Payne: Toyota transforms the Camry

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If Broadway were to remake the classic “Pygmalion,” they might consider casting Akio Toyoda as Professor Henry Higgins. The charismatic Toyota CEO has transformed his Eliza Doolittle — the common Camry — into an elegant, mainstream sedan.

Toyoda wowed the Detroit Auto Show in January with Miss Camry’s new face and upscale dress. Showing off his star pupil’s new wardrobe options, Toyoda said: “our customers have a choice: sexy or really sexy.” Give him Higgins’ top hat and cane.

But Eliza — er, Camry — is more than just a pretty figure. This gal can dance.

You might figure that out by the company the 2018 Camry keeps. My last Camry media drive was in Florida on roads as flat as a senior-center ballroom. With Eliza we went to the twisted roads of Newburg, Oregon, where you can’t get from point A to B without negotiating at least two ess curves and a plunging hairpin. NASCAR superstar Kyle Busch — whose Toyota racer has advertised Camry’s new face all year — showed up to wax eloquent about Toyoda’s pride and joy.

Duly inspired, your humble scribe and his media peers then whipped Camry around Oregon like a rag doll.

Such un-Camry-like behavior is now possible thanks to first complete reinvention of Toyota’s best-selling mid-sizer since 1982, according to Chief Engineer Masato Katsumato. That was when Camry first went on sale in the States.

Taking a page from the Honda Civic — another Japanese icon recently remade after a detour down Vanilla Lane — the Toyota has gone back to basics with its new, global TNGA, front-wheel drive platform. Built stiffer, longer, lower and wider for increased athleticism the TNGA gift will keep on giving as it anchors cars from the Camry to Prius to Lexus ES sedan. Properly planted, the Camry then gets a double-wishbone rear suspension —right out of the sports car bin — that give it all the right moves.

The result is a Camry that — while short of tight class competitors like the Mazda 6 — is truly fun to drive.

Interestingly, Camry has achieved this ZOOM ZOOM quotient the Mazda way — without changing its engine lineup. Where other manufacturers — Ford, VW, Chevy, Honda — have gone turbo four-banger to improve fuel economy while not sacrificing zip, Mazda and Toyota have stuck to normally aspirated four- and six-cylinder engines. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“The (EPA-rated) mileage can be better for a smaller engine than higher-displacement engine. But in the real world that is not true,” says Camry chief engineer Masato Katsumata “From the U.S. customer point of view, they don’t like the turbo lag.”

What was broke was the annoying, six-speed automatic transmission gate. Camry has flushed it for a superb, silky 8-speed unit that is mated to both engines.

The sippy, 34-mpg, 2.5-liter four is plenty competent (and less noisy thanks to a quieter cabin), but your motorhead reviewer prefers the six with its 301 ponies, 267 pound-feet of torque and best-in-class 26-mpg. With her nimble dance moves, Eliza now practically explodes out of corners with the six’s urging. Toyota expects the V-6 to only make up 6 percent of sales given it’s only be available in the XSE sport-trim level. Pity — a V-6 in Camry’s standard, L-grade trim would be a sport sedan bargain.

Speaking of bargains, let’s talk Camry’s Hybrid LE.

While sister Prius has been a hot-seller, Camry’s hybrid has gone unloved, accounting for just 5 percent of sales. Determined to get the hybrid in customers’ hands, Toyota gives the standard LE grade its best lithium-ion battery (higher grades get the old nickel-hydride hardware). Meaning that — for just $28,000 you can get Prius-like, best-in-class 52-mpg fuel economy while more expensive, nickel-hydride models get just 46.

And if you want Prius fuel economy without its whacky, white toilet-bowl interior, Camry is your horse. Its interior is a very nice place to be.

Camry’s new, sculpted skin has rightly gotten attention. Indeed, like a Kardashian on Saturday night, the S-model Camry has gone overboard on the makeup. Hey, you’ve got to turn the customer’s heads and the Camry was so bland it was rivaling the old, 2010 Chevy Impala as the homely Queen of the Rental Fleets.

Once inside the Camry, however, the car’s transformation really hits home. A signature silver, ess-curve bezel bisects the console, cradling the excellent infotainment screen (can we get this in Lexus instead of the dreaded mouse, please?) while not compromising center console cup ’n’ cubby room. Dressed in soft vinyl and piano-black plastic, the dash is modern — as is an available, Cadillac-like heads-up display.

The infotainment and instrument screens are another clean-sheet remake. Lamentably, Toyota does not adopt the popular Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone apps. Happily, it has provided an alternative (that’s almost as good) and is available and standard. Called Entune 3.0, it requires a “Scout” app downloaded to your phone similar to the aforementioned apps. Also standard is Toyota Safety Sense which provides excellent driver safety assist systems plus 4G Wi-Fi — impressive value for a $23,000 car.

The egalitarian attitude extends to all Camry’s trim levels.

The Camry is the first car I’ve seen that doesn’t advertise how much money you spent on it. There is no external badging (unless you buy the hybrid model), two equally attractive grille options — and you can choose dual or quad exhaust pipes no matter which engine is under the hood.

Still, despite Toyota’s alphabet soup of trims — L, LE, SE, XSE, XYZ and OMG (kidding about those last two) — you’ll have to buy that pricier XSE to get that V-6 or more than one USB port. But overall, Camry offers lots of choice.

All of those choices, including the hybrid, will be at dealers later this summer. It sounds like a Herculean effort even for Toyota’s legendary manufacturing gurus. For all its new-found style, Toyota’s franchise is still built on bullet-proof reliability. I hope it’s not lost in the wardrobe changes.

Allow Professor Toyoda to take a bow. In a segment it has long been a sales leader, Camry had fallen behind the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Mazda 6 in emotional appeal. Beginning this July, Camry is back with a first-class product.

Miss Doolittle has been transformed.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2018 Toyota Camry

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan


2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter V-6; hybrid, 2.5-liter

inline-4 with electric-motor assist


Eight-speed automatic (4-cyl and V-6); continuously

variable transmission (hybrid)


3,241-3,57 pounds (4-cyl V-6); 3,571 (hybrid)


$24,380 (L-trim with 4-cyl); $35,835 (XSE V-6)


203 horsepower, 184 pound-feet torque (4-cyl); 301

horsepower, 267 pound-feet torque (V-6); 208

horsepower (hybrid)


0-60 mph, 5.7 seconds (Car and Driver est. for V-6).

Top speed: 130 mph (V-6)



EPA est. mpg: 29 city/41 highway/34 combined (4-cylinder

L-trim); 22 city/33 highway/26 combined (V-6 XLE trim);

51 city/53 highway/52 combined (hybrid, LE trim)

Report card


Athletic handling; standard features galore


Too much facial plastic surgery; AWD, please


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★