The midsize-sedan class is one of the most competitive segments in the automotive marketplace, with Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord fighting for the title of market leader. A new Camry for 2012 and an impending Accord for 2013 heat things up even further. Ford's new-for-2013 Fusion looks competitive, too.
Camry, though, has a little explaining to do. A 2010 refresh left critics complaining about cost-cutting measures like interior squeaks and rattles and a cabin draped in budget-grade plastics. For 2012, it was redesigned with fresh styling, new features and what appears to be a return to the level of quality that's kept it a midsize benchmark for years. After renting a 2011 Camry LE over New Year's, I was anxious to compare them, so I put a few hundred miles on our 2012 Camry test car to gauge its improvement.
Our test Camry was a four-cylinder XLE with a base price of $24,725. Convenience standards included keyless entry, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, dual-zone automatic climate controls, power front seats and a sunroof. A Leather Package (which, coupled with the Convenience Package, cost $2,845) added goodies like heated, leather-trimmed front seats, power front passenger seat, push-button start and a backup camera. The optional navigation system cost an extra $1,050 and included HD and satellite radio, text-to-speech functionality, a digital-media player connection with USB port and Bluetooth connectivity.
During my weekend drive, I got 25.4 mpg after driving 190 mostly highway miles, disappointing since the EPA rates the four-cylinder at 25/35 mpg city/highway. What didn't disappoint, however, was the four-cylinder. The Camry's 178-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine and six-speed automatic transmission proved more potent than expected. It was surprisingly peppy in stop- and-go traffic and more than adequate during passing and merging maneuvers on the highway.
The surprises carried over inside, too. I've always thought two-tone color schemes in a cabin go a long way toward sprucing things up, and the Camry definitely benefits from the Leather Package's sharp two-color seats. Even better though, is that much of the hard plastic and panel gaps that were tough to ignore in the previous-generation Camry have been replaced with a generous amount of soft-touch plastics and some handsome wood trim.
This XLE had a version of the previous-generation's navigation system — the entry-level unit with the smaller touch-screen. (The new, more advanced premium navigation system is available only on XLE V-6 Camrys.) Still, it was fairly intuitive to use, though it would often omit street names. Instead of telling me to turn on Manheim Road, it would say, "Turn right on … " I reached my destination OK, but the omissions were puzzling.
Less puzzling but more annoying was the placement of the Latch anchors in the backseat. My knuckles were casualties of its recessed brackets. I had to dig deep into the seatback to get the hooks to connect properly with the brackets while trying to install a rear-facing convertible car seat for my toddler. Ouch.
Despite the sometimes glitchy navigation system and my workout with the car seat, the Camry fit my family nicely. Its roomy, comfortable interior, composed ride and decent level of convenience equipment for the price make it a pleasant long-trip sedan.
Should Toyota feel threatened by the looming Accord? Of course, but at least the Camry’s interior is back up to the standards we expect from a midsize car leader.