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Test Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry SE


For years, the Toyota Camry has been the symbol of complacency. People didn’t buy a Camry for its nifty features, nice interior or attractive design because, well, it didn’t have any of those things. They bought a Camry because of its reliability, quality and affordability and because almost everyone else had one.

This combination worked really well for Toyota, as the Camry has been the bestselling car in the United States since 1997, save for one year (2001). The mid-size car market competition is increasing, however, with a lot of it coming from Hyundai.

All of a sudden the Camry’s bland styling, monotonous interior and lack of features couldn’t hold up to the Sonata’s curvy lines, attractive interior and long list of standard features. Not to mention that all these were in addition to the Sonata’s cheaper price, and it had one of the industry’s best warranties.

Then the Camry’s reputation was damaged with the dreaded unintended acceleration issue that affected more than a million 2009-2010 Camrys. So with the increased competition and a hit to its reliability, it was imperative for Toyota to come out with an all-new Camry for 2012.

To the untrained eye, it may not seem that the Camry’s styling has changed much. But a closer look reveals that the Camry has gotten a little more attractive than the previous model, with a more aerodynamic design in the front and rear. Toyota also redesigned the taillights, which look like the Nissan Maxima’s boomerangs with a lot less exaggeration. It’s a step in the right direction but still a far cry from the attention-grabbing design of the Sonata.

Gone are the cheap plastics and bland styling of interiors from previous Camrys. The all-new interior is appealing, with its curvy dash and easy-to-read displays. There are, however, many faux materials throughout, and some do a better job of emulating than others.

For instance, the “Softex” fake leather on the seats looked and felt of high quality, and in our sporty SE model even had French stitching. But the silver plastic throughout the interior that is supposed to pass as aluminum looked and felt just like it is -— fake.

The GPS unit has more than maps. It has apps you can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and included such things as Pandora. Unlike a lot of other Bluetooth-enabled systems in other cars, the one in the Camry proved easy to use and worked flawlessly.

The previous generation’s 3.5-liter V6 and 2.5-liter four-cylinder pretty much come to 2012 unchanged. Our test car was equipped with the 178-hp 2.5-liter, and, like previous Camrys, it was smooth and uneventful. Acceleration is adequate for everyday driving, sprinting to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds.

The six-speed automatic transmission also carries through unchanged, but now the sporty SE model comes with plastic, column-mounted shift paddles. They are pretty responsive for a Camry and make it a tad less boring to drive. However, the car still automatically shifts at redline, which can be irritating if you happen to shift just a millisecond later because then it skips to the next gear, ruining your chances of winning the drag race.

The Camry does get slightly better fuel economy for 2012, with 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway for the four-cylinder. This ties it with the 2.4-liter Hyundai Sonata SE on the highway and is two mpg better in the city.

The Camry SE comes equipped with a larger stabilizer bar that provides a firmer ride than other Camry models, but it’s still on the cushy side with body-roll being prominent. The electric steering was also more on the comfortable side and provided less feedback than I would have liked.

The base price of the 2012 Camry SE is $23,845, but our test car came fully loaded with navigation ($1,050), moonroof ($915), 8-way power-adjustable seats ($440), $1,130 worth of miscellaneous interior goodies (like auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass, floor mats, cargo net, etc.) and an additional $240 worth of dealer add-ons, which brings the as-tested price to $27,620.

While Toyota made big strides in the right direction, the competition is still tough, especially with the two-time Best Buy winner Hyundai Sonata and now with the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion coming later this year. But with the new features and updated exterior and interior, at least buyers might consider buying the Camry for some reason outside of its reliability and quality.  

The test car was provided courtesy of Oxford Toyota.