The Truth About Cars » XLE The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 02 Oct 2015 20:00:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars » XLE Review: 2012 Toyota Camry Wed, 24 Aug 2011 16:39:58 +0000 The year: 1992. The rental car: the then-new third-generation Toyota Camry. My father was surprised how much the car drove like his Lexus LS 400, it was so smooth and quiet. While enthusiasts might deride the Camry as an appliance, it had this, and for the last two decades has served as the midsize sedan […]

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The year: 1992. The rental car: the then-new third-generation Toyota Camry. My father was surprised how much the car drove like his Lexus LS 400, it was so smooth and quiet. While enthusiasts might deride the Camry as an appliance, it had this, and for the last two decades has served as the midsize sedan segment’s benchmark for refinement. Despite dull handling and an interior that grew cheaper with each redesign, sales increased, to the point that the Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S. for 13 of the last 14 years.

But with competitors more stylish, more powerful, better-finished, and even poised to pass the Camry in refinement, the Camry increasingly trades on past accolades, incentives, and a reputation for reliability. Consequently, younger drivers go elsewhere, and the average buyer has hit the big 6-0. Many have bought their last car. To maintain its leadership, the Camry must improve. With the 2012 redesign, does it? (This review covers the regular Camry. The SE and Hybrid will be evaluated separately.)

Time was, Toyota entirely revised its cars every other generation. But the 2012 Camry is the third generation on a platform that dates back to the 2002 model year. Exterior dimensions are unchanged, and interior dimensions increase by only fractions of an inch. Consequently, the Camry remains considerably smaller than the Honda Accord, the Mazda6, and even the new Volkswagen Passat. But many buyers have rejected the Honda and Mazda as too large; for them the Camry was already the right size.

Toyota notes that every exterior panel is new. At first glance the midsection looks much the same, though a closer study discovers simpler surfacing. The ends of the car have changed more dramatically, giving up their Banglesque curves for boxier shapes. Neither striking nor laden with controversial flourishes, the new exterior recalls the Camrys of the 1980s and 1990s in its utterly forgettable inoffensiveness.

Criticisms of the 2007-2011 interior clearly hit home, for Toyota has upgraded the Camry’s cabin for 2012. The instrument panel top has stitching in a contrasting color molded into it (a technique also employed by Buick and Lincoln), some other surfaces are somewhat soft to the touch, the instruments have a more sophisticated appearance, and the doors feel more solid when opened and closed. Though plenty of hard plastic lingers, the thin velour seat fabrics verge on chintzy even in the XLE, and the “stitching” molded into the trim pieces flanking the lower center stack (why?) could not be less convincing, the overall effect is a substantial step in the right direction. Not class-leading, but solidly average. The hard plastics feel solid and none of the switches screams cheap. The controls are easy to reach and generally intuitive.

The seating position and perceived roominess of the Camry have changed much more than the minimally changed interior dimensions suggest. The base of the side windows and especially that of the windshield seem higher and more distant. Part of this is real, but the interior panels have also been reshaped to provide the appearance of a roomier interior, with more horizontal lines, sharper corners where the doors and instrument panel meet, and fewer intrusive curves. The seats also seem to have been repositioned. The downside: forward visibility takes a modest hit in the front row and a more sizable one in the second row.

About those front seats: they’re larger and less contoured. Better for regular patrons of Old Country Buffet, less supportive for the rest of us. In the LE, the non-adjustable lumbar support is lacking, with a small bulge high up the seatback. The power lumbar in the XLE helps, but also hits a little high. The rear seat, perhaps the segment’s roomiest a decade ago, can’t match those in the Honda and VW for limo-like legroom and sits a little low. Rear air vents are only fitted with the XLE. Trunk room is much more competitive.

With an intense focus on what car buyers are willing and unwilling to pay for, and perhaps on minimizing first-year glitches as well, Toyota has carried over last year’s 178-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 268-horspower 3.5-liter V6 engines. Meaning no direct injection, but the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are the outliers here. Everyone else is in the same ballpark with their fours. Others’ uplevel engines kick out just a few more horses—is there an industry-wide gentleman’s agreement to limit midsize sedan buyers to 280 horsepower? (Not that it would make sense to channel much more through the front wheels alone.) Paired as before with a six-speed automatic, even the four is easily quick enough for most drivers. The manual transmission has been dropped, but the automatic is manually-shiftable in all non-Hybrid Camrys. The four’s shakiness at idle and buzziness when revved are larger issues. Winding the four out gets the job done, but is more irritating than exciting. Those seeking a smoother, much better-sounding engine should, as before, opt for the six.

