Comparison Test/Review: Fourth Place: 2009 Toyota Camry

comparison test review fourth place 2009 toyota camry

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.

Join the conversation
2 of 69 comments
  • APfromToronto APfromToronto on Nov 06, 2008

    Hope you guys review the SE-V6 Camry. I test drove a hybrid Camry at a mall nearby where Toyota was having hybrid test drive promo and I actually liked it. Except for the whine that I think was coming from the transmission? (Didn't bother to ask them), and the fact that it didn't take off like a regular car from a stop. But I like a comfort oriented car. I also test drove the Hybrid Highlander and didn't like that as I could sense the weight of the battery at the back!

  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Dec 17, 2008

    The current 07-09 style Camry is the perfect car for people that don't care about cars. The vast majority of folks that I see driving them are over 70 years old in fact. The 158 Hp 2.4 4 cylinder as found in base, LE, SE and XLE models gets the job done but note is less powerfull than all it's 09 competitors including the new restyled Kia Optima/Hyundai Sonota which have 169 HP from the base 2.4 engine, the new Malibu 2.4 which has 169 HP, the Nissan Altima which packs 175 HP, the Accord which had 177 or 190 HP 2.4's and the Ford Fusion which has 160 HP and will soon have over 170 for the new model. The drab all gray interior with so many odd fitting pieces and cut lines screams rental car and the electric steering assist, ponderous handling with float and wallow will never inspire confidence in me. The exterior is a mixed bag. Like so many car manufacturers are doing today, Toyota stupidly removed(decontented/cheapened) the bodyside door moldings which protect from careless parking lot dings and dress up the plain boring sides of the vehicle which just goes a long way in making this car a forgettable appliance. The grille is odd along with the bangle butt stolen from BMW. The overall appearance of this car isn't horrible but neither is it inspired. The new Malibu and Altima win hands down on exterior styling. As a choice in a sea of boring mid size Asian car choices, the Camry comes near the bottom of my long list.

  • Dave M. I will say this generation styling has grown on me; previously I thought the Fiat version was far better looking. Miatas have always been pure joy to drive.
  • Kendahl A Tesla feature has been free, periodic, over-the-air, software updates that add new features or improve existing ones. Owners brag that their x-year-old car is better today, because of the updates, than it was brand new. Will Tesla start charging for these updates after a few years? Teslas hold their value very well. I suspect losing free updates will do serious damage to that.
  • BklynPete When I was a kid, the joke about Nissan choosing the name Datsun goes like this:Nissan execs were uncomfortable with the World War 2 connotations of their name in the North American market. Seeing how successful VW was over here, they went to VW's most-recent German ad agency. The Japanese told the Germans they needed a new name. The Germans agreed. They asked the Nissan execs when they wanted a review of potential names. The execs said two weeks. The German ad people said, "dat soon?"I will be crucified.
  • Kendahl Modern cars are better mechanically in every way compared to cars from the 1960s. But, and my age is probably showing here, the older ones are prettier.
  • Master Baiter I like the references to Red Barchetta. My fun car is a spiritual cousin to this Miata: 2001 BMW M Roadster--green with tan leather; five speed.