By Brian WongMarch 13, 2020
The name Toyota does not automatically inspire a sense of excitement. Notwithstanding the return of the Supra sports car for the 2020 model year, the brand these days is known primarily for reliability and safety. Those are important factors for car shoppers to be sure, but other brands have gotten much better at improving drivability in their lineups (Hyundai in particular). To fight this perception, Toyota turned the attention of its performance division, Toyota Racing Development, to its larger sedans for 2020. The Camry and Avalon both add TRD trims for the new model year with the goal of adding in some needed pizazz to both vehicles — and to the brand as a whole.
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The Camry TRD slots in between the SE four-cylinder and XSE V-6 trim levels of the Camry, coming with an SE level of equipment but also the larger 3.5-liter V-6 engine found in the XSE; it kind of splits the difference between those two sportier trims. It’s easy to pick out the TRD, with its 19-inch black alloy wheels, gloss-black front grille, aerodynamic body kit and prominent rear spoiler. It’s offered in white, red or silver paint, all with a black roof and trim or all-black monochrome.
There also are real performance upgrades to match its boy-racer looks, including thicker underbody braces, stiffer springs and sway bars, new shocks, larger brakes and summer tires. The car has also been lowered by 0.6 inch, which drops the center of gravity and makes it look more aggressive. And just in case you don’t see the Camry coming, a TRD cat-back dual exhaust ensures you’ll at least hear it.
I tested the car out in Los Angeles while Fred Meier, Cars.com’s Washington D.C. bureau chief, tested it out on the opposite side of the country, after which we engaged in a bicoastal convo about what we thought of the Camry TRD and what it might mean for Toyota as a whole.
Brian Wong: We can get more into the specifics in a little bit, but first I just want to know simply: Did you like it? Beyond that, did you like it more than the “regular” versions of the Camry?
Fred Meier: The short answer is yes, I like it. I also like that the reliable Camry has a legitimately sportier midrange model to rival sporty middle children of other mid-size sedans, such as the Honda Accord Sport 2.0-liter turbo and the Mazda6’s Grand Touring 2.5T. Also, I’ve always liked the Toyota V-6, and the TRD is now the cheapest way to get it in a Camry. Plus, the TRD has performance upgrades — a beefed-up suspension and brakes — that are the real deal. It feels tight and controlled, unlike the mushier feel of the civilian Camry.
The TRD interior looks great, too, though the seats need more bolstering. And the appearance is fun, even if the rear wing might be a step too far (though it’s a damn big trunk handle). I like the TRD better than the regular Camry both for its performance upgrades and because it never will be mistaken for my mom’s Camry, though I wish the TRD offered more convenience features.
BW: I liked the wing! If you’re going to beef up the car like this, I don’t mind that being reflected in the styling. As for the rest of the changes, I’m not as sold. I don’t doubt the amount of work that Toyota put into the car’s suspension; the ride is noticeably stiffer, and it can hustle from corner to corner with more stability. But my short answer would be that I didn’t like it, because Toyota missed an opportunity to do some work on the powertrain in addition to those performance upgrades. The V-6 puts out plenty of power (301 horsepower), but as we’ve noted in other Toyota vehicles with the same engine, it’s hard to keep the engine in the power band due to its running on the Atkinson cycle most of the time for greater efficiency. Compounding that problem is the transmission, which feels slow (even when using the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters) and doesn’t want to hold gears enough to help you out. The lack of throttle response holds the car back and I’m not sure it was worth sacrificing the ride quality for a small-to-medium gain in overall performance.
FM: I have no problem with the V-6 — 400 hp would be better than 300, sure, but that’s not realistic for this car. And what a treat to rev a big V-6 (with that extra TRD exhaust note) after a steady diet of whiny little surging turbos. And I disagree on the ride penalty; the TRD is firmer, but not at all harsh on D.C. city streets and rougher highways.
I don’t disagree with your other criticisms, however. The transmission’s tall gearing and reluctant shifting carry over from the regular Camry, and the paddles aren’t really a manual mode — the gear you select is a top, but it still does its own thing with the gears below, even in a corner. The not-great steering, too, seems to be standard Camry. Sport mode sharpened throttle response, but it didn’t help the transmission.
