Can a Toyota Camry really be a premium and dynamic car? The maker of the world's most popular mid-sized sedan reckons the new 2018 model is exactly that. We have a go Stateside ahead of its November Australian launch to investigate the impossible.
A new-generation Toyota Camry will inevitably produce facetious yawns and allusions to cardigans, but the truth is new car launches rarely come more significant.
More than 920,000 units have been sold in Australia over a 34-year history, and when Melbourne domestic and export production ceases late this year it’ll close a major chapter in our country’s automotive history.
Here we’re getting our first taste of the eighth-generation model that will be imported from Japan, with a market launch scheduled for right at the end of 2017.
As is the way with press launches, we’re driving the car in its biggest market — the United States, which buys a staggering 30,000 Camrys a month. We'd note that Australia is the Camry's fourth largest market, averaging about 2000 a month, so we do matter.
This version offers much bolder design, with a body mated to Toyota’s sportier new global platform/architecture giving it the promise of greater dynamic prowess. Inside is a more upmarket and modern cabin with a raft of standard active safety technologies.
The pitch is that while the steady-handed old Camry just ‘did the job’ without giving fuss or eliciting fervour — and, we’d add, had the leading market share for 23 consecutive years — this new one will match the Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat on class and potentiality price.
Consider that Toyota Australia has been doing super-sharp deals on the outgoing Camry ($26,990 drive-away for an Altise with zero per cent finance) to keep demand strong enough to keep factory targets viable. That will end, as will rampant demo registrations.
Toyota has actually been bold enough to predict a fairly "dramatic" sales decline this time. So will even some smaller number of people be prepared to buy the car for reasons beyond pragmatism, perhaps, dare we say, because they might find it desirable?
There's absolutely no doubt the updated Camry is miles ahead of its predecessor. For one, it looks rather interesting this time when compared side-by-side.
The body sits a few centimetres lower, while the deeper-pressed panels with distinct character lines, longer roof line, angled rear pillars and longer wheelbase give the car a better stance. There are also two themes, with the 'sportier' models getting an edgier nose design, a mild body kit and wheels of up to 19 inches in diameter.
Smaller touches include standard LED headlights and tail lights and even a new font for the 'Camry' logo. It's no performance car, but the overall look is more premium and aggressive, when graded on a curve.
This front-wheel drive iteration lowers the car's centre of gravity. Meanwhile, the body is constructed of more high-tensile steel with superior laser welding to help give 30 per cent superior torsional rigidity.
These factors, and the fact that the architecture supports significantly more noise-cancelling insulation, means noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) are better-suppressed than before.
The suspension up front is a plain old regular MacPherson strut setup, but at the rear is now a double-wishbone setup with new shocks.
We've been impressed with the TNGA in the C-HR, and in the Camry that greater stiffness, lower centre of gravity and more sophisticated rear end - plus rejigged electric power steering - actually brings significant improvements to ride and handling.
Keep in mind we drove US-spec cars on all-season tyres, and yet the nose tucked in eagerly, the change of direction was sharp, the mid-corner body control acceptable, and the ride over sharp hits relatively cosseting. It legit drives quite well...
The 'sports' versions are a little stiffer without becoming jarring, and have better body control and a notably more agile feel over the front wheels.
There's also a sports mode that adds steering resistance and changes the throttle mapping. We're not saying it's a bona fide performance car, but this time the Camry rewards harder driving.
Company boss and racing driver Akio Toyoda ordered this very thing, and the engineers have obliged.
On the engine front, opening the range is an unchanged 2.5-litre petrol engine, while atop the range in Australia will sit a new new 3.5-litre V6 petrol with 222kW at 6600rpm and 356Nm at 4700rpm, matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddles.
However, the only variants we were given the keys to were petrol-electric hybrids.
This is because Toyota reckons it will become the top-seller, given a growing fleet predilection for low-CO2 vehicles, and its affordability to private buyers. The old car boasted a high 25 per cent hybrid sales split already, and it'll become a sharper focus from 2018.
The drivetrain is a reworked version of the parallel hybrid system used in the outgoing car, pairing a 131kW 2.5-litre engine that runs both Otto and Atkinson cycles at different times, matched to a CVT with integrated electric motor making 88kW/202Nm.
Combined output climbs to a maximum of 155kW (up 4kW), while claimed combined-cycle fuel use is 4.5L/100km (down 0.7L/100km).
The motor is fed by a familiar nickel-metal hydride battery pack rather than lithium-ion, though there's a new Power Control Unit and less 'wooden' regenerative braking.
The pure EV mode works below 40km/h and under mild throttle only, and there's unfortunately no PHEV in the pipeline, though this lack thereof isn't too grating, given the Camry is a mass-market car where cost-saving is vital.
Where the hybrid is good is when tottering around the city, though the drivetrain has quite a muscular torque curve with the peaky atmo engine offset by the instantaneous delivery of the motor.
While NVH is reduced and the CVT improved, there's still the characteristic 'droning' soundtrack from the engine and transmission under heavy throttle. Our US drive loop was short, and we were driving quite aggressively, so the fuel return of about 7.0L/100km wasn't terrible for such a big car.
We shall see more about this in time, and will also drive the 2.5 base car and the V6, which looks great on paper as a worthy Aurion successor.
Though on first impressions it's clear that the hybrid drivetrain hasn't changed much. In the outgoing Camry the hybrid has a $4000 premium over the base 2.5, and that figure won't want to be any higher this time around.
Another major area of improvement is the cabin, with a fascia that's more driver-oriented, and has more seat and steering wheel adjustment, and a lower hip point. The seats themselves have also been re-engineered and are pretty comfy.
There are many more soft-touch materials and contrasting elements such as various leather options, wood and metal highlights depending, and LED cabin lighting. The old Toyota cruise control stalk has been binned too, in favour of wheel buttons, and there's an electric parking brake instead of a foot-operated one.
The main downer is the continued plethora of cheap-grade plastics on the doors - though these were US-made, and ours will come from Japan - while all that shiny black trim on the instruments attracted dust.
Will it age well? It feels a little lower-rung than a Mazda 6, which nudges the Euros, even though it's a big step up. And it'll hold together typically well.
The back seats still offer ample space for two adults or three at a pinch, while the TNGA setup sees the hybrid batteries relocated to improve boot space (up 94L to 515L) and allow the back seats to both fold down this time.
Infotainment comes on 7.0-inch or 8.0-inch touch-screens depending on spec, showing new software, though there's still no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Expect the Altise equivalent to have the 7.0 and the rest to have the 8.0.
The driver gets a basic 4.2-inch digital trip computer on lower grades or a new 7.0-inch TFT display on pricier versions, which also come available with a 10-inch head-up display and Qi-compatible wireless charging pad.
All versions commendably get seven airbags, a reversing camera, adaptive all-speed cruise control and autonomous emergency braking. Higher grades also get lane-departure alert, automatic high beam for the LEDs and blind-spot monitoring.
The subtext though is price. You'd imagine the base will still need to start under $30k, perhaps at $29,990 plus on-road costs, but it's hard to see the MY18 Camry not costing more - because it won't get sharp deals like the formerly subsidised outgoing car, and it's such a step up.
In a fragmenting market where the mid-sized sedan is increasingly seen as a premium offering, and in which SUVs are ascendant, Toyota has a mission to broaden its buyer base.
Yet the new Camry is a much better offering. It'll be a smash hit in America and China, and while it'll have a new focus in Australia, Toyota's mission to add some genuine appeal to the Camry badge has been a success.
Whether people will believe, or even care, is the harder part to predict.