During his first inaugural speech, given at the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Once again, Americans find themselves living through days of economic infamy. Uncertain times and erratic energy costs have cured fearing suburbanites of their predilection for gargantuan SUVs. It’s time for practical pragmatism; inexpensive family haulers that dine lightly on 85 octane and stay firmly bolted together for years to come. To fully understand this segment, I tested and compared a quartet of economy sedans. First up: the Toyota Camry.
As fear-fearing Americans fretted over the possibility of $200 per barrel oil, the Camry surpassed the venerable Ford F150 as the national best seller. The Camry is synonymous with reliability: a veritable rolling appliance. The Camry is now the benchmark against which all others are measured. The mid-sized market is crowded with more models than is practical to test at one time. Of course the Honda Accord LX, also a sales leader with significant mindshare for affordable quality, had to be included. To round out the field I chose Toyota and Honda’s leading home country competition, Mazda Mazda6 Sport and Nissan Altima 2.5.
In keeping with the economy theme, I opted for entry level four-cylinder, front wheel-drive models with base option packages. The four cars are remarkably similar in size, capacities, fuel economy, power, options and price. Drawing distinctions between the sedans largely fell to subjective styling taste and driving impressions. Before I delve too deeply, I suppose it’s proper for me to disclaim that I’ve owned three Toyota Camrys and currently drive an aging Accord LX. As you will see, this didn’t necessarily help either of these cars in this comparison.
The success of the Camry franchise is indisputable. What’s even more remarkable: with the possible exception of the first generation, on the aesthetics scale Camry looks have ranged from dull to homely. I guess that shows what a reputation of practical reliability can do for you.
The current model, with us since March 2006, is the ugliest-ever iteration. What Adrian van Hooydonk did for trunk lids, Toyota’s designers have done to Camry’s front end (pray that the automobile industry doesn’t follow suit). The Camry’s hood and grille are formed into an unsightly bulge in the center, as if an Alien baby were about to emerge. Or, if you prefer, it’s straight from E!’s “Rhinoplasty gone wrong!” series.
The Camry’s countenance looks like it was inspired by a Sperm whale’s brow. It prompts the sardonic critic to ask, is that a 12-cylinder under your bonnet or are you just happy to see me? Camry’s Bangalized hind quarters are nearly as unsightly as the front. In profile the Camry looks like a cooked Ball Park Frank®.
What a relief to get behind the wheel, where occupants are greeted by purposeful class-compliant gauges and switches. HVAC knobs turn with all the firm assurance of dials on a safe. Otherwise, the components are largely made from weight (and money) saving hard plastics that are a qualitative step down from Camry’s of yore.
Let’s face it, none of these 3300 lbs cars with economical four cylinder power plants are gonna set your hair on fire when your inner hoon gets feeling a little randy. Among these weaklings, Camry is the wimpiest by 12 hp. Yet mom and dad will happily shuttle young’uns from home and school to football practice and dance lessons. Stoplight to stoplight dashes from zero to forty and back to zero are what this 158 hp 2.4-liter engine does best.
Just don’t count on getting out from behind a slow-moving semi on a two lane highway without your heart rate going anaerobic. The move from fifty to eighty mph is almost as slow as waiting for a Dancing with the Stars verdict.
Flop and wallow. The Camry’s handling dynamics in a nutshell. Driven hard, the Camry gets your blood pumping; again for all of the wrong reasons. Through twists and turns the Toyota pitches and rolls with a distinctly nautical flavor. In every respect, the Camry, which lacks so much as a hand brake, is the least driver’s-oriented car of the bunch. BUT this is a superb passenger’s car. Its refined, glossy-smooth ride outclasses its mid-sized competitors. Horrendous county roads are quietly dispatched with limousine luxury worthy of its Lexus-badged siblings.
Comfort-oriented buyers might find Camry’s ride sufficient cause to overlook its visual and performance shortcomings. For me, it’s not nearly enough.