By on August 26, 2011

Most driving enthusiasts have written off the entire Camry line as the poster child for dull driving appliances. But those who overcame their prejudices and took the 2007-2011 Camry SE for a spin discovered surprisingly firm suspension tuning and, with the V6, a smooth, powerful engine. The most courageous even tried to spread the word. Encountering an anti-Camry diatribe, they’d respond, “But what about the SE?” For 2012 there’s a new Camry. An earlier review covered the overall changes and specifically the non-sport, non-hybrid variants. And the SE?


The Camry SE once again receives a bespoke exterior. For 2012 the side skirts are less aggressive, but the front fascia is more so. Especially welcome: the regular Camry’s chrome grille is given the heave ho. The four-cylinder’s five-spoke alloys appear a little undersized. The V6’s racier 18s more completely fill the wheel openings and look better in person than in photos. Overall the tweaks make the SE a more attractive Camry (such things being relative—little lust is likely to be incited), but I continue prefer the more complex (if also more commonly criticized) curves of the 2011.


With most Camry interiors, there’s a choice between beige and gray. In contrast, the SE’s interior continues to be offered only in the coolest or hottest of hues (depending on whether we’re speaking figuratively or literally): black. (Waiting for red, or even brown? Keep waiting.) With the 2007-2011 Camry, the dark shade helped obscure the poverty of the interior plastics. While this is less necessary with the 2012, the effect remains welcome. But the #1 reason to opt for the SE trim: the front seats. For 2012 the regular Camry’s buckets have been stripped of anything resembling lateral support. The SE’s seats have much larger, more closely-spaced side bolsters that comfortably and effectively cup one’s lower torso. A power-lumbar adjustment is standard, avoiding the lack of lower back support in the LE. Missed: rear air vents are available only in the XLE. Happily not missed: unlike last year, the rear seat folds to expand the trunk in the SE. Apparently they felt that the revised body was stiff enough without adding additional bracing.

The 178-horsepower four-cylinder engine does a decent job of motivating the Camry. But the sounds it makes don’t encourage frequent exercise, so it’s a poor fit for the intended character of the SE. I was only able to spend a few minutes with the sweet 268-horsepower V6, and intend to more completely review it once I can get one for a week, but for enthusiasts it’s clearly the way to go. Though unchanged since 2007, the V6 continues to match competitors with its effortless power and surpass them (and especially the Hyundai turbocharged four) in terms of sound and feel. Compared to the 2011, the SE V6’s curb weight is down 63 pounds (to 3,420) but the final drive ratio is a little taller, so acceleration remains about the same.

Fuel economy is up, especially with the four, which now leads the segment with EPA ratings of 25 MPG city, 35 highway. The V6’s 21/30 can’t quite match the Sonata 2.0T’s 22/34.

A funny thing has happened with the suspension tuning. For 2012, the regular Camrys receive slightly firmer suspension tuning and improved suspension geometry, so they handle with considerably more precision and control than before. At the same time, the SE’s suspension has been softened relative to the 2007 SE’s (the last year I drove one). As a result, the sport model’s ride is no longer borderline harsh, but its handling, while marginally more taut than the regular Camry’s and similarly more precise than the previous generation SE’s, is a less dramatic step up. With both ride and handling, most of the difference comes from the tires. Compared to the regular Camry’s Michelin Energy rubber, the SE’s Michelin Primacy tires (17s with the four, 18s with the V6) clomp more loudly and firmly over tar strips while sticking much better and with less fuss in hard turns. Even with the performance treads the Camry and I didn’t quite meld.

Engine choice makes a big difference. The V6 adds 180 pounds, all of them in the nose, and you feel every one of them in the heavier (but at least equally mute) steering. This difference is a mixed blessing. The SE V6 feels more solid and jiggles less, but it also feels heavier and less agile. As with all 2012 Camrys, the silky low-speed feel that has distinguished the line for the last two decades is much less in evidence, apparently a victim of the pursuit of higher EPA numbers, better handling, or lower costs.

Overall, the 2012 Toyota Camry SE is a better car than the 2011. The interior is much improved, body motions are better controlled, and fuel economy (Toyota’s primary focus with the redesign) has improved. But, as with the regular Camry, some chassis refinement has been given up. The biggest problem, though, concerns the cars’ character. The four-cylinder SE goes about its work with admirable precision and control, but feels soulless. Add in the buzzy four, and the car just isn’t involving. The V6 adds a healthy dollop of thrills, but in my brief drive its additional mass seemed to dull the car’s handling. Though handling is generally my top priority, if I had to have a Camry (and no other car) the SE V6 would be an easy choice. I’d recommend the same choice to non-enthusiasts not interested in the hybrid for the SE’s more cosseting seats alone.