Car buyers have put a higher priority on fuel economy than horsepower in recent years, and Toyota focused its efforts accordingly. Toyota cut curb weights (by 117 pounds for the four, 63 for the V6), smoothed the underbody, thinned the oil, raised the final drive ratios, fitted electric-assist power steering, and so forth to pick up a few tenths here, a few tenths there. The end result: EPA ratings of 25 city / 35 highway for the four, up from 22/32 last year, and 21/ 30 for the V6, up from 20/29. The four’s numbers are best-in-class (for now), tying the Hyundai Sonata on the highway and beating it by one in the city. Toyota claims best-in-class honors for the V6 as well, but this somehow ignores the Sonata 2.0T’s 22/34. A BMW-style instantaneous fuel economy gauge and attending row of green LEDs attempt to encourage more fuel-efficient driving, but they often swing wildly following a lag, so I found them of little help.

So far, incremental rather than game-changing improvements, but improvements nonetheless. The chassis changes are iffier. Revised suspension geometry reduces body roll and improves body control, while low-effort steering helps the car feel lighter than it is, almost agile. But the old car has a more fluid, natural feel. Steering is part of the difference. Though the old system was hardly chatty, the new, electric-assist system is light on-center and, though it weights up as the wheel is turned, provides hardly any feedback.

Then there’s ride quality. Especially for those first few feet and at low speeds, the last few generations have felt like they were gliding down the road. Well, this silky, cushy feel that has been a Camry highlight since 1992 is all but gone. Though large bumps are absorbed with more control than before, the small stuff is no longer almost entirely filtered out and the ride is more jiggly over patchy pavement. Toyota seems to have benchmarked the Ford Fusion or Honda Accord instead of the other way around. Toyota claims the new car is quieter, but my ears beg to differ. Sometimes objective measures are one thing, and the subjective experience another. The new Camry has the character of a “numbers car.”

Apparently aware that the incrementally improved, conservatively styled new car isn’t going to take the world by storm, Toyota has cut prices for every trim level save the loss-leader L, in one case by $2,000. Standard content reductions will likely offset much of the reductions; details to come. Toyota also touts the Camry’s storied reliability, pitching it as the “worry-free” choice. This remains to be seen, but with so many parts carried over, including the engines and transmission, bugs should be few and minor.

In the end, while the new interior is a definite improvement, efforts to improve fuel economy and handling, and perhaps to also cut costs, have robbed the Camry of a key distinguishing strength. If my Lexus-loving father rented the 2012 Camry, he’d notice…nothing. The new car isn’t coarse, but it’s no longer the segment benchmark for refinement. With their own redesigned midsize sedans on the way, and the Toyota and VW of years past in their crosshairs, Chevrolet and Ford will now vie for this title.

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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Comparison Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Versus 2010 Toyota Camry XLE Wed, 21 Apr 2010 16:24:25 +0000 Driving enthusiasts love to hate the Toyota Camry. Yet, despite the company’s current troubles, it remains the best-selling car in the United States. Hyundai would love to steal the crown, or at least tens of thousands of customers. So it recently launched a totally redesigned 2011 Sonata and will be advertising it heavily. Should Toyota […]

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Driving enthusiasts love to hate the Toyota Camry. Yet, despite the company’s current troubles, it remains the best-selling car in the United States. Hyundai would love to steal the crown, or at least tens of thousands of customers. So it recently launched a totally redesigned 2011 Sonata and will be advertising it heavily. Should Toyota be concerned?

Both the young (my kids) and the old (my parents) were captivated by the beauty of the Camry. Not the sheetmetal, mind you. They probably didn’t notice the shape of the car. The bulbous exterior was a great leap forward for a Camry four years ago—engineers might have designed the previous generation sedan—but at this point it is a generation behind current automotive fashion. The good angles it does possess (not the front view even with this year’s redesigned grille) have been overexposed through its omnipresence. And the XLE’s small, multispoked alloys don’t flatter the car—the SE looks considerably better. Rather, my family was captivated by the paint, a highly metallic dark green.

