The Toyota Camry is the best-selling sedan in the U.S. Its track record of reliability, safety and efficiency has made it a favorite of vehicle shoppers looking for practical transportation. No longer is it a clear segment leader, though, as other midsize sedans are challenging the Camry on several fronts, and its solid reliability shows signs of fading.
I drove the SE version, which attempts to defy the Camry’s practical, unexciting image with a higher-output four-cylinder, firmer suspension and cosmetic add-ons. In person, I was surprised by how little it took for the SE package to really enhance the base Camry’s dull demeanor. In fact, I favor the SE’s sporting good looks to many other midsize sedans, which as a whole is mostly a drab segment. Although the SE gets by with its appearance, it isn’t a complete package because there isn’t much reward in the fun-to-drive department.
The Camry lineup starts with the base model and offers LE, SE, XLE and Hybrid trim levels.
The Toyota Camry has remained a best-seller even without a few key competitive features, which have been added for 2010: a standard electronic stability system, six-speed automatic transmission and optional USB input for controlling, as well as playing, iPods through the stereo. For an evaluation of the USB integration, which I was not a fan of, see the video to the right. Compare the 2010 model to the 2009 version here. Body-type rivals like the 2010 Hyundai Sonata, 2010 Honda Accord, 2010 Mazda6 and 2010 Chevrolet Malibu have incorporated one or more of those key features for a few model years.
Base-model vehicles have new front styling, including a redesigned grille with chrome trim and new, larger headlights. The 2010’s nose job is an improvement from the 2009’s forgettable front styling. SE models get a blacked-out grille and smoked-headlight-housing treatment. The SE is better-looking than a regular Camry, thanks to enhancements like a lower front spoiler, more aggressive side sills, fog lights, 17-inch five-spoke wheel and tires and dual tailpipes with a black lower bumper.
Two new four-cylinder engines are available. For the first time on a Toyota Camry, they team with a six-speed automatic transmission to help improve fuel economy; a six-speed manual is standard. The SE uses a more powerful engine than base, LE and XLE models; it makes 179 horsepower instead of 169 hp. The SE makes 21 more horsepower than the 2009 SE without hurting gas mileage. In fact, gas mileage has actually improved 1 mpg in city and highway ratings. I averaged 29 mpg during a 400-mile week of mostly highway driving. That’s not far from the automatic’s 32 mpg highway rating. Both four-cylinders are rated with mileage of 22/32 mpg city/highway; the manual is rated at 22 city mpg and 33 hwy mpg.
| Gas Mileage Compared (city/highway, mpg)
| 2010 Ford Fusion*
| 2010 Chevrolet Malibu w/6-speed auto
| 2010 Toyota Camry
| 2010 Honda Accord
| 2010 Chevrolet Malibu w/4-speed auto
| 2010 Hyundai Sonata
| 2010 Mazda6
The SE abandons the Toyota Camry’s traditional soft, unobtrusive ride quality with a sport suspension, resulting in a ride that’s surprisingly stiff for a Camry. It’s by no means teeth-jarring, but there’s definitely a taut feeling that could put off traditional Camry buyers. When pushed into corners, the Camry leans and understeers, not feeling like a confident performer. Unique to the SE is a 179-hp version of Toyota’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder. When teamed with the new six-speed automatic transmission, this engine made the SE a peppy package; a 268-hp V-6 is optional. Gear changes were smooth during acceleration with minimal engine noise even during heavy acceleration.
A sporty Toyota Camry is kind of like the requisite “bad-boy” member of a boy band. No matter how aggressive the attempt, he’s still in a boy band. Likewise, the SE can’t escape its Camry roots. Camry loyalists may be drawn to the SE as a sportier alternative, but for the discriminating enthusiast, the 2009 Mazda6 offers a better-executed sport package.
Here’s where the Toyota Camry’s comfort-focused roots are a benefit to the SE: The front and rear seats are extremely comfortable. There’s good back support with the eight-way power-adjustable seats, and soft seat cushions made my long drives doable, even with the SE’s stiff suspension. For a sport model, the SE’s front seats don’t have aggressive side bolstering to keep you from sliding around, but carving corners isn’t the Camry’s strong suit, so it’s not a deal-breaker.
When you opt for the SE you lose the folding backseat option; in its place is a center pass-through. The folding seats and a half-foot of trunk space are sacrificed for a rear suspension brace that’s intended to improve handling. With my minimal cargo-carrying needs the large trunk was suitable enough without the folding backseat. Those with more demanding cargo needs, especially longer items, should avoid the Toyota Camry SE or Toyota Camry XLE, which also doesn’t include a folding backseat.
For $22,165, the SE includes all of the suspension, engine and exterior features — minus the spoiler, a $200 option. As tested, our SE listed at $27,725, not including the $750 destination fee. Options on our test car included automatic transmission, navigation system with backup camera, USB input, Bluetooth, JBL audio system, moonroof and smart key system with push-button start.
A base Toyota Camry starts at $19,395, so the SE package is a cheap way to liven it up. A base Mazda6 embodies a sporty nature, though, and starts at $18,450.
The 2010 Toyota Camry earned Good ratings — the best score — in frontal and side crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; it scored Marginal in rear protection, which is why the Camry doesn’t nab the IIHS’ Top Safety Pick award. The 2009 Honda Accord and 2010 Ford Fusion earn the designation.
For a complete list of the Camry’s safety features, see here.
The Toyota Camry has shown waning reliability in recent model years with average overall ratings by Consumer Reports and a brief spell below average for a particular drivetrain. Currently, there aren’t any predictions for the 2010.
Noteworthy in this segment is the 2010 Ford Fusion’s predicted top reliability rating for front-wheel-drive four- and six-cylinder models. The Honda Accord’s scores are above average for four- and six-cylinder models, but they’re not as high as the Fusion’s.
Shoppers should drive both the Toyota Camry SE and other Camry trims to see if the sport-tuned suspension is too firm for daily commutes. There are a lot of good midsize sedans out there. While the 2010 Camry steps up its game, consumers now have more solid options than ever.
In recent years, the competition has caught up with the Toyota Camry while its reliability has slipped a bit, making the Camry more of an average choice than a class-leading midsize sedan.