Toyota's Camry offers multiple compelling versions of the family sedan
By Jim Bray
Toyota's mid-sized mainstream sedan has always been a good car, but it hasn't always been a really compelling car to drive. Those days appear to be over, at least partly.
Camrys have also been known as excellent, well-built and engineered cars, something you can buy and drive comfortably and affordably over the long haul. But if I were looking for a Japanese car in this market segment, one that's also interesting to those who enjoy extending their right feet a little, I'd have sent you scrambling for the Mazda6, though you can no longer get it with a V6 engine. Still, "Zoom-Zoom" and all that.
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With this current generation of Camry, however, Toyota is clearly intent on adding some sweet flavour to the vanilla puddling. This extends not only to its driving dynamics, but to its styling as well which, like many other Japanese cars these days, means adding a bunch of creases and other busy-looking things that may be more interesting than before but which – in my never humble opinion – makes it less attractive than the smooth-sided version it replaced.
The beauty of a vehicle, of course, is in the eye of the keyholder. But while I really like how these current Camrys drive, I find their looks a tad off-putting, from a hood whose creases remind me of a Klingon's forehead (not the original Klingons, but the ones from later series and movies) and a puckered grille that looks like a face that smelled something foul that someone else might have left behind.
It's also a tad artsy fartsy inside, thanks to a centre stack that's sculpted like Renaissance statuary, but at least the interior is clean and modern and, well, darn fine overall.
Styling angst aside, however, today's Camry is a modern and capable sedan that not only features Toyota's legendary reliability but which is also available in a dizzying number of versions, from four cylinder gas-powered models to hybrids and even to – one of the subjects of this column – a purportedly racy version, the Camry TRD.
Toyota Canada sent a pair of 2020 Camrys to this part of "flyover country" and I came away very impressed. Sure, as with other TRD versions, the Camry one is more trim level than sporty upgrade (not that there isn't some sporty stuff under the surface), but it's a lot of fun to drive – for a Camry. And though adding "for a Camry" as a comment isn't really fair, it just goes to show how much more interesting these Camrys are to drive than previous versions.
You can get into a 2020 Camry LE for just shy of $27,000CAD (not counting additional pounds of flesh via taxes, fees and the like), but both of Toyota Canada's samples wore the XSE trim level, which is near the top of the line. And they're very nice, indeed.
The XSE "Dynamic Torque Control All-Wheel Drive" (now there's a nice and "stable" new wrinkle for 2020) starts at $36,650, though Toyota's sample also came with eight hundred loonies' worth of "Two‐Tone with Optional Colour (Wind Chill with Black Roof)" paint that was pretty darn cool as well. The sample had the four-cylinder engine (you can get a V6 as well, but according to Toyota's Canadian website it appears you can't get AWD with the six, which is a darn shame).
That four banger is a 206-horsepower, 2.5 litre unit that's coupled to an eight-speed Direct Shift Automatic Transmission with Paddle Shifters.
Paddle shifters in a Camry? Well, they do add some control but they also tend to shift often when they want rather than when I wanted it to, but they're better than some paddles I've tried (and the fact that they're there in the first place means you can keep your hands on the heated steering wheel more, which is good).
I'm also pleased that Toyota has kept the gear count down. Oh, I'd prefer six speeds, but the eight you get here still beats those 10-speed trannies that always seem to be searching for the cheapest gear to run.
The XSE AWD also comes with "Sport Styling, featuring Sport Front Grille, Rear Spoiler, Dual Exhaust, 19-inch Aluminium Alloy Wheels" and they do add some "niftiness" to the look, though also making an already busy exterior even busier (but not nearly as busy as the TRD package!).
Toyota's other sample XSE came with the V6, and it's a lovely power plant. It also featured the new for 2020 TRD trim level which adds quite a bit of goodies, but which also costs you some others. And that's where my dilemma would come were I spec'ing a new Camry.
