a committed Toyota man and remained so during its troubles a couple of years ago because Toyotas just keep on going. They are solid, well-built, highly reliable, relatively economical -- and it’s no mistake that just about every other car in the world looks like a Toyota. For that reason alone it must be said that the Toyota Camry lacks styling distinctiveness, but I think it is distinguished because it is the original, not the knock-off. 

I have not driven a Camry in a few years for review purposes so my memory is not an unbroken chain. But I was surprised at how large this vehicle really is. Pleasantly surprised. When the Camry first came out it was a compact car, and remained in that category for several years and iterations, but it is now decidedly in the mid-sized class. You know, unlike a few years ago, there are very few bad cars out there. Fords and Chevys have taken their place among the world-class cars, and Nissan, Honda, Kia and Hyundai – not to mentioned the Europeans – are really wonderful vehicles. But the Toyota Camry remains in a class by itself. I think it goes without saying – but I’m a reviewer so I must say – that the engineers and the designers at all those other car companies certainly sat around the conference table, decided to up their game, as it were, and pretty much all said, “Let’s make a Toyota Camry.”

They could have fallen short, and indeed they used to. Toyota generally and the Camry specifically are the gold standard.

I suppose you could argue that when it comes to sedans in the Toyota line, the Avalon is the flagship. It is the most expensive, surely, and I wrote about a year ago that it is a Lexus masquerading as a Toyota. Loved it. But I have to say, this slightly redesigned 2012 Camry could be a Lexus too. It’s beautiful, quiet, comfortable, luxurious, drives like a dream, has plenty of room up front and in the back seat, and pretty much all the luxury stuff you’d expect on a Lexus. Oh – it does have one thing a Lexus does not: a lower price tag. If you can get past the label – a lot of people, I think, buy Lexus for the status – than this Camry is an inconspicuous Lexus. The guy next to you won’t think you’re rich, just smart, but driving around you’ll feel like a million bucks.

As I mentioned, I was just a bit –pleasantly – surprised by the size of the Camry. Outside it seems like a mid-sized car, but inside it really feels like a much bigger car. There is so much room – head room, shoulder space – and yet it is small enough that the controls are easy to reach and use. My back seat consultant, my 14-year-old son, pronounced the back seat to be very comfortable, very roomy, and he said three good-sized adults wouldn’t mind a longish drive back there. The trunk is also large – this is a great car for golfers.

The interior is also quite luxurious. My test-drive model had – for an additional $1,050 – the leather package which included leather-trimmed ultrasuede sport seats that are very comfortable, and they seemed durable (ultrasuede is great because it is warmer on cold days than leather, cooler on hot days, and not so slippery).

What I like about the interior of a Camry, as opposed to a Lexus or any of the other true luxury cars, is that the controls are all so easy to use. Dials for the temperature and fan speed, little icon pictures with buttons for the air flow. You don’t have to maneuver a touch-screen and go through a lot of menus to get the right mix.

But, of course, there is a touch screen, here for the radio and sound system and a new feature Toyota is calling Entune. The sound system in my test-drive model was upgraded – for $650 – with a JBL HD radio with 10 speakers – wonderful sound, especially since the car is so quiet – and it included all of the modern hook-ups for MP3, iPod connectivity, and all that. There was also Navigation in the package, and Bluetooth (which is standard), with hands-free capability since there are voice activation and recognition systems here to handle all of the technology.

Entune, however, is where the buzz is. It is a collection of mobile phone apps like Bing,™

iHeartRadio,6 MovieTickets.com,6 OpenTable®6 and Pandora®, which operates by hooking up your smart phone and then touching the screen. Very cool, no doubt, but my worry is that these apps and what is popular tend to change from time to time so it is a question of how long the Entune technology will serve its purpose. I suppose they could offer upgrades and swap out for newer apps, but I could find no planning for that so we’ll see. It’s like navigation: a few years ago it was an expensive and wonderful car feature that most people now carry around on their phones.

It’s the driving where the Camry really shines, however.

There are seven models of the Camry in the line, one being the Hybrid which carries a base price of $25,900. The lower-end model is the L, MSRP of $21,955, and it features a 2.5-liter I4 engine with some 178 hp, rated at 25 mpg city/35/ mpg highway. I drove the next-to-the-top-of-the-line SE V6, which carries a MSRP of $26,640, and features a 3.5-liter V6 putting out some 268 hp (rated at an impressive 21/30 mpg).

This car is no race car by any means, but it has all of the power one would ever need. It is quick, smooth, and handles the highway, even in the mountains, without any heavy breathing. It really does drive like a dream. The car is very – very – quiet, which is great, and the drivi9ng is simply effortless. It really does feel like a car that costs twice as much. Easy to maneuver in traffic or into a parking space, corners quite well, and holds the road perfectly. I even got to drive it in some bad weather and road conditions and was very impressed with the traction in the snow and ice (no AWD, but a workhorse nonetheless).

But I was especially impressed with this V6 engine. Smooth, quiet, yet very powerful. When you want a burst of speed, the Camry delivers, and on the highway – I hope no cops are reading – this car will do 80 mph without pushing and without feeling like you’re actually going 80.

There is just a luxury feeling in some cars, a sense of “I have arrived,” as the car performs as well or better than anything you’ve ever driven. It feels like luxury, it feels safe, it feels well-made, and while you’re in it you feel satisfied and proud. I get that feeling in Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, some Infinitis, a Buick now and again, Cadillac, a few Lincolns – you get the picture. But Camry falls right into place with the best of them. That didn’t used to be the case – Camry has always been a solid car, a nice car, and since it’s a Toyota, a dependable car. But I wouldn’t have elevated the older Camrys into the realm of Mercedes, et al. Now I must, for this car has class and everything necessary to deliver “the feeling.”

As I mentioned, there are seven trims available in the Camry, and I can imagine that the hybrid, which I have driven in other Toyota forms (Prius, Highlander) performs quite well. I would think that the base model in the Camry with the 178 hp 4-banger, which can be had in the low $20s, would be a fine car, but short on the power at this size.

My test drive model carried a base price of $26,640, and I can attest from long experience that a Toyota will go forever so this is a good price. On mine they added $650  -- a great package price – for a juiced up audio system (JBL), satellite radio, and every high-tech hook-up you can think of (plus voice recognition) and the Entune (visit www.toyota.com/entune for complete details. There was also $895 added for the back-up camera, homelink garage door opener, and anti-theft and alarm, as well as $1.050 for the leather seating and power and heated front seats, $915 for a wonderful moonroof, $225 for carpeted trunk and floor mat set, and $67 for wheel locks. Add in $760 in destination charges and the bottom line is $31,202.

Now, that’s not cheap by any means, but trust me, this is a great car and you could pay for a lot more and not get a car as nice as this.

It should be a Lexus, but then it would cost more. And you still get “the feeling."

RATING: FOUR WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR)

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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