But no one has to have a Camry. Even with its more dramatic suspension tuning, the 2007-2011 SE failed to break through most enthusiasts’ prima facie rejection of the Camry. With its less overtly sporting character, the 2012 is unlikely to do better. Toyota should not be surprised by this rejection. We were told about their active participation in NASCAR, which this year includes the Daytona pace car (which was brought to the Camry launch event). But, as Volvo has also discovered, if you build a brand around practical concerns (in its case safety) it’s very difficult to then market performance-oriented variants. Toyota primarily pitches the Camry as a safe, dependable, economical, “worry-free” appliance. To then turn around and sponsor fuel-guzzling, maintenance-intensive, potentially deadly race cars will, at best, have little impact. At worst, car buyers could become confused and wonder what Toyota and its best-selling model are really about.

Toyota provided fueled and insured cars along with a light lunch at a press event.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online provide of car reliability and fuel economy information.

 

 

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52 Comments on “Review: 2012 Toyota Camry SE...”


  • avatar
    Jellodyne

    Looks a little less like a melted marshmellow, epecially on the new chromeless front end, which I actually think looks pretty good.

  • avatar
    mjz

    That lower lip that juts out too far on the front bumper is gonna look really crappy after Granny smashes it repeatedly on parking curbs. The Russian version with it’s tucked in lower front and rear bumper looks better.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Let this be a lesson to all you out there who complained about the previous version’s styling being boring. NOW you’ve got boring!! To me this looks like an upsized Kia Forte. The previous body, with its ‘step’ on the rear deck to the quarter panels, was distinctive enough to make a Camry immediately recognizable. This looks like everything and anything.

    The only more generic styling I can think of was the Ford Five Hundred, which looked like they used the schematic drawings in the DMV driver’s manual as a model.

    • 0 avatar

      Good one! Thought it, but failed to write it. I kind of liked the previous SE in blue.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      From some angles, it looks like the previous generation Mazda 6. Not a bad thing if you ask me. Outside of the unusual tailights, I’m liking the look of the Camry this time around.

      • 0 avatar
        dolorean

        Well, they’re just trying to sell to their market. People who buy cars because they think that their friends and neighbors will think they’re savvy and hip and its a Toyota. In other words, boring people.

        To truly make this an interesting car again Toyota, bring back the Camry of the ’80′s with the hatchback and the 5 speed that loved to rev high.

  • avatar
    tced2

    re:NASCAR
    All the racing cars are the same with different decals to make them a Ford, Chevy, Toyota etc. Now the pace car may be a real Camry but I am not impressed with the “win the race on Sunday, sell cars on Monday” marketing approach.

    • 0 avatar

      The pace car is a real Camry, but I’ve never grasped the payoff from purchasing the honor.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        Maybe it impresses children. As a kid, I thought the 1978 Corvette Pace Car that I’d occasionally see on the street was pretty cool. A full sized Hot Wheels car! If someone plastered a 1978 Malibu with authentic-looking pace car graphics, I’d probably have assumed that means it’s fast.

        Kind of funny that a V6 Camry is faster than that Corvette Pace Car.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Engine choice makes a big difference. The V6 adds 180 pounds, all of them in the noise sic – [nose], and you feel every one of them in the heavier (if no more communicative) steering. This difference is a mixed blessing. The SE V6 feels more solid and jiggles less, but it also feels heavier and less agile.

    This is the third review I’ve read with this identical observation. The V6 is nose heavy and handling suffers. If I read it once – ehhh. Read it twice, hmmm. Read it three times on three different sites and there must be a problem.

    Oh, and put me in the camp that says the Camry ain’t no sports sedan in any flavor.

    • 0 avatar

      Ouch–gave the review a noise job.

      If memory serves the same was said about the previous two generations. But I’ve never driven the four and V6 back-to-back before, so I’ve never personally observed it until now. A shame, as the V6 is a sweet engine.

      The same effect is present in plenty of other cars, including the new Passat. Just one more reason rear-wheel-drive is better for more powerful cars.

    • 0 avatar
      tced2

      I’ve wondered about the engineering compromises with making a car that can accommodate an I-4 and a V-6. If it’s big enough to hold the V-6 then there’s extra room for the I-4. And that distance can affect the handling. At best, the car has to be bigger to accommodate the V-6.

      • 0 avatar

        The extra room for the larger engine doesn’t add much weight. If you compare the curb weights of sedans available in extended wheelbase form, you’ll find that a few more inches of empty body don’t add much. Space efficiency might take a larger hit.

