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NEW CAR REVIEW
New Toyota Camry adds pizzazz, but retains old virtues
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

CHICAGO (SNS) – If you are a car manufacturer, and you build the top-selling car in the United States for seven of the last eight years, how do you approach building the all-new replacement for that car?

Carefully. Very carefully.

   

In a word, "careful" might best describe the Toyota Camry, regardless of whether you mean the one that carried Toyota’s nameplate to the No. 1 slot, the one that boosted sales to hold the No. 1 slot, or the entirely new sixth-generation 2007 model that was introduced at last week’s Chicago Auto Show, and which will go on sale this spring all across the country.

That made the Chicago Auto Show enormous for Toyota. The Camry is impressive by itself, but the rest of Toyota’s 2007 arsenal includes the outstanding new FJ Cruiser SUV, and, a worldwide introduction of the new Tundra pickup, which is expanded from the original to challenge the biggest of the full-size Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge or Nissan pickups, and the new Yaris, a more compact compact than the venerable Corolla.

The Tundra was arguably the most impressive vehicle at the Chicago show to me, but that’s only because I already had been able to get a preliminary test drive of both the FJ Cruiser and the Camry, on a trip to Greenville, S.C.

The Camry may be a careful car, for families who value the basic fundamentals of car-ownership – efficient and cost-efficient family transportation, with style, comfort, and legendary dependability – but it has been criticized for being so careful that it is almost boring.

In a good way, of course.

There are no surprises with a Camry, and if it backs off a little from cutting-edge performance, making all its compromises toward the center, it is a criticism that hasn’t bothered the masses.

  For 2007, the Camry is less careful, if that works. The styling takes an upturn, with a nose that slopes only so far, then takes an abrupt downturn, to a grille that has an enlarged Toyota emblem that takes up much of the upper center area of the trapezoidal grille. The rear is sleek and comes together stylishly.

Go back to 1983, when the first Camry sold 52,651 models, to 2004, when 424,803 Camrys were gobbled up by an appreciative populace. Overall, 6.5 million Camrys have been sold in the U.S. through its first five generations, and 10 million altogether, in 104 different countries.

In its never-ending duel with the Honda Accord, Camry finished its current run with 458,000 2005 models, and the new car should boost calendar-year 2006 sales.

Larger and roomier than its predecessor, the new Camry takes a technological leap forward with five models, including a well-planned hybrid version that could cause Honda to rehink its Accord Hybrid.

Toyota is taking great pains to inform everyone that the new Camry is more emotional, more passionate, than it used to be. That’s an interesting ploy, but it’s a lot like a hockey player choosing to tell his coach that he’s hustling, when it remains up to the coach – and the teammates and fans – to determine that.

Without question, though, the new Camry is more performance-oriented and more fun to drive than Camrys have been known for. To give the North American media the chance to experience the car, Toyota brought us to Greenville, S.C., and let us drive on Virginia International Raceway, a neat, and fast, road-racing circuit.

I went right for the sportiest model, the SE, and found it could be shot around the race track quite well, with fairly firm, but not quite stiff, handling and cornering, and good steering response, as well as good acceleration from the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, which also has 248 foot-pounds of torque.

That engine, which also serves duty in the RAV 4 and Avalon, has variable valve-timing on both intake and exhaust valves of the 24-valve powerplant.

The six-speed automatic transmission has a manual gate for those who want to shift for themselves, but if you leave it in drive, it will hold the revs higher, and will even downshift, as a computer tries to gauge shift points according to how you’re driving.

The basic four-cylinder also has four-valves per cylinder and dual overhead camshafts, with a five-speed automatic, but no sport-shifter. That engine is standard in the base CE, which Toyota projects will account for 5 percent of sales. The mainstream LE, with more features, of course, will account for 60 percent.  

The SE sporty version should take 10 percent, and the luxury XLE is expected to account for 17 percent. That leaves 8 percent, and Toyota chalks them up as Camry Hybrid buyers.

The hybrid, with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, uses the 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which gives Toyota a large edge in the duel with Honda, because the Accord Hybrid uses the V6 instead of Honda’s excellent VTEC four, because Honda wanted to prove it could make a more powerful sedan, above the high-mileage Insight and Civic.

The result is that the Accord Hybrid shows 40 miles per gallon on EPA estimates, but gets closer to 30 in real-world driving.

The Camry Hybrid shows EPA estimates of 43 city, 43 highway, and 40 mpg combined. Curious, that is, because if you get 43 city and 43 highway, shouldn’t your combined city-highway be right in there at 43? Ah, well, that’s why its past-due time for the EPA to change its evaluation system to more closely resemble real-world driving.

The point is, a four with an electric combined motor will get more power than the four alone, and better fuel economy. Toyota uses an Atkinson Cycle treatment on its 2.4-liter four, which allows it to elongate its firing timing for more thorough fuel burning, and reaches 147 horsepower on its own.

Coupled with the 47-horsepower equivalent electric motor that recharges off regenerative braking and the gas engine, the Camry Hybrid shows 192 combined horsepower, and has 8.9-second 0-60 times.

When we were at the race track, and I had driven the XLE, SE and LE models, I finally got a chance to get behind the wheel of the Hybrid. A colleague was on the track about a fourth of the way around the road course when they let me out in the Hybrid.

I wanted to see how hard I could push the Hybrid, and see if I could get within sight of the Camry ahead just to compare our paces, but remarkably, I overtook my friend in one lap.

I actually slowed down in order to avoid embarrassing him for being caught by the hybrid.

The new Camry uses more high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel in the construction, with an ever-expanding eye on vehicle safety. Wheelbase has been lengthened more than two inches while overall length stays the same. Stock wheels are 16 inch, with the sporty SE getting 17-inchers.

Toyota says it anticipates the SE will attract some younger buyers, and the new car could lower Camry’s average age buyer from 55 to 53. Or so.

The look of the new Camry is interesting. I think it looks good, but I’m not thrilled with the beak. To me, enlarging the Toyota emblem at the top center of the grille looks like the Camry is trying to copy the Mazda6 a little. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but otherwise, I like the looks of the car.

It is comfortable, with a well-laid out and impressive interior, boasting good ergonomics and attractive features. But is it more passionate? More emotional? I wouldn’t call it a breakthrough in that regard, although the SE is more fun to drive by a twitch. But in reality, it doesn’t matter.

For an entire generation of U.S. car-buyers, the family car best remembered from youth is a Camry or an Accord, more than a Chevy or Ford.

For 2006 and 2007, Ford is making some major strides toward recapturing some market share, and Chevrolet is talking as if it plans to do the same, weaning itself away from dependence on truck sales.

But the 2007 Toyota Camry won’t make their challenge any easier.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.