You know you're getting older when you're testing a new Toyota Camry and you catch yourself saying, "This is nicely done." I almost forgot I was driving what many would consider the most boring car on sale in the United States.
The redesigned 2012 Camry isn't the pinnacle of bland ambition that it once was. Granted, I was driving a top-line XLE V-6 with leather and the works, but it wasn't the extras that impressed. It was the improved bones of the car.
This is the seventh generation of Camry — 29 years and still rolling. The styling redesign is safe but confident. The dimensions are the same as the 2011 model but with a little more interior room and trunk space. Using a lot of high-strength steel saved 121 to 150 pounds among the four trim levels. And the saved weight went to improvements in fuel economy. The engines and transmissions are carryover, but with more power (10 hp) to the four-cylinder.
The steel and structural enhancements, particularly in the cowl area, made the car more rigid, which helps suspension performance and reduces noise and vibration. Ride quality is much improved — smoother-rolling and quieter. And with significantly more soundproofing, including fabric-lined rear fender wells. You don't see that treatment on many mainstream autos.
Refinement and attention to detail have been reintroduced to the cabin. The headliner and visors are of a classy woven fabric, a welcome departure from the old felty material. Even the windshield pillars have an attractive textured plastic cover. Visors, with covered and lighted mirrors, have extenders, and there's a generous blackout patch behind the mirror to blunt glare.
It won't take hours studying the owner's manual to figure out the cabin controls or electronics. Sightlines are good; the rearview camera includes guidance lines (another first), and the seats have good seat-bottom and lower-back support. The XLE has an eight-way power driver seat but only offers a four-way for passengers. (Why do most manufacturers think front-seat passengers don't like height adjustment for the seat?)
The rear seats have a comfortable back angle, plenty of footroom and a broad, padded center armrest with cup holders. The low exhaust tunnel helps center-seat foot space, which is enhanced by the concave back to the front center console. These are considerate designs that make the most of three-across seating, but the center position is child-class. It does, however, come complete with a head restraint.
The Camry is sold in four trim levels — L, LE, XLE and the sporty SE — with two engines and a gasoline-electric hybrid model. Starting prices range from $22,755, including $760 freight charge from Indiana or Kentucky, to $30,605. The hybrid ranges in price from $26,660 to $28,160; it has fuel economy ratings of 43 mpg city and 39 hwy.
Those starting prices are down $200 on the LE, $965 on the SE and $2,000 on the XLE. Hybrid pricing was cut by $1,150 on the LE model and $800 on the XLE. And standard equipment was increased, according to Toyota. Those features include Bluetooth hands-free phone connection; air conditioning with air filter; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; projector-beam headlamps; tilt-telescopic steering wheel; six-speaker CD audio system with an auxiliary audio/USB/iPod inputs; and 16-inch wheels with four-wheel disc brakes.
Moving up to the LE ($23,260) adds remote locking; a display audio system with 6.1-inch touchscreen that provides vehicle information; phone-book access and music streaming via Bluetooth; auto on/off headlights; steering wheel with audio and Bluetooth controls; and variable intermittent wipers. The exterior is dressed up with side rocker panels with chrome inserts
XLE adds premium content with additional standard features such as the all-new Display Audio; 17-inch alloy wheels; premium chrome exterior accents; heated outside mirrors; integrated chrome fog lamps; leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated audio and Bluetooth controls; wood-style interior trim; dual-zone auto climate control with rear air vents; and eight-way power driver seat.
The XLE V-6 ($30,605) adds smart-key locking and push-button starting; leather-trimmed upholstery; heated front seats; navigation with display audio and Entune mobile app service; and a back-up camera.
Entry-level models come with a 178-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission, which returns fuel economy of 25 mpg city and 35 highway. That's up by 3 mpg in each range over last year.
Optional and standard on the top-line XLE, today's test car, is the 268-hp 3.5-liter V-6, which has estimated fuel-economy ratings of 21 mpg city, 30 highway. That's up by 1 mpg city/hwy.
The power improvements come without adding the pricy technologies of gasoline-direct injection or a seven- or eight-speed transmission.
Four-wheel disc brakes have a luxury-class refinement to the stopping force. Steering is light and steady, even if there isn't much feedback. Throttle roll-on is smooth and the six-speed is graceful but potent when needed.
There's nothing sexy about the Camry's styling. The car doesn't seduce with prestige and performance. It's not personal jewelry to fit an ego. It is, however, a good, functional car that doesn't overwhelm with features and confusing controls. This Camry has understated finesse to smooth the bumps on the road of life — and a mid-priced family sedan can't be expected to do much more than that.