    • 0 avatar
      PlentyofCars

      I came to that same conclusion with the previous version. Liked the V6 power better; but felt the 4cyl handled better. The heavy nose in the V6 was very apparent to me.

      I think Camry is really designed as a 4cyl economy car. The V6 is a modification.

      For a proper balanced V6, you need the Lexus ES.

      So who is for a ES350-SE ??

    • 0 avatar
      rck

      I have a 2011 Camry SE V6. I like everything about the car except the steering. At any speed you would swear there’s a big block in it, with a snow plow hanging off the front, with flat front tires and a sagging old F150 front suspension. It just pulls wherever it wants. OK, I exaggerate but it’s noticeably stubborn to steer and it’s the only reason I would give it back at lease end. Found this article while searching for Camry doesn’t steer.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Toyota took absolutely no risks in designing this car, because they know that’s the same kind of buyer who will like it – the kind that only makes sure CR gives it all red dots for reliability.

    Seems there’s almost nothing new about it, and I wonder why they even bothered to update it.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      “Seems there’s almost nothing new about it”

      I’m not sure I see that. The suspension and steering have been changed, which seems to have altered the way it drives. The interior is completely new. Better gas mileage. The four cylinder and benchmark V6 didn’t need updating. And I don’t really buy that “the only people who drive this thing are brand-loyal automatons” argument. Sure, people are dumb, but that many people usually aren’t that dumb for that long.

      • 0 avatar

        The new car drives much differently than the old one. Better in some ways, not as good in others. The electric steering doesn’t help, but this is a weakness that extends well beyond the Camry. More than anything people seem disappointed with the new “styling.”

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    The SE Camry always seems like such an appealing concept. The refinement, quality, and reliability of a Camry with sharp reflexes? Sign me up! But this is the third iteration, and none have quite hit the mark. Something’s always off.

    If the SE didn’t require such a price premium, I would be very tempted, especially in V6 form. But you can get an Altima, 6, or Kizashi that drives well with their standard suspension and steering setups. So why pay extra for the Camry?

    Michael, does this SE still have the structural brace that keeps the backseats from folding down?

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent question, I’d forgotten about this limitation of the previous SE. Answer is no. If you look at the trunk photo above you’ll see two pull knobs for folding the seatbacks. I’ll add a sentence or two to the review.

      I do expect the new car will be reliable, though there could always be first-year glitches. Back in 2007 the then-new six-speed automatic had a problem with shift flare. This might be one reason they’ve largely carried over the powertrains this time around.

      Through TrueDelta.com I hope to have some reliability stats for the new Camry 4-6 months after it reaches dealers.

      http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Well it’s because of all of that awesome high strength steel that makes the Camry so exclusive and so darn – awesome, like a BMW 3-series, or better. ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      tonycd

      I hate to be a Toyota enabler, but one reason is that the Altima and the Mazda6 are sloppily built, and the Kizashi’s maker is in serious danger of extinction in this country.

      Now, that’s not to say there aren’t still other alternatives, like the Fusion or the Accord.

      • 0 avatar
        30-mile fetch

        With the 6′s sales numbers, it may not be long for the world either. The Fusion sounds like a really tepid driver unless, like the Camry, you pay extra for the sport trim, in which case you are at $28K. I would actually love to see a comparison between the Camry SE V6 and the Fusion Sport.

        I haven’t driven it, but everything I read about the Accord makes it sound as if driver involvement has been dialed back from the previous version. It’s absolutely huge now, and has geriatric styling to match. No dice for me.

  • avatar
    Keith Tomas

    “With most Camry interiors, there’s a choice between beige and gray.”

    This seems to be the case with all of the carmakers, save for the upscale brands. Beige, gray or black. What happened to all the amazing interior color choice that used to be available in cars, Michael?

    • 0 avatar

      Too expensive and complicated to have so many different parts in the plant.

      Chrysler did recently ban light gray from its interiors, though. And you’ll find brown or red upholstery in an increasing number of cars.

      The days when the entire interior matched the exterior seem to be gone forever, though, unless you get something mega-expensive.

      • 0 avatar
        Keith Tomas

        Oh, to have an American convertible, even a crappy Sebring, flame red, with a whorehouse red interior to match.

        They could at least do red.

        You mention expense and complexity. Is the fact that cars are now required to have all this latest in safety and high-fuel technology, which is expensive in itself, a factor in them cutting costs elsewhere, including one’s choice of interior color choices?

