New Toyota Camry adds pizzazz, but
retains old virtues
By John Gilbert, special to SNS
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
But the 2007 Toyota Camry won’t make their challenge
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at email@example.com.