Fact: high school reunions make their attendees change their long-standing beliefs about their former classmates. Consider the quiet girl nobody noticed who turned into a beautiful woman when nobody was looking. That’s my first reaction to meeting the Toyota Camry SE on a fast sweeper. And while the inner-teenager never forgot the person from yesteryear, do Pistonheads need to give the rarely mentioned, often overlooked Camry SE another chance? Or do some things never change?
There’s good reason the Camry SE takes the lion’s share of bandwidth on Toyota’s website. But as vintage car collectors often say, this one’s a twenty-footer at best. From there, the studly ground effects, sleek fog lights and blacked out rear bumper give the mundane Camry a lower and wider (looking) stance. Walk any closer and its afterthought attachment methodology looks right at home in an APC catalog. Even with the subtle rear wing successfully muting the egregious Bangle Butt homage, the SE’s only bright spot is a deep dish, trapezoidal black out grille lifted from the last-gen Mustang. You can’t fix ugly.
But wait, there’s less! The SE takes the rightly-panned interior quality of the current Camry and tries to make amends. The revised Optitron gauge faces go from seriously silly to somewhat serious with the complementary silver interior accents surrounding the driver. While the SE’s unique seat covers have a touch more style, grip and comfort, the cabin’s real claim to fame is the tiller: a tasty three-spoke dish with a meaty (leather-wrapped) rim that’s perfect for what makes this option package so appealing.
But a Boxster it ain’t. Let’s be clear: this is the sedan of choice for many if not most Americans. Fine with me: there’s plenty of room for five, a decent stereo and all the trappings of modest modern sedans. And the Camry is the no-brainer choice for not-so-picky families. Which leads to the SE’s biggest downside: a rear strut-tower brace translates into a fixed rear seat.
While the ski-pass rear cubby is a smart concession from Toyota, the omission of the big black hole shall wrinkle customer’s noses. On the plus side, the bench’s back cushion feels better than the flat-chested affair of a mere Camry LE. More to the point, one turn out of the driveway makes cargo hauling a distant memory.
The extra cargo space is no big loss when Toyota makes a Camry that puts driver involvement in the driver’s seat. With their self-proclaimed “sport tuned” shocks, springs and extra body bracing, the SE carves and cuts with negligible body roll. The 3300lb body stays flat, and understeer comes fashionably late to the party. Yes, really.
Combined with standard 17” wheels, even the SE’s (supposedly unchanged) steering feels ideally weighted and more accurate than its LE brother. Going with the refined body motions, braking is more controlled and distinctly easy on nose dive. To say this model moves better than other Camry’s is disingenuous; the SE could be the best handling family sedan in the country.
If you’re thinking the Camry SE builds upon the solid foundation of the base model, the powertrain won’t disappoint. Sure, there’s a rev-happy V6 in the options list. But with the fuel economy penalty, extra cost, and interference with the SE’s delightful dynamics, the 158 horse four-cylinder mill is a smarter choice. Only the most determined leadfoot misses the extra grunt around town, though highway passing is a chore even with a nicely matched automatic doing a fine job swapping between five cogs. Ah, the things we do to avoid mid-corner torque steer.
And with every give, there’s another take. The Camry’s trademark float and wallow go back to the Brougham from whence they came. Even with a rock-solid chassis, the ride is distinctly Germanic in demeanor, thumping on pavement joints and crashing through potholes. If the Camry’s perceived dynamic qualities were a brand unto itself, there’d be a Farago-esque rant about sending the SE to detention for its poor behavior. Maybe that’s why I rarely see the SE prowling the streets, hungry for pavement and recognition.
And let’s face it; brand loyalty is a quality ToMoCo has by the metric ton. Add the Camry’s requisite blend of bland styling and (Buick) Park Avenue dynamics and you have the most obvious formula for success since the Yalta Conference. If the unique tuning of the Camry SE met its maker in Toyota’s current financial predicament, would anyone notice?
Our readers know there’s a Pistonhead slant to every review in our portfolio, and the Camry SE is four doors of “pleasant surprise” in a place we’d never expect. Hell, it’s a sleeper of the highest order with a good driver. So if a Pistonhead is forced (by familial relations or otherwise) into America’s best selling car, take the cake that’s both available and edible.