For as long as I have had awareness of the world around me, I have identified as a car enthusiast. Save for a brief period in the early 90’s, the Toyota Camry has been a car that gosh, I just can’t get that excited about. It’s an important car, so I’ve never stopped following along but I can’t remember a time that I’ve jumped at the chance to drive one.
That changed this year when I saw the new 2018 Camry in person at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. With all the buzz around Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda’s decree of ‘no more boring cars,’ I’ve eagerly awaited a chance to see firsthand if the Camry team got the memo.
Apart from the obvious attributes, like styling and performance, there are so many ways that a car can be boring! Bland interior finishes, cheapo switchgear, lazy driving position, lame sound systems, primitive connectivity--the list goes on. Car designers have so many opportunities to delight or disappoint their audience, it’s no wonder that mass market cars like the Camry have played it safe for so long. Toyoda’s intuition is on point, though: today’s buyer doesn’t just want transportation. They want to feel something.
It’s clear from a glance that the new Camry is not playing from the old playbook. Gone are the anonymous lines of the old car, and in their place is a shape with presence, with gravitas. My XLE Hybrid test car, from almost every angle, could be a Lexus. I say almost because the controversial front fascia looks like the inside of a baleen whale’s mouth. I can live with it though, because the rest of the car looks so good. As a designer, I appreciate when companies take risks, especially on high volume models. If you’re not offending a few people, chances are you’re not exciting anyone either. The sportier-looking SE and XSE trims have a nicer looking front end and very cool faux vents at the rear corners.
Toyota’s designers have done a particularly nice job on the XSE model, with its 19-inch alloy wheels, black contrast roof, and available red (!) leather interior. On the stand in Detroit, I was convinced I was looking at a concept car. Camry’s stylists clearly got the memo.
Inside, there’s more surprise and delight. The instrument panel is a gorgeous composition of curves, planes, and surface detailing. Every detail has been considered an opportunity for good design, and it shows. The controls are consolidated within a glossy asymmetrical shield that broadens toward the driver and sweeps out over the passenger’s knees with a subtle cove light to add depth and definition. There are knobs where there should be knobs and buttons where there should be buttons. With capacitive touch screens on the rise, some interiors are sacrificing ergonomics for high-tech fashion. The Camry proves that a modern interior can have buttons and still look futuristic.
Toyota’s Entune 3.0 infotainment system is fairly user-friendly, and responds promptly to driver input. The voice activation feature works perfectly; just speak the address naturally and you’re off. The system doesn’t support Apple Carplay or Android Auto, which are becoming ubiquitous. That may seem like a black mark, but I have used them in multiple cars and the truth is they both suck. With that little nugget of truth, basic Bluetooth connectivity is still the best option. SE and XLE models also feature a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad for smartphones.
Press the start button and in typical hybrid fashion, nothing happens. Search the dashboard for clues, and you’ll see that the Camry is indeed ready to shove off. Move the traditional sliding shift lever to “D”, and progress begins in total silence. The 88-kilowatt electric motor contributes 118 horsepower to the net system total of 208hp. Camry Hybrid SE and XLE models use a nickel-metal-hydride battery, while the base Hybrid LE model uses a lighter lithium-ion battery.
The Camry now features a selectable EV Mode, which allows the car to operate in all electric mode, provided sufficient battery charge, feathery throttle inputs, and speeds below 40 Km/h. Apply anything more than a breath of throttle, and the 2.5 litre Atkinson-cycle inline four wakes up to keep the battery from discharging itself.
Acceleration feels surprisingly brisk, especially given the standard Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). CVT’s are well known for dousing any spark of enjoyment a car may offer, but this one is actually quite good. The Hybrid Synergy Drive system pulls the 3,572lb Camry along with purpose. Give it the beans, and the electric motor provides a nice dose of torque, making the hybrid feel almost kinda fun.
Toyota also offers the Camry with 4-cylinder and V6 gas engines, sans electric motor. The 4-cylinder is the same engine as the Hybrid, albeit tuned for 203 horsepower to serve on its own. The top offering is the 3.5 litre V6, which pushes 301 horsepower. Both are connected to an 8-speed automatic transmission.
While my gearhead instincts draw me to the V6, for the obvious performance benefits and the additional available features, I’ve gotta say that the Camry to buy in 2018 is actually one of the hybrids. It’s just such a well-resolved system; truly an engineering marvel. Could you have imagined ten years ago that a car the size of this Camry could do its job while drinking only 5.3 litres of fuel every 100 kilometres? Perhaps even more surprising is that the Camry offers a V6 at all. The Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, and Mazda6 have all done away with their V6 offerings in the name of efficiency.
When it comes to equipment, Toyota keeps things simple in terms of available options. In fact, the only factory option you can select for your Camry is the colour. This poses a slight problem if your preferences straddle two different models. The only hybrid Camry that comes with navigation and a moonroof is the $40,990 Hybrid XLE, which unfortunately comes with the more conservative of the two styling packages. Toyota, sweetie, darling, come on! It’s 2018, a factory navigation system shouldn’t be limited to only the highest trim levels! Gripes aside, I think the Camry Hybrid SE in Ruby Flare Pearl paint is the winner in the Camry line. It looks legitimately cool, is lovely to drive, and at $33,990 it’s a lot of car for the money.
The latest Camry proves that Toyota is serious about making more exciting cars in every segment, even the traditionally boring ones. Though it may not be about hot-laps at the track, there's a lot to be excited about in a car this thoughtfully engineered. It’s sure to sell in huge numbers, and while it’s no scream machine, it should make enthusiasts sit up and pay attention to Toyota’s not-boring future.
Special thanks to Downtown Toyota in Toronto for providing my test car.