Test Driven: 2012 Toyota Camry SE V6

The Camry is probably the one vehicle everyone who loves cars could care less about 100% of the time.  In essence, it’s vanilla-flavored vanilla, with no other description.  But, everyone’s either sat in one, ridden in one, or driven one at some point, including me.  My daily driver up until very recently was a tan 2007 Hybrid.  It still, though, outsells everything in its segment and all of its competitors use it as a benchmark.  The 2007-2011 Camry was a true bestseller and sent everyone back to the drawing board.  But, it’s new again this year, so I took the wheel of this slick SE V6 and asked this question: Will it repeat the trick it made back in 2007? 

First things first, the new model is a very nice looking car.  The old model was a bit bulbous and looked downright fat by comparison, with bulging fenders and too many curves.  Even the sporty SE model looked like it could lose a few pounds here and there.  This new one is chiseled down and much sleeker, with a slimmer face and side panels that don’t look over-sized anymore.  The headlights do resemble the Corolla a little bit, but with the SE’s appearance package, the resemblance is not nearly as glaring.  In fact, in black, the new model resolves the styling woes of the previous one completely.  It’s sleek where the current Car of the Year, the VW Passat, is somewhat boxy, and yet I can still see one from ten car lengths away and still say, “Toyota Camry.”  Toyota preserved tehe Camry’s shape while making it look avant-garde compared to its predecessor.  The back end works as well, looking more angular and chunky without being boxy.

The interior is also nice.  Having become very used to a 4 year old Hybrid interior, the SE’s black leather seats offer more bolstering and there seems to be a bit more front legroom.  Rear seat room is still aplenty as well, with a comfy bench and full headrests. The quality hasn’t changed much, which is not a detriment–4 years of hard abuse and the Hybrid in my driveway has only one or two faults (one being my fault, when I pushed a painting into the rear passenger compartment and broke one of the rear vent handles, and the other being a center stack compartment cover that sticks when closed).  The basic layout is traditional Camry, so it takes nanoseconds to figure out, and even the navigation system is easy.  Build quality inside and out is a big improvement as well, with tight shutlines and smooth paint.  The steering wheel, which now has a slightly smaller radius and a thicker rim, doesn’t feel as “old-school American” as the previous one, and the shapes impart a feel of stepping into a new age for the Camry, just like the exterior.  The test car here, a 2012 SE V6 with every option box checked, rings up for $30,910–a decent value for a car with the top engine, GPS, leather, sport suspension, and very tasty 18-inch five spoke alloy wheels.  In fact, Toyota slashed prices on the new model, a great idea considering that I saw the last Camry as being a bit overpriced.

On the road, the new model is a much tighter car, as its appearance seems to have made an impression on the driving dynamics.  The ride is quite comfortable even in this SE V6, with its 18 inch rims.  However, don’t get into this car thinking it’s going to out-handle a BMW M3.  It’s still no driver’s car, but it makes a credible impression of a straight-line performer.  The V6 engine is pretty much identical to the previous model, a DOHC 3.5L engine putting out 268hp at 6200rpm and 248lbs-ft of torque at 4800rpm, with variable valve timing.  It’s not slow–Motor Trend tested one a week before I drove this car in November, and hit 60MPH in 5.8 seconds.  For a family sedan, that’s downright impressive, and the SE V6 does indeed feel that quick. The paddle shifters are a nice addition as well, and work relatively well for what sort of car they’ve been dropped into.  The brakes are a bit soft but the 4-wheel discs are perfectly done, with moderate nosedive but good stopping performance.  The steering is probably the biggest hint that this is not a sports sedan.  It’s an electric job, and lacks feel most of the time (it’s light) but is still accurate.  Visibility is about the same as the old one, so no worries there either.  That said, this new car feels much more stable around corners and gives better feedback.  The engine note is pleasant in normal cruising and isn’t a shameful noise when pushed hard–wind noise and tire noise are low, a Camry hallmark. The previous Camry was described as a bit of a baby Lexus, and this one is similar in that respect, but sharper too.

While no normal Camry driver is going to take their new family truckster to the limit, it’s nice to know Toyota has tightened things up.  Toyota faithful will be happy to know that the new model will still do what the old ones did, but those of us who care about cars that are fun should be happy to hear that Toyota made this one a bit more fun to drive and a bit less boring to look at.  They dropped prices, dropped weight, and redid a lot of other things, and the new Camry looks fit, drives fit, and is priced right.  No matter how good the new Passat may be (I have driven one as well and I do think that it drives better than the Toyota, and has a much more upscale interior), it’s going to have a hard time outselling this car.  It is not the enthusiast’s choice for this market, but for most of America, I can say that the new V6 Camry does quite a lot of things very well.

-Albert Davis

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