The Sonata’s paint options are relatively ordinary. But its swoopy exterior design marks a sharp departure from that of the handsome but utterly forgettable 2006-2010 Sonata. What the Mercedes-Benz CLS did for luxury sedans—bring coupe-like style to the segment—Hyundai hopes to do for midsize family sedans. Some resemblance can be seen to various luxury sedans (CLS, A6, ES), but Hyundai has also taken far more risks here than with the Genesis. An arching roofline, a couple of strong, curving character lines, and a ribbon of chrome trim that connects the beltline to the headlights could have combined in the side view to form a complicated mess. And yet these design elements manage to form a whole that is both cohesive and distinctive, and at once upscale and sporty. Even the fashionably oversized grille works. Most important of all: unlike the Genesis sedan, the new Sonata stands out on a crowded road—even without fancy paint. In comparison, the Toyota looks stodgy.

Upholstered in light gray leather, the Camry XLS interior includes nothing analogous to the exterior’s paint. Its design is thoroughly conventional circa 2006. One exception: the audio controls to the right of the nav screen are a bit of a reach, a common sin these days.

As with the exterior, the new Sonata’s interior is much more up-to-date and stylish than the Camry’s. The instrument panel includes some artful curves, but is cleanly designed. All of the buttons are easy to reach, and they helpfully vary in shape and size. As with the exterior, Hyundai appears to have benchmarked luxury sedans rather than other family sedans. Controls beneath the nav screen mimic an Infiniti’s, while the climate controls mimic a Volvo’s. The anthropomorphic control for directing airflow is just a single button rather than the three found in a Volvo, though, so it captures the Swede’s style more than its functionality. After sampling all three trim levels—cloth GLS, cloth/leather SE (sport), and leather Limited, the last is easily the most attractive. For those who want an escape from black, gray, and beige, wine-colored hides are offered.

Interior materials are of similar quality in both cars: not bad, but you’re clearly not in a luxury car. The Toyota has higher-quality switchgear, but its glossy “wood” is too obviously plastic and the silver-painted trim covering the center stack doesn’t even pretend to be aluminum. Perhaps because it was tailored for the European market, the interior in Hyundai’s new Tucson feels more solid and tightly constructed than that in either of these sedans.

The steering wheels deserve special consideration. Prior to the Genesis, Hyundai upholstered its cars’ steering wheels with the world’s slickest leather. With the Genesis they seemed to have finally realized that the point of having leather on the steering wheel is to make it easier to grip, not to help it slip through one’s fingers. But with the new Sonata they’ve backslid. The artfully designed steering wheel has a rim composed of three different materials: urethane on the outer sides, slippery leather from 10 to 2 o’clock and from 5 to 7, and, inside the lower perimeter, the sort of rubberized plastic that tended to wear poorly in MkIV Jettas. The last was already badly worn on one of the tested cars. None of the materials is well-suited to the task, and three is two too many. A good steering wheel has one material, a grippy leather, all the way around the rim–like the one in the Camry.

The Camry doesn’t have great front seats, but they’re both more supportive and more comfortable than those in the Sonata. With the Sonata, the feel of the seat varies quite a bit depending on whether the center panel upholstery is cloth, as in the GLS and SE, or leather, as in the Limited. The leather seats feel firmer, and you sit noticeably higher in them, or rather on them. With either upholstery the side bolsters quickly surrender when called upon to provide lateral support. The Camry’s side bolsters failed me less, but then I asked less of them. 

Some other car reviews will tell you that the Sonata’s new coupe-like roofline cost the sedan 2.8 inches of rear legroom compared to the previous generation car. What they fail to notice: maximum front legroom increased by 1.8 inches—which is sure to delight long-legged drivers (with a 30-inch inseam, I’m not one). So rear legroom is only down by an inch, and still fairly plentiful. Rear headroom, not quite so much. Tall passengers will have the scrunch down or sit up front. Other than this, the rear seat is perhaps more comfortable than the front seat. It’s a decent height off the floor, the backrest provides a healthy amount of lumbar support, and in the Limited it’s even heated.

The Camry’s back seat is even better, with a little more room, a little more height off the floor, and, in the XLE, manual recliners. The price of the manual recliners: unlike in the base Camry and the Sonata, the rear seat doesn’t fold to expand the trunk. Both cars have usefully commodious trunks that are moderately compromised by conventional gooseneck hinges and constricted openings. In both the Camry XLE and Sonata Limited, but not in lesser trims, rear seat passengers get their own air vents, a welcome feature on hot sunny days.

