Over the last 18 months, Toyota has done everything they could to make everyone forget about the unintended acceleration headlines they had to deal with. Just as that was disappearing, the disastrous earthquake and tsunami caused a disruption to the entire manufacturing base. This event caused a shutdown of plants, a shortage of parts and a sharp drop in sales and profits.
Now that both of those issues have been put behind them, Toyota is looking to have a full court press in refreshing their lineup with the new Camry, the Prius V, Tacoma pickup and the Scion iQ to name a few that will be rolled out over the next several months.
The Camry, while not the most expensive Toyota by a long shot, is in many ways the flagship of the company, how goes sales of the Camry, so goes the fortunes of Toyota. Since 1983 Toyota have sold 15 million Camry's worldwide, and 9.7 million of those sales were in North America. The Camry has claimed the title of "Best selling car in America" 13 of the last 14 years.
While not a completely new car, the 2012 Camry is a major mid cycle refresh for the car. The chassis is the same, however, all the sheet metal is new, and only 10% of the parts are carry over. The one thing that people will notice is how little the Camry has changed in appearance. There is a new front and rear end look to the cars, but it is not dramatically different.
When queried about the very conservative looks of the new Camry, officials at Toyota mentioned that styling was far down on the items Camry buyers found important. Items such as quality, reliability, dependability and fuel economy ranked higher in importance than styling.
However, the paradox is that Toyota would like to lower the average age of the Camry purchaser from 60 as it currently is, to something in the mid to late 40's, and to do that the Camry needs to stand out as something more than "blandtastic". There are other sedans in the segment that are conservative in appearance, yet cut a much more striking appearance. To best describe the looks of the Camry, is to say it looks like the suit you get from The Men's Warehouse in a 3 for 1 sale, and something like the Kia Optima looks like it's right off the Brooks Brothers rack. Both are "conservative", however, one makes a much better first impression.
The interior to the Camry is a nice update, though there is no new ground broken here. Of note, while the pricing of the Camry is less than the outgoing model, the interior looks and feels as if is of a higher quality. One very interesting part of the instrument cluster, however, is the fuel economy gage on the right side of the pod. The average fuel economy is shown on a mechanical gage, much like the instant fuel economy gage of old BMW's and then the instant fuel economy is shown asa series of green lights along the outside of that gage. It's a different take, and for the most part we like the execution.
One item that will be an option for the 2012 Camry is the Entune infotainment system. The system works in combination with your iPhone or Android phone. You download the apps to your phone, then they work in conjunction with the Toyota system to provide access to Pandora, Open Table, navigation and more. The Entune uses your phone for an internet connection, it does not have a 3G/4G system built in. The Entune system also uses speech recognition software from Nuance and Voice Products to make for a better experience when you use voice commands to navigate the system.
One thing that Toyota was proud of was that they were able to bring the Camry to market with the same or higher levels of content, and do it at a lower price then the outgoing model. Pricing for the Camry line looks like this:
Model Price +/-2010 Model
LE $22,500 -$200
SE $23,000 -$1,000
XLE $24,725 -$2,000
SE $25,900 -$1,150
XLE $27,400 -$800
*all pricing excludes $760 destination fees.
While not finalized the 2012 Camry is expected to carry a 5 Star safety rating from the IIHS, it will have 10 airbags, an optional blind spot warning system and back up camera.
Fuel economy for the Camry will be at or above the class leaders:
Engine City Highway Combined
I-4 25 35 28
V-6 21 30 25
Hybrid 43 39 41
The mix is expected to be 75% four cylinder, 14% V6 and 11% Hybrid for sales.
We had a chance to take a short drive in a Hybrid model of the Camry. It was an SE model with cloth interior and standard radio. When driven in "Eco Mode" it feels as if only 100 of the 200 horsepower available is there to be used. Acceleration is anything but brisk and on ramps and passing opportunities need to be planned carefully.
In standard mode, the car feels much more responsive. We tried a little experiment to see just how the different modes responded to throttle position. While holding a steady throttle, we exited out of "Eco Mode" into "Normal Mode" and immediately began a rapid acceleration. This was confirmed by another journalist we were driving with trying the same thing, and having the same exact results. This showed us that "Eco Mode" requires much larger throttle movements to achieve any forward movement.
If we had to guess, a good driver using a light throttle would get better results then an average driver using "Eco Mode" in a standard manor.
The handling of the Camry is not inspired, in fact taking a gentle on/off ramp at anything more than 35 miles an hour started the tires howling. The ride is fine, not fantastic, the interior is fairly quiet, maybe a bit better than average.
The regenerative brakes in the Camry feel as if they are a generation behind others. Ford, GM and Honda all have a much more "natural" feel to their re-gen brakes in the latest models, in the Camry, there seemed to be no consistency in the peddle feel. In hard stops this is even more exaggerated where there seems to be no action in the first bit of travel and then hard braking all of a sudden.
It should be noted that we were driving a pre-production model of the 2012 Camry and there might be some final calibration that will be dialed in for the production cars.
Fit and finish for the 2012 Camry are what you would expect from Toyota. It is solidly built, the materials have a quality feel to them, door closing has a solid sound, we found nothing to complain about when it came to build quality.
Overall, our take on the new Camry is that we are underwhelmed. For us, Toyota played it WAY to conservative in this refresh. This segment of the market has become ultra competitive, it's a close in knife fight between five or six manufactures, and it feels as if Toyota approached this as if it was still 2005 and they were unopposed in the market from anyone other than Honda.
While there is nothing wrong with the Camry, there is nothing that stands out either. Toyota may feel as if they didn't need to move the needle with this car since it still one of, if not the top selling passenger car in North America. However, with the average age of a Camry buyer being 60, that demographic while having money to spend, isn't going to help you grow new sales, rather you may just be able to hold on for a short period of time before it begins to shrink.
Hyundai's Sonata, Kia's Optima, Chevy's upcoming Malibu and an all new Ford Fusion on the way, are making statements, and appealing to younger buyers. The strength of these players is bound to eat into Toyota's sales for the Camry, maybe not today or tomorrow, but certainly in the very near future.
It's possible to be conservative with the design and execution of a car, and still make it feel special. To use an earlier example, buying a Camry is like buying a suit at The Men's Warehouse, it's save, it's not cheep, however, it's not special.