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2018 Toyota Camry First Drive

A Better Camry in Every Possible Way

For well over two decades, the Toyota Camry has been the dependable no-brainer pick among midsize family sedans. Many millions have been sold, and it has been the top-selling car in the U.S. the last 15 years running. If our recent drive is any indication, the fully redesigned 2018 Toyota Camry looks set to extend that streak.

That's because while the new 2018 edition does everything current Camry buyers expect, it also uses significantly less fuel and comes standard with active safety features such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking. But that's the sort of thing that's expected when a new Camry comes out. The 2018 Camry goes even further thanks to significant changes that give it an appealing personality and a broader range of performance.

Yes, we just used two P-words not normally associated with a Camry, and with a straight face.

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2018 Toyota Camry

A Striking New Stance
The new Camry hints at its personality and performance from a dozen yards away, with proportions that benefit greatly from the longer, lower, wider treatment. Its roof and hoodline are a full inch lower, it stands 0.7 inch wider and, depending on the specific model, it's anywhere between 1.2 and 1.9 inches longer. But the new look is anything but nose- or tail-heavy because the wheelbase has also been stretched a full 1.9 inches.

The design's newfound sleekness is further enhanced by a distinctly lower window line and handsome sheet metal that features a defined crease that knifes through the door handles. Camry L models (L, LE and XLE) wear a more intricate front end than the sportier-looking S models (SE and XSE), which also feature more prominent side skirts.

2018 Toyota Camry

Upgraded Suspension for a Smoother Ride
None of this would ring true if the chassis couldn't deliver the goods, and here the Camry benefits from what's called Toyota Global New Architecture (TGNA), a collection of tweaks that include a much-needed rear suspension rethink. A visiting Toyota engineer termed it a "trailing type double-wishbone" rear suspension, but a quick peek underneath revealed the presence of exactly zero wishbones.

This lost-in-translation discrepancy is no bad thing, however. In fact it's a multilink setup that approximates double-wishbone geometry, but in a more compact package that doesn't impinge on trunk or passenger space. And that's how this new low-slung Camry retains much of the trunk volume of its bulkier predecessor (15.1 cubic feet, down only slightly from 15.4). It's also how the hybrid version's battery can now fit between the wheels under the rear seat to ensure its trunk is every bit as large, with a fully intact 60/40 pass-through.

As before, the new Camry rides smoothly and soaks up uneven pavement with relative ease. But this new suspension is even better at quelling road noise, and you'd be surprised how much a car's steering and handling can benefit from a well-designed rear suspension that plays along with the front. The recently redesigned Prius demonstrated it, and this Camry seconds the motion with a balanced and poised demeanor it has never managed before.

Even the LE and its relatively skinny 215/55R17 tires turn in crisply and carve a steady line through corners. But things get really interesting at the SE trim level thanks to its thicker stabilizer bars, wider 235/45R18 tires, and a slightly firmer suspension and steering calibration. The XLE falls somewhere in between with 18-inch wheels bolted to the LE suspension, while the XSE adds 19-inch wheels to the SE calibration.

2018 Toyota Camry

Potent Engines That Remain Fuel-Efficient
As before, the 2018 Camry offers two conventional gasoline engines, both of them substantially more powerful and fuel-efficient than last year. And Toyota has managed this without resorting to downsized turbocharged engines or continuously variable automatic transmissions. At first glance the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 3.5-liter V6 engines look familiar, but these are significantly redesigned units with a higher compression ratio, Toyota's D4S port-and-direct fuel injection and more capable variable valve timing systems. Both are paired with a new eight-speed automatic transmission.

Toyota expects between 85 and 90 percent of Camry buyers will stick with the base engine, which is fine by us because it now makes 203 horsepower, a full 25 more horses than before. But that's not its only trick. It's also rated at 32 mpg combined (28 city/39 highway), a whopping improvement of 5 mpg. In the new lightweight Camry L model (16-inch wheels, smaller gas tank, manual driver seat, fixed rear seat), it outperforms many compacts with a rating of 34 mpg combined (29 city/41 highway).

No more than 5 or 6 percent of Camry buyers are expected to seek out the 3.5-liter V6 engine, available only on the top-level XSE and XLE models. It can now deliver an impressive 301 hp (up from 268 hp) or sip fuel to the tune of 26 mpg combined (22 city/33 highway). As you would expect, the V6 obviously feels more powerful and it sounds quite refined under load.

We found no compelling reason to upgrade from the willing four-cylinder, which demonstrated a sufficiently meaty powerband. If anything, the smaller engine seemed better matched to the smooth-shifting eight-speed gearbox, which cruised serenely yet showed little reluctance to downshift when it was time to accelerate, even moderately. Beyond power and drivability, the four-cylinder Camry even changed direction more readily and generally felt more nimble. A look at the weight charts reveals the likely reason why: V6 versions weigh almost 200 pounds more, and a good chunk of that hangs over the front tires.

