First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry [Review]

America's favorite car - at least in terms of sales figures - might be more than just the old standby for 2012. We take a look.

When an automaker redesigns a new car, company representatives usually spend hours pouring over its details with the media to tell us about how much it will blow the doors off of the outgoing model.

But we didn't hear that with the 2012 Toyota Camry. The latest Camry - that's the seventh generation, in case you're counting - closely follows in the footsteps of its highly-regarded predecessor, a car that found found favor with more buyers in the United States than anything this side of a pickup truck throughout its life.

Instead, Toyota says it is looking to woo those shoppers who haven't traditionally been Camry regulars: Buyers who place a little more emphasis on driving enjoyment and those who really want a hybrid but don't want the practical (and social) compromises of something like a Prius.

Enter the 2012 Camry, the first ever "flavors for all" version of Toyota's vanilla sedan.

What's old is new
The Camry doesn't look much like its predecessor, although its styling is still appropriately conservative. Crisply toned, it feels to us a cleaner Acura TSX - especially in its aerodynamic bumper and grille treatments. Base L and LE models ride on chintzy 16-inch steel wheels with plastic hubcaps, but SEs forgo those pizza cutters for stylish 18s. Range-topping XLEs get their own 17-inch bling.

Inside, the look is again all-new. Much less organic than the outgoing bulge-a-riffic model, the new interior boasts a classy-looking stitched cross-line running through the top of the dashboard and a high-tech center stack that appears to float just slightly above the surface. Soft touch plastics adorn most surfaces, although they fall short in terms of appearance compared to the Volkswagen Passat and even the Chrysler 200. SEs get slightly more seat bolstering and a three-spoke steering wheel; other models make due with flatter seats and four spokes but, curiously, the same rim.

Toyota has never been an electronics leader, but its smooth operator Entune system is set to change that. The first comprehensive app-based infotainment system to hit the mainstream market, it will allow drivers to quickly locate just about anything their hungry and/or bored heart desires. OpenTable and movietickets.com provide concierge services at the tap of a button, while Pandora, iheartradio and Siriuis XM crank out the tunes through an impressive optional JBL audio system.

Confusingly, Toyota will offer two separate Entune systems. LE, SE and XLEs come standard with a 6.1-inch screen developed by Harman that feels a bit clunky in its operation. Step up to the XLE-exclusive optional Premium unit and you'll get a much prettier 7-inch Denso interface. We'd suggest that Toyota drop the Harman system entirely to focus only on the larger Denso unit.

Interior room is up across the board even though exterior dimensions remain the same. Careful trimming and repositioning gives drivers a little more head room and a slightly higher seating position, as well as more shoulder space. The roomy back seat is nicely padded and offers increased leg room.

Underneath its new hood, Camry gets two carryover gas engines - a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a 3.5-liter V6. Both are mated exclusively to different six-speed automatics - the stick is gone - and the SE comes with newly standard paddle shifters.

And it's those paddle shifters that really set the tone for what inevitably became our favorite Camry model: The SE. Toyota wants more buyers in SEs and XLEs than before, so it is slicing prices and adding content. The biggest benefactor is the sporty Camry, which adds its own steering and suspension tuning, more heavily-bolstered seats and a unique body kit.

On the road
Enthusiasts have never found much to like about the Camry, even though it goes about its tasks in a perfectly acceptable way for average Americans. But the sported-up SE takes things a small notch higher. Firmer steering is let down only by vague immediate turn-in; the further you enter a curve, the higher the resistance. Feel isn't a strong point, but the resistance encourages more aggressive driving than the Camry badge might imply. Other models make due with lighter, duller tillers.

Underneath, all Camrys share front MacPherson struts and a rear dual-link strut setup, but the SE gets its own stiffer springs and shocks and rigidity-adding steering knuckles. The result is immediately noticeable once the two cars are driven back-to-back. While Camry SE is hardly a sports sedan, it is considerably crisper than other models, with precise, stable handling and a general sense of control never before seen in a Camry.

Other models ride a bit less floaty than before thanks to stabilizer bar enhancements and F1-inspired aerodynamic aids. On the highway, the latest Camry runs arrow straight with minimal intrusion gusty wind or passing large trucks. Throw a Camry LE or XLE into a corner and it'll roll with the best of them, but more sane driving is relaxed and essentially stress-free.

A vastly-upgraded hybrid powertrain will be available on far more Camrys for 2012, so we've decided to give that model its own full First Drive piece.

Toyota says that most buyers will opt for the 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 178 horsepower and 170 lb-ft. and that's just fine with us. Tasked with motivating the roughly 3,200 lbs. Camry, the four-cylinder is nearly silent in its operation and perfectly capable of working with its six-speed automatic transmission to deliver perfectly acceptable acceleration.

Fuel economy is way up; Toyota estimates EPA ratings of 25/35.

Not many Camrys will come with the optional 3.5-liter V6, which has been reserved for SE and XLEs only. Still, this V6 is silky smooth if a bit of an aberration in this increasingly fuel consumption-obsessed segment where turbocharged four-cylinders are set to become the premium engine norm. Camry's V6 cranks out a solid 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft. of torque. The only problem? It adds about 180 lbs. over the front wheels, which gives V6-powered cars a weight distribution that favors the nose a smidge too much. As a result, the Camry SE four-cylinder winds up feeling way better balanced than its on-paper-sportier V6 cousin.

Isolation remains a Camry assest; even the SE lets in little road, engine and wind noise until you approach triple-digit speeds.

Leftlane's bottom line
The 2012 Toyota Camry breaks little new ground, but its steady, continual improvement and its newfound focus on niche buyers means that Toyota won't struggle to put Camrys in garages.

To us, the sharper four-cylinder Camry SE is the pick of the litter. It's the first Camry we genuinely enjoyed driving; while it doesn't set the bar for performance sedans, it offers commendable polish you won't easily find elsewhere in this segment.

2012 Toyota Camry base price range, TBA.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.