First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry will keep fans happy but faces tough competition

Having expectations for a Toyota Camry is like expecting a bowl of pudding to rock your world…it just really doesn’t happen. That’s because when car enthusiasts think of the Toyota Camry, they immediately default to “appliance, white good,” but most of all: boring. However, Toyota Camrys of the past have charmed in their own individual ways despite their humdrum driving characteristics. In other words, they were likened to the household appliances that rarely ever saw use; but, whenever you used them, you were glad you spent the money. The unfortunate bit was that if you were to talk about such an experience amongst your friends, you’d most likely see them struggling to avoid yawning at you.

Getting back on topic, for instance, the Toyota Camrys of the 1990s were well known for being outstandingly well-built and good value for the money—despite their numb driving experiences.

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But as time progressed, their build quality cheapened in bids to become the world’s most prominent automobile manufacturer. And they accomplished it for some time, but at the expense of the quality of their products. The last generation Camry was heavily criticized for its cheaply built interior. Yet, the Camry still provided a refined and relatively comfortable driving experience. Optioned out with the SE “sport” variant and the 3.5L V6 and the Camry subtly rewarded with a silky V6 and a firm and compliant suspension setup that came damn near close to the European standard. It was like finding out that the geeky schoolgirl in your chemistry class was actually a supermodel. Hence the reason why the first variant I sprung to test drive at the East Coast US world-debut of the 2012 Camry in New York was the all-new Camry SE V6. So, can the new 2012 Toyota Camry charm in its own way while addressing the concerns of the previous model? Well, let’s find out.
First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry

Armed and ready to go with a stomach stuffed with cheddar sliders that Toyota was so kind enough to offer for lunch that day, I set off to conduct my short review of the 2012 Toyota Camry SE V6.

Beginning with the visuals, I stood waiting for my food to digest, trying to figure out things to say about the all-new design. However, I struggled because, well, there wasn’t really much I could say. It’s as anonymous and inoffensive as Toyotas were of yesteryear. Despite this, I would still have to say that the new design is better looking than the previous generation, if that’s saying anything. But it’s “who me?” looks still can’t hide the hints of quirkiness in the design. For instance, the very high and squared off shoulder line and trunk mimics that of the lesser Toyota Corolla, which is a pretty stodgy looking car already. The SE “sport” variant differs itself from its siblings by more aggressive bodywork, a rear deck spoiler and sporty five-spoke wheels. And even though it helps the new Camry look a little better over its other siblings, I still prefer the controversial looks of the previous generation in equal guise.

The inside equally maintains the similar but inoffensive looks. Last year’s interior was criticized for being heavy on the cheap plastic. However, Toyota has appeared to have made some considerable changes. The first thing that stuck out most was the rather “upscale” feel that the new design was exuding. Just from looking at the dashboard, I almost felt like I was in an entry level Lexus. The top of the dash was covered in what felt like leather and its black color was contrasted nicely with soft white stitching. Not a bad touch. However, as soon as the fingers hit some of the surfaces, those impressions immediately changed. Hanging out of the glove compartment was a little tag that insisted the 2012 Camrys were only preproduction models and that some of the materials weren’t production spec. But boy, was it obvious. It was unnervingly easy to decipher where Toyota spent the extra dough to dolly up the insides and where they kept the cheap materials. For instance, after reaching for the dash, I felt around the lower panels and the ones where skin-to-surface contact was less frequented. The difference in the quality of the materials was substantial. I hope Toyota remedies that contrast before launch.

As usual for Toyota, ergonomics and control layouts were easy, legible and a breeze to operate. Debuting for the first time in any Toyota was their new Entune system, which can be compared to examples such as Ford’s Microsoft Sync infotainment system and Chevrolet’s MyLink. After playing with Ford’s in their new Edge, Chevrolet’s in the new Volt and Toyota’s new Entune, Toyota and Chevrolet have to score equally for ease of use in my book. But the quicker loading speeds and smoother operations in Chevy’s MyLink still put it at the top for the systems of its kind thus far.

First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry

Because it was a warm and muggy 85 degrees out, I hit the starter button and the car didn’t shake one bit to bring the smooth, silky 3.5L 2GR-FE V6 to life to put the HVAC on full blast. I put the shift-gate into D and set off. The 3.5L V6 is a carry over item from the last generation Camry. Featuring the usual jargon such as Toyota’s Dual VVT-i variable valve timing, the 268hp and 248 lb-ft of torque made merging on to the aggressive traffic of the Grand Central Parkway a breeze. The six-speed automatic provided smooth shifts and was designed to always be in touch with the power band. The result is seamless power delivery and a rather enticing engine note. Now, I am one to give credit where it is due and I respect Toyota for maintaining the V6, while its other counterparts have shifted to all four-cylinder models such as the Buick Regal and the Hyundai Sonata. And of course, because of the extra two cylinders, the V6’s 21/30 city/highway fuel economy falls slightly short of the competing four-bangers.

As I traveled down the horribly worn surfaces of the Grand Central, the Camry’s usual expectation of comfort over anything was obviously apparent despite the SE’s firmed up suspension. However, there were quite a bit of differences between the new 2012 Camry SE’s setup and the previous generation’s setup. For one, thanks to new suspension geometry and tuning, the new Camry feels more precise and controllable than the previous version. However, because the ride is not as stiff and the car does indeed feel more solid, the new V6 Camry seems to have lost some of the edge that made the previous generation so shockingly interesting. Unfortunately though, the steering, while heavy, still remains to be as dead as a rock with an awfully unnatural feel in terms of progression. I would go as far as saying that the previous generation’s tiller offered a tad bit more feeling than the new one.

First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry

Altogether, the new 2012 Toyota Camry V6 isn’t ground breaking, nor was it as shocking as the earthquake that occurred on the East Coast US on the day of the world debut of the Camry—oh the irony. But because Toyota heavily advertises their products—like the Camry—as being reliable, dependable and safe appliances, they will still sell by the millions. However, what could be said about the new 2012 Camry SE V6 is nothing really to write home about. Back in the glory days of the 1990s, the Toyota Camry was a trendsetter for being outstandingly well-built, dependable, cheap and reliable to own. But it seems like the tides have turned and Toyota is making the Camry to run with the current standards made by the competitors—rather than setting the standards for the ones that chased after the Camry in the first place.

And to be brutally honest, as refined and surprising as the new 2012 Camry V6 SE is, there are much better choices suited for more specific needs. For example, those seeking a far more sporty and attractive drive can opt for the Honda Accord, the Ford Fusion, the Mazda6 or the Nissan Altima. For drivers looking for a more luxurious drive can look at the Volkswagen Passat. And for those looking for a better all-around package, there’s the Hyundai Sonata. Not to mention, the Chevrolet Malibu has yet to come out, which promises to set a new standard for refinement and quality for the segmeng. But until then, for everything else, there’s the 2012 Toyota Camry.

All Photos Copyright © Chris Chin – egmCarTech.

– By: Chris Chin

Chris Chin

Chris Chin is the Editor-In-Chief of egmCarTech and is a regular contributor to Automobile Magazine.

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