Review: Toyota Camry SE 2.5L, Track Tested

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

When TTAC’s Mike Solowiow tested the Camry SE V-6, he didn’t spare the rod or spoil the child:

“…in situations where steering feel warns of problems (hydroplaning, ice, collision avoidance) the Camry SE gives lifeless to the point of useless. Beating at the steering column with a wiffle bat and screaming like Yvette Fielding in ‘Most Haunted’ are more entertaining than trying to make the Camry hustle. It doesn’t move, flow, or have chassis alacrity all its rivals exhibit.”

If the V-6 is that bad, the 178-horsepower four-cylinder must be terrible, right? I mean, if I took it to a racetrack and tooled it around in the advanced-driver groups with a bunch of people in it, we’d be miserable right? We’d never pass anybody, right? We’d never toss that bee-otch out of the Carousel with hands off the wheel and let it snake-oscillate up the hill running past the curbs in the dirt and putting that big-bird chrome grill right up the tailpipe of a Spec Miata, right?

Last year, I tried the Volvo S60 T5 around Summit Point Shenandoah and was able to coax a very high 1:53 out of it. At the time, I thought the Volvo at $35K might make a case for itself against a $28K Camry, and I said as much.

The Camry I brought to Shenandoah this time, however, wasn’t $28K. It was $23,600, which is how much you pay for a zero-option SE four-cylinder. I’m pretty sure there’s a little wiggle room in that price, too. Although my TrackMaster wasn’t behaving, I almost immediately ran a 1:58 in the car.

With two additional passengers. On a track that had seen rain just hours earlier.

The next day, I easily knocked out a bunch of 1:54s. So for two-thirds the price of the Volvo, you can run the same laps. What’s interesting is that the Camry does it with an seventy-two horsepower disadvantage. How’s that work?

Before we get to the track stuff, however, and I know that’s what you really want out of this and every other Camry review out there, let’s consider the rest of the car. Why, it’s quite delightful! It’s quiet in both of the ways that really matter: wind noise on the freeway and traditional NVH everywhere else. You can hold conversations with people in this car, even if they are in the back seat.

The infotainment system is almost laughably stupid next to, say, MyFordTouch, but it is extremely easy to use and the stereo sounds pretty good to my battered ears. I’m currently in a personal phase of my life where I am only listening to the Fleet Foxes and I had no difficulty finding “Sun Giant”, “Helplessness Blues”, or the eponymous debut LP on my 15,000-song iPod Classic. The combination of the quiet interior and listenable stereo can be quite seductive and I’m embarrassed to admit that my 911 and my Boxster S never left the garage while I had the Camry in my possession.

Captain Solowiow’s review of the V-6 model touched on a variety of fit and finish issues with the interior panels. I didn’t notice any of those on this four-cylinder, which had endured several thousand miles of rental abuse before it passed into my hands, but let’s face it: Toyota knocks these things out in Kentucky using whatever labor they can get their hands on and using suppliers who spend one zillion computer cycles a day trying to make pedal bushings cheaper. If you want a Camry that was built to Lexus quality standards and will be around after aliens destroy the moon to destabilize our tides and drown New York in an ocean of sand, you’ll want to find a 1994 Camry XLE V-6 and never let it go. Those were the glory days of Toyota. What we have in this Camry is simply a car built about as well as they can manage for the price, which isn’t significantly higher than that 1994 Camry cost in unadjusted fiat (not FIAT) money.

There are a few surprise-and-delights: Toyota makes sure you get a decent steering wheel for your money, which is more than anybody’s ever been able to say about the Corvette. And the shift-it-yourself paddles are made of metal, properly fixed to the steering wheel, and operate with a sort of machined precision. They’re a lot like the one-way paddles for which Porsche continues to charge extra money on PDK-equipped 911s. The metallic trim feels pretty metallic, although it scratches very easily and doesn’t look durable. In black, the interior has a sort of dignity to it, at least. During my on-track adventure the power-steering switch plate on the driver’s door elected to abandon ship and pop out of the armrest, but a sharp bang with the elbow put everything right. That’s probably how they assemble them to begin with.

The seats are also very good: I put 1,767 miles on this Camry in the space of Friday noon to Tuesday noon and had no complaints whatsoever. Could have done more. They’re not luxurious or obviously comfortable but the lack of a backache after six hurried hours across Pennsylvania is worth real money to me. Visibility’s good as well. I don’t really myself qualified to discuss styling, but compared to the last Camry, which looked something like those bugs that fell off the Cloverfield monster, this one’s decent. The Kia Optima is obviously sexier but there’s something just a touch, um, Baume & Mercier about it: you get the sense that the whole thing might be made of chrome-plated foam that disintegrates in heavy rain.

I arrived at Shenandoah feeling very good about the Camry and that good feeling continued as I managed to get nearly seventy laps out of a single tank of gas. To put that in perspective, putting the same kind of mileage on a five-liter Mustang GT required two additional fillups. The reward for that thirst was laptimes that put the Camry in the shade by a nine-second margin. The unspectacular, undersquare four-cylinder engine never failed to deliver its modest power predictably and it lived at redline for half an hour at a time without problems.

