Despite Toyota’s “when does a car become more than a car” zenvertising, Camry folk treat their rides like a household appliance: use, admire occasionally, forget. For the 2007 model year, America's favorite four-wheeled conveyance has become… a stylish appliance. That said, the new Toyota Camry is no Sub-Zero ‘fridge or Dyson upright. For all its extensive improvements, the model has sacrificed much of its traditional depth of character on the altar of style and profit. In fact, the new Camry raises an important question: has the perennial mid-size sales champ finally let down its guard?
Our inquiry starts with the sheetmetal. The automobile that once defined mid-market inoffensiveness now pays lip service to high priced sports sedan standards– like Kenny G dorking-up a John Coltrane classic. The Camry’s new schnoz says Mazda 6- albeit an older, overweight version with multiple neoplastic lesions. The Camry’s back end is pure BMW-Bangle– though Chris and Co. wisely treated their over-sized taillights to high dose design-studio chemotherapy, and Toyota didn’t. On the positive side, 16" rims hide the Camry's added height, and its cab-forward stance speeds up the biggie-sized silhouette.
The grandiosity continues within. The Camry’s once frumpy interior now sports a spizzarkle of curves, two-tone plastics, fake aluminum and premium cloth trimmings. (Quasi-brougham velour front seats mock Recaro's finest.) At first sight, the hard plastics seem tucked away. Look a little closer, feel around a bit, and the quality subsides. The passenger side dash and window switchgear flaunt inconsistent, Hyundai Excel-ish gaps. The dash-to-console trim needs a good automotive orthodontist. The petro-chemicals’ unyielding character speaks of factories even GM would fear to frequent. Rounding out the Camry LE’s shit list: chintzy door handles attached to tin-can portals that shut with all the reassurance of an Enron 401k.
All is not lost; the Camry’s interior comes with the model’s hallmark (velvet-flocked) coin tray and a trick dashboard storage binnacle. The cargo hole offers an MP3 connection and a false wall to hide the associated wiring while in play. The Camry’s wheel-mounted buttonology is welcome, but gives mixed messages. The left side implies "you're stupid" (with four words to describe a single button) while the right proclaims "you're cheap" (with a non-functional plastic plug). The trunk is a marvel of packaging efficiency; complete with built-in bottle holder, easy close deck lid, embroidered trunk mat and convenient seat release pull knobs.
A quick drive confirms the Camry as a complete killjoy. Although Toyota’s engineers have stiffened the chassis and placed MacPherson struts and gas shocks all ‘round, push the Camry LE into a corner and it shoves back. Excessive body roll, copious understeer and numb steering give the model all the dynamic appeal of a Stannah Chair Lift. Grippy V-rated rubber notwithstanding, lose adhesion and there's no turning back (or forth). If you like a lick of speed, it’s best to order the optional stability control; the Camry LE is only an emergency maneuver away from sudden impact.
While this whip has no road-hugging flava, the ride is supa-smooth. Potholes, speed bumps and rough pavement are no match for this softly sprung baby-Lexus. The power stats seem fairly dire: 158 horses @ 6000 rpm and 161 ft.-lbs. @ 4000rpm. But thanks to its VVT-I engineering and crisp, wide-ratio five-speed automatic, the Camry’s standard 2.4-liter four-pot serves-up surprising amounts of grunt throughout the powerband, with minimal noise and thrash. A leggy top gear makes highway cruising a thoroughly effortless exercise. Even without considering the Camry’s admirable fuel economy, its power train is more than merely adequate for all but the [displaced] performance junky.
If the Camry’s moves fail to entertain, the jukebox-themed stereo illumination (Miami Vice turquoise) gets the party started. Drag racing dB freaks take note: the JBL Audio system pounds out 40-acres of bass, with enough mids and highs to impress all but an IASCA fiend. The JBL-sourced goodness illuminates the Camry's single largest flaw. While the woofers put out like a drug-hazed orgy, they vibrate the rear package tray with gay abandon. But that's not all folks. On uneven pavement, our test whip produced a deep-seated dash squeak only remedied by the stereo's extra wattage. Keep in mind, this hallmark of Toyota quality had all of 3000 miles on its odometer.
Given the current mechanical problems with the Avalon, massive worldwide recalls and our tester's quality shortcomings, the question must be raised: is Toyota cutting too many corners? For over a decade the Camry LE consistently provided the American consumer the four-wheeled equivalent of the FDIC. Now that a Ford Fusion SE offers tighter panel gaps, unique style, strong V6 power and uber accident-avoidance adhesion for the same 24-large; now that Hyundai’s in the hunt, Toyota's breadwinner may no longer have a "lock" on the high quality, high value sedan market.
[Toyota provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]