  • avatar
    Davekaybsc

    Mike, I just don’t get what you liked about the old SE, or why people think it’s “sporty” or has/had “sharp reflexes”. I also drove an ’07 SE four cylinder when shopping for a used car for my girlfriend, and found it every bit as bland and boring as every other Camry. The seats were flat and horribly uncomfortable. Body control was minimal, and the steering was finger light, numb as one’s mouth before a drilling, and had about a 2 foot wide on center dead area. I felt like I was driving an old Buick, not a new Buick which might actually have a real claim on being a “sporty” car.

    There is nothing sporty about the Camry SE. At all. Nada. After the Toyota I got straight into a previous gen (’06) Accord EX V6, and that was quite a bit more fun than the Camry. Better (if still mediocre) seats, and the steering at least had some weight to it, even if it was still dead as a door nail. At the very least the amount of on center slop was minimal compared to the Camry.

    After a day of driving mainstream cars, getting back in to my A6 was a revelation. The A6 is hardly a sports car, but you at least get a sense that the engineers *care* about the driving experience.

    • 0 avatar

      I never drove the previous SE with the four-cylinder, only with the V6. As noted in the review it’s been five years (and many cars) since I drove that one, and I was comparing it to other 2007 model year midsize sedans. Two other pieces of information: the other car I drove that day was a Chrysler Sebring, compared to which just about anything would seem sporty, and I was also comparing the 2007 Camry to the one that came before it, which had a far soggier suspension. My expectations were very low.

      All of this said, I distinctly remember a surprisingly firm ride and strong V6. I was disappointed by the steering, which wasn’t nearly as firm as the suspension. I don’t doubt that the four-cylinder was at least as much of a buzz kill in the 2007 as the 2012.

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      — After a day of driving mainstream cars, getting back in to my A6 was a revelation. The A6 is hardly a sports car, but you at least get a sense that the engineers *care* about the driving experience

      You realize that you are comparing a car that’s 100% more expensive than the Camry? I mean, a car 100% more expensive than the A6 would make the A6 look like a piece of sh*t too.

      • 0 avatar
        Canucknucklehead

        WSN, you get what you pay for. I have spent quite a bit of time with a Camry SE 4 cylinder and I think it is an excellent car for the money. My daily driver is a 2008 Acura TL. The TL is without a doubt a better car, worth the extra money. But it was quite a bit more money, too.

      • 0 avatar
        wsn

        Canucknucklehead, that’s what I meant. But actually, it should be “you get what you paid for, at best.” Because for certain cars (or other products), you don’t actually get what you paid for.

  • avatar
    TurboDeezl

    The nose looks dated. Like an aftermarket bolt-on fascia. And is it me, or have the domestics surpassed Toyo in interior appearance and quality?

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I happen to like chrome grilles. Pass.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Michael, does Toyota offer any TRD parts for this car yet? The previous SE didn’t really need it, but I’ve seen some fairly ambitious suspension bits for the Corolla/Matrix. It might help, here.

    I’m sort of saddened to see the loss of the chassis brace behind the rear seats. Even if it did cut into fuctionality, it gave the impression that Toyota had a purpose for that car. This car gives me the same feeling I got when Toyota dropped the 2ZZ-GE from the Corolla and Matrix XRS.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m afraid I have no idea about TRD parts. None were mentioned.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I commented on the Camry LE review that I wish Toyota could give the AR-family 2.5L some more top end (similar to what they did on the 2ZZ-GE) for use on the Camry SE and tC.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      If I were in charge of Toyota’s motorsport marketing, there would be no possible way I would let them use the letters TRD on the side of the car. I don’t care if they’ve used it for 50 years. In English speaking areas it makes a bad connotation. Phonetically spoken, it’s like labeling the car ‘turd’.

      It’s like back in the malaise days and one of the big three would put the letters SX on a car. Phonetically spoken, it sounds like ‘sex’. To a marketing man’s ear, that’s a dream, even if it is an Oldsmobile Starfire or a Calais or an Omega. I doubt many folks had much ‘sex’ in/on/around those cars, and I consider myself a fan of them…

      I’ve seen this for about 25 years on Toyotas, and still can’t get over it. I think it is the dumbest thing to do.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Blagh

  • avatar
    smithjaide

    I appreciate Micheal and i would like to suggest you all about free auto insurance quotes which is must for all car drivers. You can get the best free auto insurance quotes at cheaper rates at http://www.cheapautoinsurancequotesonline.org/

  • avatar
    klossfam

    The head on shot screams “Hey look, I’m really a 2012 Acura TL!”

    I still can’t believe people buy as many Toyotas as they do…I just sold our 2008 Highlander Ltd with it’s clunky intermediate steering shaft, new water pump at 50K and total lack of road feel – primarily because I feared I might slip into a coma while driving it…Toyota truly is the company that makes cars for people that hate cars…and they are the new GM when it comes to intermittent ‘quality’.

