Seven hundred and twenty bucks. Not much money by today’s standards. Won’t buy you an American-made Fender Strat or a Hickey-Freeman suit. Won’t quite buy you a 32GB iPad with a cellular connection. Maybe ten days’ worth of rent in one of those new Manhattan micro-units. In the America of 2013, $720 is chump change.
But if you’re in the market for a new family sedan, and you can come up with $720, you’ll be glad you did. Because that’s the difference in the price between the Camry SE, which is one of my favorite cars at the moment, and the Camry LE, which isn’t, not quite.
When I drove the Camry SE at Summit Point Shenandoah, I was impressed by the sedan’s suspension composure, on-track behavior, and outright speed. It was only a few seconds behind a Scion FR-S that was running at the same time in some capable hands. When I realized that I had another trackday scheduled and no super-awesome press car for said trackday, I asked the nice people at the rental counter for another Camry just like the one they’d given me before. Unfortunately for me, in the rental world a Camry is a Camry is a Camry. The Camry SE I had for Shenandoah and the Camry LE they gave me to take to Nelson Ledges occupy the same category in their systems.
Let’s start with the plain numbers. Car and Driver‘s staff managed to get a 1:22 out of an E36 M3 at Ledges a few years ago, and a 1:22.7 out of the Mercedes C43AMG. The Camry LE weighs about The C43 does, and about a hundred pounds more than the M3, but brings considerably less power to the table: 178 horsepower against the Bimmer’s 240 and Benzo’s 302. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Camry won’t be able to run with the Germans around Nelson Ledges. The Camry’s 205/65-16 all-season tires (your brand may vary; there’s no guarantee of a particular tire when you get your Camry. If you want a car where the tire is guaranteed, buy a Veyron) aren’t super-grippy, even by comparison to the 215/55-17 skins on the SE.
Last but not least, we loaded the Camry down with some extra people. One of the B&B suggested that the Camry had been burdened with 550lbs of passengers. Alas, the true number was closer to 725 pounds. Maybe a little more. I had a pretty big breakfast. So here’s a (not very quick) lap in the Camry around Ledges. Other than the groundhog we had to swerve around, this is about all I think you’re going to get out of a car like this around that track.
You could get a little bit of that nine-second gap to the M3 by emptying the passenger compartment of everyone but your humble author, or even swapping said humble author for someone lighter and possibly better-looking. You could get a little more by keeping the groundhogs off the track, an extra second or two by concentrating on the task at hand, and a final squeeze by spending the aforementioned $720 to upgrade to the Camry SE’s running gear. Which leads us to a comment from another member of the B&B:
It’s still bad advice to tell people that it’s worth buying this thing over massively better cars like the Accord, Mazda6, or Fusion.
The question becomes: why is the Camry worse? Well, not everybody is going to like the way it looks, although the Toyota’s square-shouldered new look inside and out reminds me of the late-Seventies GM A-body sedans, and that’s a good thing in my opinion. The Mazda6 and Fusion certainly have more distinct and interesting styling.
What about the measurable aspects? The Camry isn’t any more expensive than the competition, it’s extremely roomy, and in four-cylinder form it returns outstanding mileage, even on a racetrack. There’s a marked lack of surprise-and-delight compared to the Fusion in particular, but the Toyota’s resale value is almost certain to be outstanding no matter how long you keep it. You can’t make the case for the competition being massively better if you stick to the numbers.
The Camry falls down, if it does fall down, on the intangibles. It falls down because there’s a pervasive sense of cost-cutting throughout the vehicle. The final $720 that Toyota cuts out of the car to create an LE from an SE — or, if you choose to look at it the other way, the $720 that is added to the LE to make the SE — is particularly obvious. The steering wheel on the SE is outstanding; the LE’s wheel is dismal. The alloy wheels on the SE look vaguely upscale, but the LE features steel wheels with generic-looking plastic covers. The LE’s interior fabric is nothing special; based on what I saw when I picked up the rental, it doesn’t even resist spills and stains terribly well.
This is “thin product” in the modern style, but even if it doesn’t match up to the standards of that old mini-Lexus ’92 Camry it still beats the pants off its immediate predecessors. The stereo’s good and unlike the competition you get a full-color screen in the center stack even at the LE price point. It’s quiet, it rides well, and with the exception of the turn-it-off-with-your-knee cruise control, every potential road-tripping annoyance has been carefully engineered out of the driving experience.
I didn’t mention the old A-body GM car by accident. This Camry is just what that ’79 Malibu or Cutlass used to be. It’s steady, unspectacular, well-equipped, affordably priced. It looks decent on the road and your neighbors won’t laugh at you. Toyota understands the customers in this segment in the same way that Ford and GM no longer do, and the sales numbers reflect that. It’s a nearly perfect middle-class conveyance. It’s built in Kentucky so the buy-American crowd can rest easy.
The real difference between a ’79 Malibu and this Camry is the same difference that exists, in a much smaller degree, between the rest of the competition and the Camry: people trust this car to last a very long time and cost very little to operate. The autoblogosphere knows all about recent Toyota quality shortfalls and bushing-less CTS pedals and that sort of thing, but the average consumer is always operating a decade or more in the past when it comes to product perception. He thinks the Malibu is garbage and the Ford will fall apart and the Accord doesn’t really offer anything more and the Mazda6 doesn’t really exist. He has eyes and he can see that decade-old Camrys are all over the road, rust-free and looking decent.
The man on the street knows the Camry, likes the Camry, trusts the Camry. His Generation Y son-in-law thinks the Camry is a soulless piece of junk that deliberately refutes everything the enthusiast believes — but as you can see, the blocky-looking Toyota gets around a racetrack just fine. You could buy one as a track rat, really, enjoying 30mpg commutes to and from the weekends, filling the trunk with extra tires, relying on the car to last 200k and sell for about a third of what you paid for it.
You could do that, and I wouldn’t disagree with your choice. But if you do, you should do yourself a favor. Look under the bed, in the couch cushions, in your old savings account from high school — anywhere you need to, as long as you can find that extra seven hundred and twenty bucks. Because the SE is worth the extra money, every penny of it. It’s that rarest of things in modern America: a true bargain.
Images courtesy Pfanntastic Photography