The tested Camry was fitted with a 268-horsepower DOHC 3.5-liter V6. Hyundai will offer no V6 in the new Sonata, we’re told to shave 100 pounds off the curb weight (a commendably light 3,199 pounds with the automatic). And a 274-horsepower turbo four won’t arrive until fall. So the cars I drove were fitted with a 198-horsepower direct-injected DOHC 2.4-liter four (200 with the SE’s dual exhaust). Not an even match, so just a few words on each.

The Camry’s V6 engine is easily the most entertaining aspect of the car. It’s smooth, powerful, and makes lusty noises when prodded. But there’s really little point to it in this car. The Camry simply doesn’t ask to be pushed hard enough to render the four-cylinder insufficient. Then again, Detroit’s specialty used to be overpowered cars with soft suspensions and over-boosted steering, and perhaps there’s still a market for this combination.

The Sonata’s new engine is, like the related port-injected unit in the new Tucson, very smooth and quiet for a four. Even held at 4,500 RPM using the automatic’s manual shift feature it’s not loud, and it never sounds rough. The previous generation four sounds and feels uncivilized in comparison, and it’s not a bad engine. The loud clacking typical of high-pressure injectors can be heard when outside the Sonata, but not when inside it. Thrust is a bit soft up to about 25 miles-per-hour, beyond which point the engine feels fairly energetic, if not a substitute for a V6. Few buyers will need more power or refinement than this four offers. The others can wait a few months for the turbo.

The Camry’s engine provides good fuel economy for a powerful V6, about 22 around town. But the Hyundai’s new four is outstanding in this regard, earning a class-leading 22/35 MPG from the EPA. Driven along rural roads, I observed 35 MPG for one segment, and low 30s overall. So the EPA numbers don’t seem to have been cheated. A hybrid arrives in the fall, but it seems pointless unless most driving involves frequent stops.

Both the Camry and Sonata are fitted with six-speed automatics that usually shift smoothly and behave well. One minor demerit for the Hyundai’s box: it slightly lugs the engine at times, no doubt to maximize fuel economy. Those whose ears aren’t sensitive to low frequency sounds will never notice.

The Camry and Sonata drive about as differently as they look. The first thing you’ll notice when setting off in the Camry: it feels extremely smooth and quiet, clearly the result of lessons learned when developing Lexus. Bumps effect some head toss at moderate speeds, but overall the Toyota’s ride could hardly be more comfortable. Unfortunately, the focus on isolation extends to the steering. It’s far too light, lacks a strong sense of direction, and (aside from some kickback) is devoid of feel. A shame, because even in XLE trim the chassis is more composed than in previous non-sport Camrys. A firm, even overly firm, suspension is standard in the Camry SE.

The three trims of the Sonata all drive differently. The GLS’s higher-profile 16-inch tires are noisier than the Limited’s 17s and harm the car’s ride and handling. Paired with steelies, they’re begging for a mod. The SE’s 18s are also noisier than the Limited’s 17s, and together with a firmer suspension yield a busy, occasionally unsettled ride. If the SE handled much better than the Limited the ride penalty might be worth it, but it doesn’t. The Limited handles nearly as well as the SE, and rides more quietly and much more smoothly. Add in its more attractive interior and additional features, and the Limited is easily the best of the three trims. If you want a Sonata, you want a Sonata Limited.

Still, compared to the Camry XLE, the Sonata Limited isn’t as quiet or as smooth. It’s the difference between good, even very good, and great. The Camry feels like a premium car through the seat of one’s pants and the drums of one’s ears. The Sonata does not quite manage the same. On the other hand, the Sonata’s steering, while nearly as devoid of feel as the Camry’s, isn’t overly light, is nicely weighted, and has a clear sense of direction. As a result, even down two cylinders the Hyundai is more engaging and fun to drive (such things being relative).

In the end, the Camry cannot escape its advancing age. It does a few things extremely well, and most other things very well, but its steering is far too light and its styling is bland and dated. With the new Sonata, Hyundai has avoided competing with the Camry head on. The Sonata isn’t as smooth, as quiet, or as comfortable, but it has better steering and is more fun to drive. But will many midsize sedan buyers notice or care about the difference in how the cars steer? Maybe, maybe not. But they’ll certainly notice how the new Sonata looks. A Hyundai that sells because of how it looks—who saw this coming? Now if only Hyundai offered some eye-catching green paint…

Toyota and Hyundai provided the vehicles, insurance and one tank of gas each for this review

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of auto reliability and pricing data

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