But I go back to this being a more interesting Camry versus a wannabe Kia Stinger.
BW: More interesting, sure, but at what cost? I struggle a bit with the value proposition on this car. It slots between the SE and XSE, but it pretty much sticks with an SE level of features while adding $5,000 to the price tag for the V-6, suspension upgrades and the sporty looks. I might not need the heated seats as much as you do out here in California, but I’d still like them for those infrequent times the temperature dips. My test car stickered at $32,920 (including a destination charge), and that felt like a lot to pay for what you get, though the abundance of safety features is still impressive (as it is on almost all Toyotas these days).
Apropos of the rest of the class, there seems to be a dearth of fun-to-drive vehicles. The rumors of a forthcoming Hyundai Sonata N Line may solve that given how effective Hyundai’s recent performance upgrades have been on cars like the Veloster and Elantra GT. But I don’t think the Camry TRD fills this gaping hole.
FM: Mine stickered for the same thanks to the extra-cost red paint, which I loved. But I think you’re getting value for a still-moderate mid-size price — depending on what you value. The V-6 XSE has more extras but not the chassis upgrades, and it’s more than $3,000 higher; the regular four-banger SE is about that much less than a TRD — and a lot less interesting. More puzzling to me is that Toyota won’t let me spend just a little more for a few more features — heated seats, a blind spot warning system, dual-zone climate control and the bigger media display to name just four. And does the person in the market for a spicier Camry sedan really want to make do with no backseat air vents, USB or even a fold-down armrest?
BW: I will say this: The Camry TRD made more sense to me than the Avalon TRD, which Toyota also introduced for 2020. The Avalon TRD is even more languid in the turns, slower and a lot costlier. This pair of sedans is the only non-SUV or truck Toyota vehicles to get TRD-specific trim levels for the current model year (the Toyota 86 had a TRD Special Edition in 2019), but given that Toyota also has a pair of sports cars, it’s interesting that the racing team went after the bigger cars first. What do you think Toyota is trying to accomplish with the TRD trim levels?
FM: It’s a conservative company, but it is taking some risks. Toyota’s leadership has been saying for several years now that it wants to give the lineup more pizazz, to be vehicles you want and not just the safe choice. And they want to expand the TRD label. In that context these cars make sense. And what’s more in need of some juicing than the Camry, on which they spent real money for a very good redesign? The TRD builds on the Camry’s good points to be mildly spicier. It would have been second on my list after the Corolla — nicely redesigned with, at last, a decent interior and also a new sportier hatchback version. A TRD version would have played to the Corolla’s strengths, which I don’t think is true for the Avalon.The Avalon’s look is a hoot, but it’s only mildly a better performer, and the extras don’t really add to the Avalon’s core appeal, which is to be a big, roomy, comfortable cruiser. If anything, I think the hybrid Avalon is a better variation on that theme — comfort and good mileage, too.
BW: Is this a risk? I see it more as a very safe bet; a risk would be for Toyota to actually produce a sporty car on its own. Scared money don’t make no money, and Toyota has hedged its investment by going in on sports cars with other companies and trying to rely on trim levels. And those trim level changes eschew what we would both agree are needed powertrain changes; adding on some body bits doesn’t give them a ton of street cred.
A roadmap for Toyota would be more like what Hyundai has done over the past couple years with the Veloster N and it’s forthcoming N Line models, which got bigger engines to go along with the other performance upgrades. Until Toyota makes its own sports car, or at the very least a good turbocharged four-cylinder (or V-6 for that matter) with a transmission that doesn’t feel like it’s wading through a bog, I see these more as half-measures.
FM: Just spending money to improve a car rather than hatching a new SUV is a risk these days. So is fielding a sports car. I hope Toyota keeps doing it — as well as puts some more work into transmission and steering tuning for the sedans.
BW: So say we all. Hopefully, Toyota does make a bona fide Corolla Hatchback TRD we can test and run this back next year!
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