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2012 Toyota Camry: Leading, like always

Posted by Bill Griffith  February 10, 2012 02:38 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Today’s test car is the 2012 Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the United States for the last 10 years (and counting) and 14 of the past 15 years.

The Camry has been totally redesigned for this model year and comes to market with a huge bulls-eye on its back.

Competition in the segment never has been so fierce. Traditionally, the Honda Accord is the Camry’s number one rival. However, Toyota’s seventh-generation Camry already is on the market and getting a running start with the redesigned Accord not due out until the middle of this year.

2012-Toyota-Camry-XLE-rear.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

However, there’s a new playing field. Both Hyundai (Sonata) and Kia (Optima) made inroads in capturing market share last year with Japanese automakers suffering production interruptions in the tsunami aftermath. Ford introduced a dynamic-looking redesign of its successful Fusion at this month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Volkswagen (Passat), Chevrolet (Malibu), and Nissan (new Altima due out later this year) also want more mid-sized market share.

Thus the news that Toyota sold 33,000 Camrys in December was significant. So was the quote from Toyota Division general manager Bob Carter that the average age of Camry buyers had dropped from 60 to 52. Both are indications that Camry sales are going to stay strong.

Our test vehicle was the top-of-the-line XLE V-6 sedan. It’s a Lexus-like vehicle with an MSRP (including destination) of $30,605. A variety of options, including premium audio/navigation ($1,550), blind spot monitoring ($500), and safety connect ($450) brought the bottom line to a near-Lexus $33,446.

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Click photo for larger version.

Indeed, we wouldn’t counter the argument that this version of the Camry is just short of the Lexus ES350—the company’s entry-level luxury vehicle that’s based on the Camry platform. A redesign of the ES 350 is due out at midyear as the start of a big freshening of the Lexus lineup.

While we gasped at the sticker price, a little research shows that the base Camry starts at $22,715 with the sportier SE version at $23,760. Toyota’s Carter told the industry newspaper Automotive News that the SE has been accounting for both 45 percent of sales and has an average buyer’s age of 45.

On the road the Camry is exceptionally quiet and the ride is refined. Bumpy roads were not a challenge and the speed-sensitive electronic power steering had a reassuring feel. As always, quality, dependability, and reliability are the Camry hallmarks and this version follows that formula.

Under the hood, the XLE’s V-6 (with 268 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque) gave amazing performance while giving us 27.2 miles per gallon. It’s rated at 21 mpg city and 30 in highway driving. However, given the strides Toyota has made with its four-cylinder engine over the years, I’d drive one of those first and expect to be happy with both the performance and extra 3-5 mpg. The four is available in all four trim levels—L, LE, SE, and XLE. The six is available only in the LE and XLE.

Both engines come with a six-speed automatic transmission. A few of us (I once owned a ’97 V-6 Camry with a five-speed manual) might bemoan the lack of a manual shifter, but methinks it was the right choice. SE buyers will find that model’s automatic is set for faster shift times and downshift “blipping” when in sport mode.

2012-Toyota-Camry-XLE-gauges.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

Toyota did a nice job styling the new Camry. It’s got a lower and wider stance. It was so low that at first glance I feared it would scrape on the steep entry to my driveway (hate when that happens to a new vehicle), but it was fine even on straight-on approaches. Gone is the hippy, saddlebag look that the previous design had when viewed from behind.

Inside, the engineers found a bit of extra space in the cabin. The XLE’s standard heated seats were comfortable and supportive and materials were of good quality—likely a decision to approach but not equal the entry-level Lexus. The multi-tiered dashboard with visible stitching was a Brooks Brothers-like touch.

There’s a “economy” gauge with a moving LED lights that arc over it from right to left to indicate (reward?) economical driving techniques. The instruments had a high-tech look as did the multi-functional touch screen for the navigation-audio system. Bluetooth worked well.

Camry’s sales’ leader crown seems safe. It will be a major surprise if any of the competition—formidable as it may prove to be—can wrest that away.

Bill Griffith can be reached at WGriffith@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.



2012 Toyota Camry XLE

THE BASICS
Price, base / as tested (with destination): $30,605 / $33,446.
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 21 mpg city / 30 mpg highway.
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 27.2 mpg
Drivetrain: 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive.
Body: Four-door, five-passenger sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 268.
Torque: 248 lb.-ft.
Overall length: 189.2 in.
Wheelbase: 109.3 in.
Height: 57.9 in.
Width: 71.7 in.
Curb weight: 3,395 pounds.

THE GOOD:
A step forward all around. Refined, roomy, comfortable.

THE BAD: The control buttons seem chintzy at first glance; however, they have a good solid feel when pushed.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The best-seller gets better.

ALSO CONSIDER:
Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Passat.

A version of this story appeared on page J1 of The Boston Globe on Jan. 28, 2012.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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