For example, opting for the TRD means you lose the lovely panoramic moonroof, the head's up display, wireless charging, garage door opener, upgraded audio, power passenger seat and foldable rear seats. Why?
On the other hand, opting for TRD means you actually save $3,705 over the cost of a V6 XSE without the TRD package – so there's that.
The TRD package does give you quite a bit of stuff, too. Most of it's just trim (Backup Camera, Day and Night Mechanical Rear View Mirror, 4.2-inch colour TFT Multi Information Display, Overhead Sunglass Storage, eight-way Power Adjustable Drivers Seat, six speaker audio, LED Rear Combination Lamps, 19-inch TRD Wheels, Mixed Fabric and Leather Seats, TRD LED Headlamps, TRD Logo Seat, Sun Visor with Mirror) but you also get a TRD Sport-tuned Suspension, TRD exhaust, Clearance Lamps, TRD Body Kit, TRD Shift Knob and Aluminum Sport Pedals with Rubber Inserts
The tighter suspension does contribute to a more interesting ride (especially, of course, in "sport" mode) and the TRD body kit adds a bunch of "aero" stuff to all sides of the car, including a front bumper thing that will force you to pay strict attention when you're parking, lest you scrape it. Ditto for the stuff down at the rocker panels, which will make you take care getting in and out.
If you thought the Camry's styling was busy before adding the TRD stuff, you ain't seen nothing yet! And wait till you get a load of the TRD spoiler!
The XSE TRD version comes with Toyota's 3.5 litre V6 and, as mentioned, it's a terrific engine, smooth and torquey. It puts out 301-horses and is also attached to an eight-Speed Direct Shift Automatic Transmission with Paddle Shifters. I wish the XSE AWD had this engine because, while the four-cylinder version is more than adequate, it does seem to struggle a tad under load at times whereas this V6 just keeps saying "come on, is that all you have?".
I really liked the suspension on both Camrys. The XSE AWD had a "sport tuned" suspension and it was nice and tight in sport mode, but the TRD is even better, and that's a good thing.
Oh, it's still a Camry, but it's a Camry that can be enjoyed by people for whom the experience of driving is important as well, though I wonder how many people will give it a chance rather than just sniffing at it as a boring Camry and looking elsewhere for a compelling ride. Heck, I probably wouldn't have given it a second look myself if I hadn't been driving the cars during the regular course of my business. And that would've been a shame.
The TRD sits quite low, not as low as a "real" sports sedan but low enough that my wife (who doesn't like how low my sport wagon sits, let alone "real" sports cars) complained about getting in and out.
The interior is a lovely place to be. As with the Highlander I reviewed recently, this Camry is a really nice and classy place to spend some time. The seats are comfortable, the instruments and all that stuff are laid out well and work as they should, except for the centre stack's LCD screen which, in both Camrys, didn't like my polarized sunglasses. This was very weird since I had no issues with the Tacoma TRD or Highlander I drove in the same time frame.
After driving each of these Camrys for a week I came away quite flummoxed. I really like the TRD version – and I like that it's a cheaper way to get that lovely V6 than just opting for the regular V6 trim levels. And I liked how it drives even better than I did the four-cylinder AWD version, even though the TRD is only available with front wheel drive.
But I liked the XSE AWD better in most other ways. It has a nicer interior, with leather and that glorious panoramic sunroof, and it has other creature comforts that I'd rather have instead of a bunch of aero add-ons that make an already busy-looking sedan even busier.
So, I guess were I to be configuring a Camry, I'd have to bite the bullet and pony the extra few grand to get the V6 on the Camry XSE. I'd lose some stiffness in the chassis and suspension, and I'd miss it, but I'd find that Camry nicer to live with over the long term.
Naturally, your mileage – and your budget – may vary. It's easy for me to tell you to buy the more expensive one when it isn't my money!
But if you do opt for the more luxurious versions with the V6, you'll have a heckuva nice car!
"For a Camry."
Copyright 2020 Jim Bray