2018 Toyota Camry

A Much Better Hybrid
Previous editions of the Camry hybrid weren't that impressive, mainly because even the thriftiest LE version was only good for 40 mpg combined (42 city/38 highway). The popular SE and XLE versions hardly seemed worth the effort at 38 mpg combined (40 city/37 highway).

It's a very different story today. The Camry's entire hybrid system has been thoroughly re-engineered. The result is an 8-mpg boost for the 2018 Camry hybrid SE and XLE, which now achieve 46 mpg combined (44 city/47 highway). The thriftier LE grade is practically a Prius at a whopping 52 mpg combined (53 city/51 highway), a staggering 12-mpg increase over last year.

The layout of the hybrid transmission uses a new "low-loss" configuration that's efficient enough to allow the primary electric motor to be downsized from 141 to 118 hp. And the hybrid-optimized version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine is considerably less thirsty while it manages to make 20 more horsepower than before. Complicated math describes how the two are blended in the electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission, but when you need to floor it the end result is a maximum combined output of 208 hp, an 8-hp improvement.

The LE is so much thriftier because it's nearly 100 pounds lighter. Also, it uses a lighter and more energy-efficient lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack. The SE and XLE hybrids use a nickel-metal hydride (Ni-mh) battery. The benefit here is lower battery cost, which tamps down the price of these more loaded versions. But don't buy any Camry hybrid to save money in the long run. At current national average gasoline prices ($2.29 per gallon), the payback time for the hybrid price premium ranges between nine years for the LE and 13 years for the SE.

2018 Toyota Camry

Upgraded Interior
Inside, the seating position has been moved down in step with the roof to maintain good headroom. There's a bit more front legroom and the telescopic steering wheel finally has enough range of motion to satisfy even our taller test drivers. Clear gauges are visible through the steering wheel, and the seats have a seamless and enveloping feel that lacks obvious pressure points. The back seat feels quite spacious, too, but tall rear occupants will be more headroom-happy with the regular moonroof than the new high-end panoramic one.

The most noticeable feature is the eye-catching design of the driver-oriented interior itself. The joints between its various component parts are nicely hidden within the lines, and it's built with nice-looking materials that hold up to closer scrutiny. The attractive backdrop presents the driver with an array of nicely grouped controls that are as easy to use as they are attractive.

On the safety front you'll find 10 standard airbags, a backup camera, stability control, traction control, antilock brakes and a tire-pressure monitoring system that displays each tire's pressure and location. But the most impressive safety feature on this new Camry has to be the standard inclusion of the Toyota Safety Sense-P, which means that even the cheapest 2018 Camry will have adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning and mitigation, and auto-dimming LED headlights.

2018 Toyota Camry

Audio Uh-Oh
The base-level audio system is a six-speaker AM/FM system with a 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth audio, a USB input, an aux jack and Siri Eyes Free/Google voice controls. But we like the optional nine-speaker system with the 8-inch touchscreen because it adds a CD player, HD radio, satellite radio and a Verizon Wi-Fi hotspot.

But there's a slight problem with Toyota's basic approach to phone integration and navigation. It rejects the notion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on the basis that they allow too much driver interaction while the car is moving. On top of that, built-in navigation is only offered as an option on the V6 models, which means it's not likely to appear on many Camrys you'll come across. The vast majority of Camry buyers are expected to get their navigation by linking to the Entune 3.0 system and the Scout GPS Link app, which now supports moving maps.

Thing is, it's cumbersome to use because it requires you to pair your phone via Bluetooth, plug it in via the USB port, run the Entune app and then run the Scout GPS Link app, which requires an account and an eventual subscription after the three-year trial period ends. And the system cannot distinguish between a driver's phone and a passenger's. Seems to us that this Rube Goldberg approach may have the opposite effect and encourage people to use the navigation on their phones outside the Entune paradigm in a way that could be more distracting than Apple CarPlay or Android Auto would ever be.

2018 Toyota Camry

Reasonably Priced to Start
The fuel-sipping L starts the ball rolling at $24,380, with the popular LE coming in at $24,885. That's $930 more than last year, but the old car didn't have the active safety gear, not to mention the extra power, fuel economy, chassis sophistication and outright appeal of the new one. The SE, our personal favorite, debuts at $26,085.

You'll pay $28,685 for an LE hybrid, and at $33,135 the XLE hybrid costs some $2,000 dollars less than its XLE V6 counterpart, which goes for $35,285. But that's not the most expensive Camry. That distinction belongs to the XSE V6, which goes for $35,835.

Option prices have not been released, but LE and SE choices include the aforementioned audio upgrade, a power tilt-slide moonroof, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and push-button start. Higher-level XSE and XLE options include JBL premium audio, the panoramic moonroof, a head-up display, a bird's-eye view camera system, a blacked-out roof and, if you get the V6, built-in navigation with over-the-air updates.

Our First Drive experience was admittedly brief, but the 2018 Toyota Camry nevertheless spoke volumes. It had us grinning like a Camry never has. We're looking forward to an extended drive and a full workup on home turf in the coming weeks, but we fully expect to reaffirm our initial conclusion that it's easily the best Camry ever.

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