More manufacturers are trying to eat Toyota’s lunch with dramatic mid-sized options aimed at taking at least a small number of Camry buyers away. The organic Hyundai Sonata and Euro-styled Kia Optima are the two biggest challengers for now, with a broad range of four-cylinder power options, including hybrid electric or turbocharged.
|1. SE models get 17 or 18-inch wheels, a stiffer suspension, custom bodywork with a rear spoiler, steering-wheel paddle shifters, silver trim and a leather-wrapped 3-spoke steering wheel with audio and Bluetooth controls.
2. SE options include a rear-view camera, heated seats, a power moonroof, as well as leather and faux-suede seats.
3. The SE trim is available with a 178 hp 4-cylinder with a class-leading 25/35 mpg or a 268 hp V6 with a 21/30 mpg rating.
4. 4-cylinder Camry SE models start from $23,000 with the V6 at $26,640.
In contrast, despite its near-identical size and similar styling, the 2012 Camry is in fact, all new. You won’t find a single body panel that swaps over from older to newer, and if you park the two side-by-side, the differences are more apparent. But that’s just fine with Toyota – most of its customers actually value the ‘driving appliance’ tag enthusiasts generally paint on it. They don’t want to stick out. They don’t want to be the loner. For them, the Camry will suit their needs just fine – much better than the last generation, in fact.
SE: FOR THE RARE SPORT-MINDED CAMRY DRIVER
But to appeal to the paper-thin slice that puts a greater value on driving enjoyment, Toyota has regularly offered an SE package that generally packs a thimble-full of extra visual punch.
So, surprise, surprise: Toyota’s efforts on the new Camry SE go far beyond the usual wing-‘n-sticker brigade. We shouldn’t be so shocked. After all, this is the same company that went above and beyond with the SE version of the Sienna minivan, turning it into a genuinely enjoyable machine.
The Camry SE follows the same recipe: the front strut suspension is stiffened and lowered slightly, while the rear gets a more thorough makeover, including a fractionally longer, solid stabilizer bar that replaces the more pliant tube design. Also, Toyota engineers removed some of the fluid-filled bushings with more-rigid ‘pillow-ball’ designs for greater control. The result is hardly razor sharp and kidney-killing in its firmness, but compared to the regular isolation chamber Camry, the SE is a pleasant change.
4-CYLINDER A FUEL ECONOMY LEADER, V6 OUTSHINED BY TURBO RIVALS
Like the rest of the Camry line, the SE is available with either a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that produces 178 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque or an optional 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horses and a useful 248 lb-ft of torque. Both engines use the same six-speed automatic transmission that drives the front wheels alone. Mechanically, they’re identical other than the V6 getting wider 225/45/18 all-season tires on 18-inch wheels – four-bangers get 215/55/17s on 17-inch wheels of the same design – and dual chrome exhaust tips instead of one.
Upgrading to the V6 only adds 180 lbs to the 3,240-lb 2.5 SE, but the four-cylinder wins in fuel economy: 25/35 mpg (city/hwy) compared to 21/30. It is critically more efficient than the Hyundai/Kia twins, but is down on power – though doesn’t feel that way in daily driving. The V6 has no such victories, losing to the more potent and less thirsty turbo-fours.
The four-cylinder version is quick enough for most situations – we’re guessing 0-60 mph in the eights – and plays out more as a momentum machine. The steering doesn’t have a lot of feel to it thanks to the new electric power steering system, but the car is tidy to drive, if still overly comfy compared to its rivals. Braking is actually pretty good, with no overly active ABS getting involved in normal situations.
The V6 offers more options to the driver since it has 90 more horses to play with and feels like a rocketship in comparison. The larger tires help the car respond quicker, although it does have that extra weight over the nose.
Ultimately, both cars will probably never be driven anywhere near the limit intentionally, and if they are, Toyota’s Catholic nun-like electronic safety suite will severely rap your knuckles with a ruler by cutting engine power severely when activated. No fun for the enthusiast, but not surprising given the expected customer profiles.
SPORTIER LOOK, MUCH IMPROVED INTERIOR
The visual changes amount to an Acura TL-like front fascia, blacked-out grilles and headlamp surrounds, lower side sills, and a rear spoiler. Even with the added adrenaline, the Camry SE may still cause bouts of yawning.
Inside, the SE builds on the already improved 2012 cabin, which now features higher-quality materials, more luxurious touches like stitching on the dash, and more supportive seats in every Camry. SE exclusives include a three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated audio and Bluetooth controls, silver trim and… paddle shifters. They’re perhaps the most useless feature on the car given a) the number of customers who would actually use them is so small it’s incalculable, and b) Toyota doesn’t like drivers thinking for themselves, and it’s an easy bet that the computer would automatically reject any shift request that it deems unacceptable.
Standard equipment is long and generous, including Toyota’s Entune audio system, an attempt at hitting Ford’s SYNC where it hurts. Here, it comes with a 6.1-inch touch-screen display that can be used to access songs, vehicle data, phone books and text messages. In V6 models, it also features a navigation feature.
SE-only options include a convenience package with a rear-view camera, heated seats and auto-dimming rearview mirrors, leather and faux-suede seating and a power moonroof.
Critically, Toyota has addressed one major problem, and that’s value. The four-cylinder SE starts at $23,000, the V6 at $26,640; both essentially unchanged from before despite the increase in standard equipment.
For the dozen or so customers out there who are desperately looking for a ‘sporty’ Camry, this is the best yet. But compared to similarly equipped Optimas and Sonatas, the SE doesn’t hold up on the ‘sport sedan’ front; Hyundai, and especially Kia, deliver more go and more whoa for less dough.