Payne: That's a Camry? Wicked TRD trim transforms Toyota's family sedan

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The 2020 Toyota Camry TRD is so wicked looking you’ll be tempted to get in over your head.

I sauntered on to Woodward Avenue one recent Sunday at the wheel of the hottest Camry ever. Growly V-6. Massive black trunk wing. Torch red paint. Black roof, side skirts, front splitter and rear diffuser. Lowered 0.6 inches. Black locomotive cow catcher grille. Wheel wells engorged with huge, 19-inch rims — black, of course.

Charged by Chairman Akio Toyoda to make his cars more racy, designers of the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD went wild on an aggressive grille.

A hearse-black, 396-horsepower, all-wheel-drive Mercedes-AMG E 43 rolled up next to me at a stoplight. I looked at him. He looked at me. The light turned green.

The German rocket ship was gone before my front tires had stopped chirping from wheel spin. The global auto hierarchy is still intact.

But the point is that the Mercedes King of Beasts felt the need to assert its authority over ... a Camry. Take a bow, Toyota. Next time, maybe the engineers will give you an engine upgrade to fight back with.

The Camry TRD is the latest in a wave of Toyota and Lexis products drawn to make the somnolent Japanese brands more compelling — by order of the chairman of the board himself, Akio Toyoda. Think Toyota Supra, Lexus RX, Lexus 500. And now a wave of TRD badges — which once designated off-road performance for the Tacoma TRD pickup — now applied to everything from the ginormous Sequoia SUV to our Camry tester.

The mid-size Camry TRD is a sexy beast, but, to be honest, I would have preferred a pocket rocket.

Something to compete against the compact Honda Civic Type R hot hatch, VW Golf GTI and Subaru WRX. Toyota had that chance with the wee Corolla XSE that I tested last year. Painted in eye-searing Blue Flame with hot wheels and a boomerang grille, the hatchback had all the elements to be a contender — except a driveline.

With a snarly exhaust, the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD wants you to punch it at a Woodward stoplight.

Toyota was content to make the XSE a head-turning trim version of the volume-selling compact with the same 168-horse hamster wheel underneath. A manual made it fun to drive, but it’s hardly in the league of a Golf GTI.

Like XSE, Camry TRD also uses standard Camry equipment rather than stepping up to a unique driveline the way the Civic Type R does with its 306-horse turbocharged-4 or GTI’s wonderful 220-horse turbo-4. At least Toyota stuffed Camry with the model’s more powerful option — the 3.5-liter V-6 and not the standard 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder sewing machine.

The TRD may not belch flames — but with 301 ponies under the hood and an exterior that rivals the Subaru WRX STI for outrageousness, it’ll have to do.

After picking up my pride — and restoring the Camry’s doors that had been blown off by the Merc-AMG — I continued down Woodward, but with more humility. A 550-horsepower, 2011 Mustang GT500 sauntered by. I didn’t even try to provoke him. Then a 365-horse BMW M2. No mas.

But then a 300-horse, 2007 Subaru WRX STI blew by me. I took the bait.

This was more in the TRD’s wheelhouse. Sure, the third-generation, compact-class Subie had all-wheel drive and was lighter by 200 pounds, but the mid-size Camry is 13 years newer with a modern, 8-speed automatic transmission and more tire. Oh, it was on.

The rowdy ’Ru properly led me into a Michigan turn. We rolled northbound on Woodward. He slowed so I could tuck under his rear bumper. Then we floored it.

The rolling start helped me put the power down through the front wheels in order to keep up with the instant grip of his AWD. As he rowed his stick shift, I kept my foot buried as the smooth-shifting, auto 8-speed did its thing. Nearly a dead heat with the Subaru pulling away at 60. A later check of car specs confirmed the STI does 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds versus my TRD’s 5.6.

The Camry is vanilla no more. Make mine cherry red with hot fudge sauce on top.

That sweetness carried into the twisties of northern Oakland County which I explored later that day. When the current-gen Camry debuted in 2018 it was noticeably tighter than its predecessor. TRD turns that inherent goodness up a notch. While there were no Subies to harass, the sporty Camry was surprisingly good through the curves.

Not a hot hatch. But with lots of interior room and 301 horses, the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD is a performance steal at $23k.

Seems that Dr. Akio Frankenstein dragged the Camry into his basement lab and swapped in stiffer springs, updated shocks and larger-diameter anti-roll bars for an increase in TRD’s resistance to body roll by 44% in front, 67% in back. The gym-training didn’t stop there.

The TRD adds stiffer underbody braces and a V-brace behind the rear seats to keep that butt firm. Heck, even the custom-to-TRD, matte-black, 19-inch hoofs are three pounds lighter than the standard 19-inchers.

That’s a lot of engineering effort not to add a more capable engine — though I’m not sure there are more capable V-6s in Toyota’s stable. The twin-turbo, 354-horse, twin-motor hybrid unit out of the Lexus LS would be pricey and the wonderful, 335-horse inline-6 in the Supra is, well, a BMW product.

So Toyota makes the Camry TRD attractive the old-fashioned way: affordability.

My tester was $32,950. That’s right, just $33K.

That’s the same price as a much smaller 220-horse GTI, for example. Honey, I grew the pocket rocket. Which comes with certain advantages like more rear seat room. Typical of Asian automakers these days, Camry TRD also comes stuffed with standard features to complement its bodacious exterior: auto high beams, auto pre-collision braking, auto lane assist, adaptive cruise control.

Woodward cruisers. The 302 horse 2020 Toyota Camry TRD gives up a lot of ponies to the 707-horse Dodge Challenger Hellcat - but it has two more doors and looks sharp.

The real thing — not the cheap adaptive cruise I had in a recent $67,000 Sequoia that turned off under 30 mph. Whoa, bessy! Toyota is learning fast, and that includes standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto navigation which you’d have to pay extra for on an Alfa Guilia Quadrifoglio costing twice a much.

Speaking of twice as much, I parked the Camry next to a $60,000 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat in Birmingham and the owner came out of his store to check it out. “What is that?” he said. If Camry is getting the attention of Hellcat owners, it’s doing something right. Naturally, he wanted to know what was under the hood.

I fired up the Camry with a rumble and he gave a thumbs up. But I didn’t challenge him to a drag race.

Detroit News auto columnist Henry Payne trolled Woodward avenue looking for trouble in the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD -which adds aggressive looks, chassis tuning, and 301 ponies to its sedan lineup.

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $31,995, including $955 destination charge ($32,950 as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 301 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 135 mph

Weight: 3,572 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/ 31 highway/ 25 combined 

Report card

Highs: Cool black trim; pocket rocket specs with mid-size roominess

Lows: Polarizing front grille; more power, please

Overall: 3 stars

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