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Redesigning a perennial top seller like the Toyota Camry is tricky business. Of course it needs to look new every few years, but never radically so. The sort of bold styling tactic employed by some of the Camry's competitors lately would not do here, nor is it necessary.
Toyota is only playing catch-up with itself because, recent PR difficulties aside, the Camry was still the top-selling car at the end of 2010, a feat it may yet repeat again in 2011.
And so the new 2012 Toyota Camry stays true to the proven Camry formula. In fact its major exterior dimensions, things like overall length, width, height and the relative position of its tires, remain exactly as before.
Before you begin that eye roll, remember that Honda took some flak when it puffed out the Accord to full-size proportions, and that was some months before gas prices shot up and smaller cars got popular. Staying same-sized in this segment looks like a genius move today.
But staying same-sized doesn't mean everything on the 2012 Toyota Camry has remained frozen, because it hasn't — especially the important stuff.
Looks Like a...Camry
Spy photos seen previously depict a familiar profile, but in person the tension in the new creases and squarer edges make the 2012 Toyota Camry look less puffy, more toned and eager. Someone nearby swore they saw faint hints of Acura TSX — the good one — while another suggested this is how the new Subaru Legacy should have looked.
But there is function in the Camry's new form. A revised roof profile near the top of the windshield improves the view out. We now stare out the center of the windscreen instead of ducking below the tint band like last year — this despite zero change in front headroom, which was never the problem anyway.
A flatter rear roof line improves rear-seat headroom by 0.3 inch, while that squarer door opening enhances rear-seat access. There's more legroom in back, too (0.6 inch, they say), on account of revised front seatback sculpting.
Upgraded Software and Firmware
And it is here, inside, where Toyota has done much to reverse the impression that the Camry has lost its mojo. Gone is last year's frozen wave of plastic. Gone is the uninspired center stack. Gone are the mouse-fur seats.
In their place stands a layered dash of complementary textures, handsome trim and strategically deployed decorative stitching. The climate control layout makes sense and looks good beneath a 6.1-inch touchscreen audio system. There's a chunky-looking tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel to hang onto as we settle into more supportive seats that are covered with a higher grade of fabric — all this on the midgrade Camry LE.
Chief Engineer Yukihiro Okane tells us this came about after he gave a mythical $100 to Camry owners and rejecters alike and asked them where on the car they would spend it if they were him. Dash, center stack and seats were the top three by a wide margin. It looks as if Okane-san spent more than that, too.
Better dash and firewall insulation and other nods to noise reduction hide behind these higher-buck surfaces, and they result in detectably lower engine and road noise despite sometimes ragged winter-damaged Washington state roads.
Dig a layer deeper and you arrive at the steel unibody, where increased use of high- and ultra-high-strength steel produces a more rigid structure that simultaneously makes a typical 2012 Toyota Camry lighter by about 120 pounds. The Camry Hybrid weighs some 220 pounds less.
There's enough weight savings in steel to add in three more airbags — passenger knee and rear-seat side airbags — bringing the total count up to 10. Toyota is supremely confident that the Camry will earn a five-star safety rating once the government runs one into a wall.
Non-crashers among us appreciate what a stiffer and lighter structure does for handling and ride. The suspension itself is of the same sort as before — MacPherson struts up front and dual-link struts in back — but the rear lateral links have been altered to produce a stabilizing dose of roll understeer.
All versions we're driving, from the LE four-cylinder to the XLE V6 to the vitamin-enriched SE, perform better than the models they replace. They feel more locked down on the highway and less flustered by bumps. The SE is far and away our favorite, with larger tires (17s on the four-cylinder, 18s on the V6,) 15 percent stiffer springs, 50 percent firmer dampers, and a more rigid "pillow ball" connection at the forward lateral link. It's composed enough that we think it could serve as the base setup and no one would complain.
Electric power steering (EPS) expands from the hybrid to the entire lineup this year, with mixed results. The V6 versions enjoy decent on-center definition and reassuring build-up in corners, with the V6 SE and its sportier program coming out on top. But four-cylinder variants feel vague and disconnected by comparison, even the four-cylinder SE. Casual dinner conversation reveals that the V6 and four-cylinder EPS systems come from different suppliers. One of them clearly needs to up its game.
