Toyota Camry's extreme makeover
Upon testing the new, 2015 Toyota Camry XSE (S for "sport"), I was not overcome with the urge to crash a wedding, steal the bride, and outrun the groomsmen in their classic, sky-blue convertible. Mrs. Payne would have greeted me at the front door with a rolling pin.
But the latest Toyota ad campaign suggests that Camry-buying, single men might find such ideas irresistible. Acting on impulse? Feeding primal urges?
This is the message of a Toyota Camry ad?
If you're shocked, you haven't visited the mid-size sedan aisle in a while. This once quiet, predictable quarter of the auto department store was as sexy as the washing machine display at Sears. The appliances were functional. Efficient. Boxy. King Camry ruled. Japanese quality was the coin of the realm. Everyone dressed the same. Public displays of emotion were frowned upon. Muzak played over the sound system.
Then that rebel, the Hyundai Sonata, showed some leg and the whole place turned into a Studio 54 disco party.
The 2010 Sonata's racy body turned heads. The Ford Fusion followed with a pouty grille and come-hither headlights so convincing you thought Aston Martin had made a grocery hauler. Then came Chrysler 200 with its lusty lights and feminine lines. Want to mambo with your midsize? The athletic Mazda 6 not only turned heads on the showroom floor, it could cut some serious rug, too.
After years of jelly-bean shaped look-alikes, these cars made hearts beat faster. They stirred . . . emotions.
The Camry appliance watched warily. Sure, its reputation for quality continued to draw customers, but it could see eyes wandering. Ooooh, that Fusion is pretty. Loooove those Hyundai lines. And their JD Power quality ratings were improving all the time.
If quality was becoming a universal ingredient, then how would Camry stand out? Toyota's 2012 redesign created more concern. Dealers reportedly murmured that the new car was too bland. It reinforced Camry's reputation as a vanilla brand. Hadn't Jeremy Clarkson of "Top Gear" written a column titled, "Can't sleep? Look at a Camry?"
"(It is) by far the dullest shaped body I have ever seen in my whole life," wrote the renowned auto personality. "All I need to do now is think about the shape and I come over all drowsy."
Ouch. Even Chevy's own cure for insomnia, the Malibu, was reading the reviews. Faced with its own dealer revolt, GM had completely remade the 'Bu in 2014 to address its somnolescent qualities. Wasn't the Camry just a better-engineered Malibu? And didn't Malibu just win JD Power's Initial Quality Survey for best mid-sized sedan?
So just three years after the reborn '12 Camry, we have the reborn '15 Camry: More style, more handling, more ... emotion.
It largely works. The Camry is no Fusion, but it is distinctive. Clarkson will have to find another cure for insomnia.
Toyota spent a reported $200 million in upgrading the sheet metal, chassis, and interior of the car. That's a lotta dimes for a cost-conscious manufacturer that prides itself on getting it right the first time.
Behold the new car's slimmer, less slab-like torso thanks to a lower beltline. But most striking is the plastic surgery around front. The Camry's new kisser borrows heavily from Toyota's Lexus lux brand, which has itself undergone an expensive face-lift. The Lexus is the best example of Akio Toyoda's directive (when the CEO speaks, people listen) that Toyota products stir passion. Beginning with Akio himself, no doubt. A certified car guy. Ooooh, that Fusion is pretty!
The Camry's hour-glass grille design reminds you of just how radical the Lexus looks. Indeed, some Lexus buyers may admire the Camry's more measured interpretation. The new face comes in two guises — L and the racier S.
My preference is for the L style. Its thin, horizontal accents complete an elegant sculpture. The black, honeycomb S-maw echoes the Lexus F-Sport's spindle grille. In the rearview mirrors it looks like the cow-catcher of an approaching locomotive. But it doesn't intimidate like the Lexus. It's cheap, plastic construction smacks of a pretender. An oversized Corolla S.
Were I that single dude, I would steal the bride in the LE hybrid.
Not only will the beauty warm to its less beastly face, but the sedan's excellent, electric-assisted acceleration and chassis balance (thanks to 150 pounds of battery in the trunk balancing the four-banger up front) will put distance on your pursuers. On a hard flog through northern Florida, your intrepid writer found the hybrid well-balanced — rotating into corners with a tire-squalling vigor not normally associated with tree-hugging transport. And I had a ready alibi if pulled over: "There must be some mistake, officer. This is a hybrid."
Not that you can't appreciate the electric powertrain. My test mule boasted an impressive 572-mile range — meaning you could outrun the groomsmen before looking for a hotel for the night. Back the Camry down to 40 mph and it'll run on battery alone for long stretches — stretching that range even further.
As you get to know your passenger in the Camry's roomy, hushed cabin, she'll marvel at the stylish, chrome-lined console. The standard, 4.3" touch screen is outstanding, complemented by bigger, piano black touch keys. The screen's usability will distract her while you fiddle with the Camry's less driver-friendly details which smack, like the plastic grille on the S models, of cheapness. The holdover, notchy, shifter is clunky. And beware the (optional) adaptive cruise control, which will cease working below 20 mph, giving you a nasty surprise as you approach a stopped car ahead.
Full adaptive next time, please.
Indeed, next time will come quickly in this ruthless segment. One gets the sense that Toyota is especially concerned about Hyundai's Sonata, which has also picked up makeup tips from its luxury superior, the Genesis. What's more, the Hyundai's handsome appliance starts at $21,960 – nearly $2k under the $23,795 Camry. Hyundai quality? Four JD Power stars, just like its revered Japanese competitor. And the Korean model weighs in with a hybrid and two superb 4-cylinder turbo engines which provide V-6 power while opening more room for Sonata's segment-leading cargo space.
The Camry, meanwhile, stubbornly sticks to a V6 that make up just 6 percent of sales — even less than the 10 percent hybrid. Interior room matters. After the wedding-crashing theatrics, the talk will surely turn to kiddies.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2015 Toyota Camry
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan
Price: $23,795 base ($32,987 Camry Hybrid LE as tested)
Power plant: 2.5-liter DOHC 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter DOHC V-6; Hybrid engine: 2.5-Liter DOHC 4-cylinder with Nickel-Metal Hydride AC-motor assist
Power: 178 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl.); 268 horsepower, 248 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 200 horsepower (hybrid)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic or continuously-variable transmission (Hybrid only)
Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.6 seconds (V-6 — manufacturer)
Weight: 3,240 pounds (3,485 hybrid as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/35 highway/28 combined (2.5L 4-cyl); 25 city/35 highway/28 combined (2.7L 4-cyl); 21 city/31 highway/25 combined (V-6); 43 city/39 highway/41 combined (Hybrid)
Highs: Runs like a Swiss watch; Hushed cabin
Lows: Plasticy S-trim fascia; Only partial adaptive cruise control