Admittedly, I’m an old hand at tossing a crappy sedan around racetracks but on the wet skidpad the Camry showed the whole paddock the sterling qualities of its chassis. It was possible to distinctly and accurately feel the “bite point” where the front wheels found their maximum traction through the water, at which point a quick lift of the throttle would put the big sedan lazily sideways for a full half-circle of the skidpad. Camry drifting! I can’t criticize the steering of any car where that’s possible. Period, point blank. This car steers very well.

That sense of balance comes into play in Shenandoah’s “Big Bend” where it’s possible to put the Camry in very close proximity to other cars at the limit of the tires:

I won’t try to convince you that the Camry could hang with that tuned FD: it couldn’t. But in fast corners you could use its unshakeable stability and talkative steering to push it very hard and thus sniff at cars with much higher but more troublesome limits. We passed more drivers than we yielded to, even with passengers. Very few people want to move over for a Camry so sometimes I had to make it pretty explicit. I apologize to anybody who couldn’t see the Toyota emblem behind them because I was two feet off their bumper down the hill after the Hammer. The Camry’s just very easy to drive fast there, and everywhere else.

At the end of two fairly long days’ worth of abuse, the SE shrugged it off, loaded all my gear, and went home feeling not a bit worse for wear. I took the car to Cleveland the following day for work and enjoyed the quiet and the stereo and the seats and all that some more.

Toyota is about my least favorite car company in the world, and I’ve seen a lot of subpar product wear the badge in previous years, but this car is worth buying. At $23,600, it has clear and admirable virtues. I’d spend my own money on it. I’d rather have a stick-shift, of course, but it isn’t like the transmission ever misbehaved under racetrack conditions. Those pretty paddles, by the way, don’t do much when you’re really pushing the car. The Camry will shift when it wants to, plain and simple.

Camry Vee-sixes are rare meat in rental fleets so I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to see if I share Captain Mike’s opinion of that particular car, but I know how I feel about the four-cylinder. It’s a hell of a car and I recommend it without reservation at the price. The average enthusiast in the street will probably laugh at you for driving one but there are a hundred-plus track rats out there who saw the thing in action and won’t chuckle at all. I could see buying one myself. Of course, I’d want a little more power, and a better stereo, and some more insulation if that’s possible and OH MY GOD I AM TALKING ABOUT A LEXUS ES350 HERE OKAY LET’S CALL THIS REVIEW OVER RIGHT. FREAKING. NOW.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • DRJJJ DRJJJ on Jun 07, 2013

    Just rented a 2012 V6 camry and the thing honks! Read where some have coaxed over 102 mph out of it in the 1/4 mile-that's very fast for a vanilla family sedan-about the same mph through the traps drag racing a Honda 900F motorcycle in 83! Wonder what he would have got for lap times in the 6? Feels like more than the 275 horse-300 at least, must be the Johnny on the spot tranny? The 4 banger turns about 90 in the quarter which was muscle car territory in the 60s/70s FYI and rare in the 80s! I believe the 1980 vette didn't make any more HP than this 2.5 Camry and the Camry has a better tranny and is lighter-so see ya! 40mpg @ steady 65mph too! Well done Toyota production systems!

  • 05lgt 05lgt on Jun 10, 2013

    Took someone here's advice and Friday we took my wife's Lexus in for service, asked for and received an ES. It's been less than a month since we had the 4 pot Camry so I think I had some memory of the feel. The front wheels in the ES were easily overwhelmed by the combo of weight and torque. The on center dead zone was very much more pronounced in the ES than the SE. I know they're the same car, 'cause I read it on the inter webs, but you wouldn't know it from the drivers seat. My wife thinks I'm crazy (ok, she knows) but I'd rather have the SE 4 banger.

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Jun 11, 2013

      Actually that's incorrect. The ES is now based on the Avalon, not the Camry. They are no longer comparable in that regard.

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  • Michael Gallagher I agree to a certain extent but I go back to the car SUV transition. People began to buy SUVs because they were supposedly safer because of their larger size when pitted against a regular car. As more SUVs crowded the road that safety advantage began to dwindle as it became more likely to hit an equally sized SUV. Now there is no safety advantage at all.
  • Probert The new EV9 is even bigger - a true monument of a personal transportation device. Not my thing, but credit where credit is due - impressive. The interior is bigger than my house and much nicer with 2 rows of lounge seats and 3rd for the plebes. 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, around 300miles of range, and an e-mpg of 80 (90 for the 2wd). What a world.
  • Ajla "Like showroom" is a lame description but he seems negotiable on the price and at least from what the two pictures show I've dealt with worse. But, I'm not interested in something with the Devil's configuration.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I really like the C-Class, it reminds me of some trips to Russia to visit Dear Friend VladdyPoo.
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