In these petroleum-sensitive times it's hard to blame Toyota for electing to use the Camry's newfound weight savings for the betterment of mpg instead of acceleration.
The now-standard six-speed automatic transmission houses the same gear ratios as before, but the final-drive gearing is lower and torque converter lockup tendency has been expanded across the rev range. There's no longer a manual transmission (moment of silence) but at least the SE gets new steering-mounted shift paddles that do an admirable job of executing quick, rev-matched downshifts.
City drivability isn't something we can verify on these rural back roads, but the carryover 2GR-FE V6 engine and its 268 horsepower is still eager to get with the program and should come close to the 6.6-second 0-60 time we recorded in 2007. Toyota says the 2012 Camry V6 will earn 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway for a combined rating of 25 mpg, 2 better than last year.
The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder is technically a carry-over, too, but most Camrys will see it as an upgrade because this more powerful 178-hp variant was previously restricted to the four-cylinder SE. Acceleration in the mid-8-second range is expected alongside 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway, an improvement of 3 mpg apiece.
Really Upgraded Hybrid
Far and away the biggest surprise is the massive forward leap in fuel economy of the Camry Hybrid. At 33 mpg combined, the last model stacked up well against other hybrid sedans. Then Hyundai's 2011 Sonata Hybrid entered the fray at 37 mpg combined, leaving the Camry in the weeds.
No longer. The 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid is expected to post a combined rating of 40 mpg, a full 7 mpg better than the car it replaces. City performance alone is said to rise from 31 to 41 mpg.
Thank an improved regenerative braking system that converts more braking energy into electricity over an expanded operating range. Thank the retirement of last year's non-Atkinson 2.4-liter engine, replaced here by a newly developed version of the 2.5-liter engine running the Atkinson cycle, a strategy that's more efficient over the narrow rev range present in Toyota's hybrid drive system and its CVT (continuously variable transmission).
As a bonus, this new engine and the primary electric drive motor team up to produce a nice round 200 hp instead of the 187 blended horses available last year. Our right foot confirms that this new more-efficient Camry Hybrid is no slouch when slouchlessness is requested.
Beyond that, certain underhood hybrid inverter components have been shrunk, allowing the DC-to-DC converter to be moved from trunk to engine compartment. This results in a smaller battery housing, which in turn swells trunk space from a questionable 10.6 to a truly useful 13.1 cubic feet, a 24 percent increase.
Upgraded (Or Is That Downgraded?) Pricing
For all this the overall pricing picture for the 2012 Toyota Camry is rosier. Official prices have not been announced, but none other than Toyota Motor Sales head honcho Bob Carter suggested the volume-selling LE four-cylinder automatic will cost about what it does today, which is $22,700.
He went on to say that the steps from there to the sporty SE and cushy XLE, currently $1,265 and $4,025, respectively, will shrink considerably. The current Camry Hybrid offering is being divided in two, with an LE Hybrid coming in cheaper than before alongside a more opulently equipped XLE.
This is possible because of savings realized by adopting a more Honda-like option strategy, in which last year's 1,399 theoretical configurations (not including colors) shrinks to just 36 through the use of more preferred equipment packages and fewer stand-alone options.
The 2012 Camry's ultimate fully loaded price will doubtless range higher than today owing to newly offered extras like blind-spot monitoring, Toyota's Entune smartphone-connected data service, two grades of navigation and a JBL 10-speaker Green Edge premium audio system.
None of this will stop certain enthusiasts from scoffing at the 2012 Toyota Camry and its less-than-revolutionary suit of new clothes, but enthusiasts never sat square in Toyota's crosshairs to begin with. As ever, the Camry is aimed at the heart of the market where value, fuel economy, safety, quality and comfort reign supreme.
The new 2012 Toyota Camry and Camry Hybrid represent notable improvements on all of these fronts. From where we sit it seems likely that the proven Camry formula will yield yet another sales title when 2012 appears in the rearview mirror.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 Toyota Camry in WA is: