By on July 5, 2013

Picture courtesy Jerusha Pfannenschmidt

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.

Picture courtesy Jerusha Pfannenschmidt

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.

Photo courtesy Jerusha Pfannenschmidt.

Images courtesy Pfanntastic Photography

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49 Comments on “Review: 2013 Toyota Camry LE 2.5 At Nelson Ledges...”

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    I have always considered the Camry to be what the Impala was.

    One of my coworkers has a 98. He loves his fridge. And this bloke KNOWS cars (has many interesting projects under its belt).

    I like what Toyota did with this redesign. And this time I may be even tempted to test drive it.

  • avatar

    >>Accord doesn’t really offer anything more <<

    Actually, C & D would disagree:

    Besides being faster, the Accord has better resale too.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Mister Baruth wasn’t stating “Accord doesn’t really offer more” as fact; he was rather mentioning that such is a common misconception among consumers.

  • avatar

    Toyota usually makes horrible commercials (the grounded-to-the-ground awfulness having been referenced in the title of the preview video to this review), but I really liked the one where the whole family walks in, each owning a different generation of Camry: an ’03, ’93, and ’83 (which Dad still drives, naturally) and they’re there for a ’13.

    The spot showed that Toyota understands its customers perception of its product and embrace the continuity. You could do the same spot with a Honda, but not a Malibu or Fusion or Hyundai. If something’s been around a long time, it must be good.

  • avatar

    Pure gold. I love it when Baruth does plebeian.

    He’s the most condescension-free reviewer I’ve ever read.

  • avatar

    Ok, so you get alum wheels, bigger tires, a better steering wheel and nicer seat fabric. Ya, for the 720 they are asking, it is more than worth it. At least it doesn’t have that ugly as hell bottom feeder grill treatment from the new Avalon.

  • avatar

    Fairly sure the ’79 Malibu and Cutty were G-bodies.

    edit, nvm, research shows they were originally A then redesignated G in in ’82

    • 0 avatar

      No, the G body debuted with the Olds Aurora and Buick Riviera, and then got used in the CAdillac FWD line. At the time, it was considered the gold standard for rigidity in car structures.

    • 0 avatar

      The RWD Malibu was never a G it was always an A, it was the Monte Carlo that started out as an A Body “Special” and then was re-designated a G body as were the BOP versions.

  • avatar

    I love those old GM A-bodies you speak of. I think they’re some of the best cars ever built, despite a few short comings. But the chassis, the ride, the interior room, how they seem to “fit” so perfectly. I love them so much I have two. A 79′ Coupe is good shape and fixed up, V8, manual, etc. Then a 78′ Sedan. V6, automatic, for daily driving.

    I see where you’re getting at with the Camry, but with decent old A-bodies floating around, the real question is, why buy the Camry? Plus Camry’s don’t come in station wagon and pickup truck versions.

  • avatar

    Jack – Thanks for a big smile on Friday morning. I’d watched the video (next time, and we hope there is a next time), a forward-facing camera will be great. I know you’re renting these cars, but I hope you’ll start a whole new series of regular everyday cars on the track. Great piece and you remind me of what a great car we had with our first Camry SE – a ’92.

  • avatar

    As a track rat oddity, I think I’d rather get a value-package Grand Caravan, remove the seats and see if I could blow the doors off the pitiful 4 banger Camry.

    Since I don’t have the time for that right now, I want you do do a comparo for me, Jack. Hopefully Ledges will let you back in.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t tempt me. I have a ’93 2wd MPV that is very likely to fail emissions next year, but still runs fine and isn’t rusty. I am incredibly tempted to gut it, buy some sticky tires and go campaign in the CSCS.

  • avatar

    ” humble author ”
    Somebody ghost-write this for Baruth?? ;)

  • avatar

    Two things bother me about the Camry, The dashboard is confusing and what’s the point of paddle shifters, especially on the 4 cylinder car? Otherwise it’s comfortable, economical and by all reports reliable. I need more than a pretty face and gadgets to persuade me otherwise.

  • avatar

    Time to admit a few things: I am an enthusiast…and a Camry driver. Driving an ’03 Camry LE, I can tell you the dynamics are horrible. However, I have come to appreciate the Camry in several ways since having it. My previous car, am Altima, was much more fun and handled infinitely better. However, at the same age as the Camry is now, the interior panels were falling apart, the bushing were shot, and driving around NYC required a visit to the dentist and the chiropractor to get me right. By comparison, this Camry is still solid at the same age (10 yrs old) and can hit a pothole or expansion joint without making me miserable. During a fender bender, I got to drive a 2013 Camey SE. I was ashamed to admit I could see owning the car. It was sporty enough to have fun with on a curved road and did not suck on the long work commute and potholed NY roads as so many “sport-y” cars do. It actually made me more curious about the scion tc as well. As much is get little street cred, the Camry SE seemed like a good compromise to me. In comparison the LE is a punishment, but one that never dies and is paid off.

  • avatar

    I seriously think Jack just sold me a Camry SE. Something I would have never considered before.

    If he could review a Honda CR-V and make me feel less guilty about that selection before the wife’s cute-ute lease is up next year, that would be fabulous.

    Maybe I hang on this dude’s every word a little too much. Regardless, I’m too engrossed in the complete body of work of Fleet Foxes to worry about that.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. My perception of reality has just been blown out if the water. When I woke up today, I was like Neo in the Matrix, but I just took the red-pill of Jack Baruth truth-bomb and this is where the rabbit hole leads: reality appears that a “plain Jane” 4-cyl automatic Toyota Camry is nearly as capable on a real-life racetrack as some vaunted German autobahn-stormers. And yet the Camry is quieter, smoother, more comfortable, more luxurious, and gets FAR better gas mileage than true Benz or the Bimmer. How did we get here?

      Welcome to the real world, indeed.

  • avatar

    I never really understood why there was so much hatred for the new Camry. Having driven an LE and many of it’s competitors, the LE is light years ahead of the CVT-powered Legacy and Altima, and a serious improvement over the last generation of Camry (which was lackluster).

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a great way to stake out a position as an “enthusiast” by hating on it. Just dumb status signalling.

    • 0 avatar

      While there is some true hate out there, most of what I see is actually indifference. Which is what I feel toward this car. Even on a race track. With Baruth behind the wheel.

    • 0 avatar

      When the lease on “my” 2010 Accord LX ended in May, I was considering leasing a new 2013 Camry LE or buying a certified used 2010 Camry LE. After taking both cars on several test drives, I felt that the 2013 had a bumpier and less absorbent ride (along with more road noise) than the 2010. The 2013’s electrically assisted power steering felt more remote by comparison. Also, the 2013’s seats were too firm and ill-shaped, IMO.

      Although the 2010 has a plain interior and some ill-fitting trim, to me it feels like a Lexus but without the fancy interior. At least the 2010 Camry doesn’t have the surplus of creaks and rattles that my 2010 Accord LX had.

      EDIT – I wish I had driven a 2013 SE, although I wonder if its lower-profile tires would have ruined the ride – an important consideration considering the awful roads here in the Milwaukee area.

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    This is a similarly positive review like Sajeev’s 2009 Camry SE one. The one big difference now: the 2013 Camry no longer has a 5MT. Bummer. I very much like the car but now it’s going to be a 4cyl Accord or Mazda6 next time up. Likely the Accord unless Mazda wants to give me a more direct Mazda6 5MT wagon replacement. I’m not holding my breath

  • avatar

    Back in May,and for 2 weeks, I was saddled with one of these. Dark grey 2012 Toyota camry LE. What an AWEFUL vehicle it is!. Where should I start… Cheap interior with acres of grey colored rubbermaid grade plastics. The cloth upholstery already had stains and generally looked and felt, well, rental grade. Thin feeling doors, thin sheetmetal. The whole car shook when closing (Read not slamming) the doors. The engine was unremarkable with so-so fuel economy (driven harder). Its only redeeming qualities were the touch screen infotainment system, very good stereo, nice bluetooth integration, smooth shifting 6-speed slushbox and powerful A/C. The rest of this car is GARBAGE. Lousy uncommunicative steering, horrid brakes and handling remminiscent of a 1980s GM J-Body.

    I also recently drove a 2013 Altima which was leaps and bounds above the Camry in nearly every level, CVT transmission included.

    Maybe an SE V-6 Camry could change my mind, but generally I find the Camry to be nothing but an underwhelming toaster oven on wheels. I would hate to have to live with one of these on a daily basis.

    Thanks for the review.

    • 0 avatar

      I haven’t driven the Camry, but at the 2012 Auto Show, the then-new Camry was literally placed across the aisle from the Honda display. The newly-redesigned Camry felt just as stated above–thin, tinny doors; cut-rate interior. The lame-duck 8th-Gen Accord only feet away was the far-nicer car. (As was the lame-duck Altima and Fusion elsewhere on the showroom floor.)

      Fast-forward to 2013. Toyota did a couple tweaks inside, but not enough. The Accord is just under an Acura in the interior department, and the Altima and Fusion also show it up! (Even the Malibu is so-so, but it’s still better than the Camry, the upcoming improvements should help it even more.) The interiors of the new RAV4 and Avalon have a similar un-Toyota, cheap feel to them, especially the RAV4.

  • avatar
    sonata camry guy

    Jack- I bought a brand new 77 Malibu 2 dr and held for 10 yrs-we put 115,000 on it with my wife being the primary driver.
    The Malibu had a 305 V-8, ice cold AC-great cruiser and no resale value in 1987. The dealer gave me the old “we will wholesale it out” explanation on trade in value. (Cry me a river).

    Flash forward to a 11 turbo Sonata Limited that we bought and put 42000
    miles on in 20 months. I assume from what I read turbo Sonata 0-60 was at least 1 and a half seconds better than 4cyl Camry(not the case with the 6cyl Camry but as we all know this is a different animal and not by 720 dollars) The cheaper Camry SE also boasts a power passenger seat that Hyundai Limited lacked which was bad oversight for a loaded Limited version. My wife also complained that the Hyundai seat was not comfortable.

    The Sonata had a lot of oomph.The 12 Camry SE we purchased as leftover Feb 13 only has 6200 miles as of this writing.It is quieter that Sonata Limited at highway speeds but in defense of the Sonata, I need to do another 36,000 miles for a fair long term test. I may be afflicted
    by the Toyota boredom ill that many complain about.

    You are right that propelling the Camry sales is everyman looking at those 10 year old Camrys and saying this is good. The sales figures
    don’t lie.I suspect Camry is at least a 10 yr keeper like the 77 Malibu but with more of a bonus at the end. Toyota is being challenged but hey that’s why we are a great country!

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      The current-gen Sonata is gorgeous. But now that most of the earliest ones are pushing past 50,000 miles, I’ve been looking at how the interiors hold up…and I’m not impressed. The cloth starts to unravel, and the leather practically attracts scratches and wear-spots. The switchgear loses quite a bit of its paint, going from that nicely-finished factory stage to shiny and worn. And all of those black shiny bits start to look quite a bit older than they are. The same is true of the 2011-present Kia Optima…but I never see these kinds of issues on Camry or Accord models.

  • avatar

    I’m the only lame person on the internet that prefers the Passat in this segment.

    • 0 avatar

      You are not the only one. I think the current US built Passat is a terrific family sedan but it gets often overlooked. Problem is, VW does not enjoy a reputation for reliabilty and VW dealers tend to be shady.

      Up front and personal, the Passat is a really nice car. Rear passengers enjoy A8 levels of legroom.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s a shame that VW had to cheapen things inside to get those to sell, but apparently the strategy is working. I admit that I’m biased toward Honda, having owned a total of four over the past nineteen years, including my new 2013 Accord.

        My main point for replying is that even if the Passat had been on top of my list, I would have had to drive upwards of 100 miles away to buy it–the local VW dealer is 1.5 miles from me, but that dealer is in the dictionary under the word “shyster,” and their “service” department is next to useless, as my Mom found out during several trips to fix her MkIV Jetta. (Yeah, that was her first mistake!)

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      The 2012 and later Passat doesn’t benefit from the same toys or swoopy styling as some of its competitors, but it is a handsome sedan with acres of room. It looks and feels like a solid car built with the American lifestyle in mind, and it seems that SE and higher trims enjoy healthy resale values. It’s the Impala we should have gotten. I would definitely consider it…

  • avatar

    I own a 12 Camry Hybrid LE. I wanted the SE, but selected the hybrid instead. Wish Toyota would offer the hybrid on the SE. This is my 3rd Camry. If you take perfect care of them, get a good color, stick with a base model, and not pile on too many miles, you can recover better than 80% after 2 years on a trade in. That is what I love most about the Camry. It is inexpensive to be driving a new one every 24 months. I will be trading in my 12 on a 14 … I am hearing it is being refreshed. I paid 24K for mine before taxes and plates. I will tell you the trade in when I do the deal later this year.

    I just traded in a 12 Honda Pilot on a 14 Acura MDX. Paid $27.5K for the pilot in Sep 2011. Put 29K miles on it. Paid $42.5K for the MDX … base AWD … 500 over invoice. They gave me $22.5K for the Pilot … that was a loss of 5K. I usually do better than this on my Toyotas. I also have a 12 Highlander I will be trading on a 14 Highlander. That flip will be interesting. I will also give you those numbers.

  • avatar

    I eat my words about you guys hating Toyotas.

  • avatar

    my truck has been in for service a few times this year, and they always give me a camry loaner. it’s always a 4cyl auto LE. and I always want to keep it.

    i love manual transmissions, RWD, hard suspensions, noisy exhausts, all of it. but like, I get in that Camry and it just rolls along competently and quietly, doing its thing. and returning above 30mpg with a very simple (in today’s world) engine/transmission combination. i like that there’s a very clear signal that Toyota understands there’s value in simplicity, something the Japanese automakers lost for a while. the styling is simple (look at it next to a Hyundai). the interior is also useful, but not complicated. and the cloth interior isn’t a penalty for not buying the leather. i really do not like leather interiors, so for me any car that’s fitted this way is a plus.

    enthusiasts all know the value of the daily driver. the car that will start on you every day, every time. you’ll take it to go get the parts for the car you love that isn’t running. and i’d have a really hard time saying no to the Camry as a daily driver.

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t compare anything I liked even slightly to a 1979 GM car of any sort. My parents bought a ’79 Monte Carlo which epitomized the malaise era – no power, crap mileage, both leaked and burned oil when new, and had the parking brake cable snap off in my mom’s hands. It is the most un-Camry-like vehicle my family has ever owned.

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