    I’d rather have a VW, Audi, Infiniti et al because at least I feel ALIVE while driving them..Potential reliability issues are irrelevant when Toyota isn’t exactly the leader anymore…

    • 0 avatar
      wsn

      “I’d rather have a VW, Audi, Infiniti et al because at least I feel ALIVE while driving them..Potential reliability issues are irrelevant when Toyota isn’t exactly the leader anymore…”

      – klossfam, your statement is a testament as how good a Camry is, i.e. it’s comparable to Audi and Infiniti. No one would ever compare a Chrysler 200 to Audi or Infiniti. As for the VW comparison, hardly anyone would buy a Passat in North America.

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      One failure in 50k miles and you’re saying they aren’t a quality leader anymore? I wouldn’t recommend a VW/Audi in that case. I had at least 5 non recall related failures in my 50k miles with my ’07 GTI. No AC in 100* temps… twice? Yep! Cruise control failure about 500 miles into a 2500 trip? Yep! But it made me feel so alive!

      Strangely, my Toyota spent last weekend thrashing up and down washed out logging roads and made no complaints. My wife has a 6MT MINI with a groaning steering pump and rattling dash to make me feel alive, though.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    To most of the elderly drivers that buy these they will go un-noticed in the styling department and minor power bump on the base volume 4 banger. The steering will annoy some as will the more jiggly ride. Toyota does deserve some credit for not following the herd buy still offering it’s V6 and improving it’s mileage above both of the dissapointing Regals powertrains which are 4 cylinders and above most competitors. If every car maker abolished light gray interiors I would be all the happier. What a deperssing color to have ot sit in every day and keep clean. Light tan is also a pain. Why can’t we have darker shades of brown, maple, wine, blue etc? For the prices being charged on this generation of cars there must be something in the budget for this. It could even be made an extra cost option for leather and the door panels. Hopefully there is still a bodyside molding available as with the 2007-2011 version.

  • avatar
    klossfam

    I made no claims of German reliability…There are gremlins (I’ve owned 2 VWs and 1 Audi – all 2006 or newer). Although amongst these Germans, only the 2006 VW Rabbit has had a repair that was meaningful (drivers door window regulator).

    All I’m saying is that with my Asian vehicles, experience with the Toyota have been less than favorable (it felt loose and OLD at 60K miles on top of the issues). 2008 Infiniti G35 > bulletproof, 2004 Honda Pilot > bulletproof, 2010 Ridgeline > bulletproof, 2002 Acura TL-S > a virtual implosion – new throttle body at 20K after the throttle would stick wide open, new tranny at 35K (famous Honda 5 spd A/T issues).

    The point of this is that in reality, the difference between the best and worse is closer than ever. Most of these mfrs source from the same suppliers, etc as well…

    Toyota makes boring cars in general…but OK for my wife that hates to drive (although now that she got a 2011 VW Tiguan – she is finding out that there is such a thing as road feel – not too hard to have road feel vs the Highlander, however).

  • avatar
    n777ua

    I think by this point we can all acknowledge that the reviewer is bias at the very least. Goes on for Eons complaining about the cheap interior bits of the new VW passat, writes 3 hit pieces on the gli/gti/beetle2.0t, then doesn’t talk about plastics at all here regarding Camry. I’ve thoroughly sampled both, including the new Camry, and he is dead wrong. The Camry’s interior may look nicer in pictures due to the upper dash (which is soft to the touch), but the remaining plastics are just as hard and hollow as they were before – the Passat’s plastics are less hollow, and have a nicer grain. Too bad all hard plastic isn’t made alike, and too bad the N. American press shows their blatant bias for Japanese cars once again.

  • avatar
    PJ McCombs

    Car & Driver did instrumented tests on an V6 SE recently, and got 0-60 in 5.8 seconds. That was an eye-opener. As boring as the Camry may make those numbers feel, you’ve got to hand it to a $25K family appliance capable of shaming a lot of the cars we had posted up on our walls as kids.

  • avatar
    batwomanfl

    I would have to disagree with the whole lot of you. I’ve owned BMW, Infinity G35,Cadillac SRX and CTS, and some time in my life Hyandai. I just bought a new 2012 Camry SE and I was quite impressed with the car. The power is wonderful and the steering I thought was great too. This new electronic steering was very responsive and the ride was very comfortable.

  • avatar
    otbricki

    This site is really unsuited to be reviewing something like a Camry given it’s enthusiast orientation. The SE V6 is faster, handles better and brakes better than anything in it’s class. Toyota has a car that a lot of people are going to really like.


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