For a long time, conventional auto-industry wisdom held that the buyers of affordable midsize family sedans were a pretty conservative crowd. They didn’t want their cars seen or heard. No head-turning styling, please. An anonymous appliance will do nicely.
Proof of that particular pudding resides with the Toyota Camry, which, despite being saddled with boring design for most of its life, has been the best-selling passenger car in America for the last 16 years.
But more recently, marketing studies found that midsize customers were in the mood for a bit more styling pizzazz, so manufacturers began amping up the zipiosity. And Toyota, with a good push from its boredom-banishing CEO, Akio Toyoda, has been among the leaders in this holy mission.
Apparently, the boss was onto something. Sales in February were up 4.5 percent over February 2017.
The redesigned 2018 Camry does represent a quantum sea change in the design studio. It is more stylish and much more “look at me” than Camrys of yore. You can argue that the front-end design is a little too busy, but, overall, this is a handsome, interesting sculpting exercise.
The impact of the styling steroids is particularly evident in the upmarket XSE model I spent a week with. This is the sportiest of the Camrys (no, the words sporty and Camry are no longer oxymorons), complete with quad exhausts and a black roof, spoiler, window surrounds, grille, and wheels.
And the XSE tester was certainly not a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It’s revised, 3.5-liter V-6 develops 301 horsepower, which allows it to sprint from a standing start to 60 in a sprightly 5.8 seconds. That’s a follicle slower than the Honda Accord and Chevy Malibu equipped with turbocharged fours, but it is still lively business. It is, in fact, the quickest Camry I’ve driven. And despite those wide, grippy treads, it still demands a healthy chirp from those front-drive wheels when you jump on it at a stoplight.
The redesigned base engine, a normally aspirated 2.5-liter four bumped up from 184 to 203 horsepower, makes for respectable acceleration — 0 to 60 in 7.6 seconds.
In addition to boosting engine power, the Toyota engineers managed an improvement in fuel economy, as well. The XSE V-6 I drove enjoys a 2 mpg increase in its combined EPA rating (while adding 33 horsepower). The 2.5-liter four tacks on 5 mpg. The LE version of the Camry hybrid is king of the gas island, however, with EPAs of 51 city and 53 highway.
Built on a fresh platform with a lower center of gravity and a longer wheelbase, the new Camry exuded solidity and proved a quiet cruiser. It rode well, and not at the expense of its driving dynamics. The car felt poised and resisted body roll during rigorous cornering. The steering proved nicely weighted, and braking was quite ample.
A two-inch wheelbase increase has lent a hand to interior roominess. Backseat legroom abounds. The upmarket tester also boasted a generous amount of soft-touch surfaces and a ton of electronic goodies, such as Toyota’s latest Entune 3.0 infotainment system, and a standard app-based navigation system. (Sorry, still no support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.)
The Camry starts at $23,495, a fair price when you consider the standard gear includes safety electronics such as forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automated braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning.
The top-shelf XSE I drove started at $34,950. Tack on the options and the tag rose to nearly $40,000, a rather un-Camry-like number.
The new Camry has received top safety ratings from the government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
2018 Toyota Camry XSE V-6
Base price: $34,950
As tested: $39,253
Standard equipment: 3.5-liter engine, eight-speed automatic transmission, front-drive, and a litany of safety gear and hedonism ranging from lane departure and blind spot alerts to leather-trimmed, heated front seats to wireless charging and a panoramic sunroof.
Options: Include a bird’s-eye-view camera, premium sound and two-tone paint
Fuel economy: 22 city and 32 highway
Engine performance: Lively fun
Ride comfort: Pleasant
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper
Four Bens: Excellent