2018 Toyota Camry review: First Australian drive

Can a Toyota Camry be more than 'just' reliable, safe and conservative? And does anybody care? The eighth-generation model, imported from Japan rather than made here, is launching now with a mind to answering these questions in the affirmative.

Toyota’s army of engineers had quite a challenge creating the eighth-generation Camry sedan, the latest iteration of one of its most popular models worldwide.

The order direct from company president Akio Toyoda – a bloke who races cars in his sparse spare time – to his chiefs was to green-light some of the designers’ boldest sketches for production, and to inject some real driving character and agility into the mix.

Or so the company claims.

All this while retaining the attributes that have resulted in a staggering 19 million Camry sales globally over seven previous generations: reliability, value and space.

These reasons are why most taxis and Uber cars you’re in are Camrys, ditto most government fleets. It has almost 60 per cent market share in Australia for this reason.

So how in hell do you reconcile conservative expectations from core buyers with a bolder corporate mindset like this? And does anybody really want a Camry that doesn’t mind corners, and might even turn the occasional head?

The car made with these diverse briefings in mind is here before you. Moreover, it’s the first imported Camry (made in Japan) to come to Australia in decades, after the company regrettably closed its Melbourne plant last month.

It’s a new start in a lot of ways.

Beyond the bolder look, there’s an even bigger change you cannot see. Under the skin is the new TNGA architecture, a shared set of components used with the Prius and C-HR, stretched to suit this bigger model, and soon to carry over to many, many more Toyota products.

This more rigid platform has allowed the seats to sit lower, and the roofline to come down alongside, while pushing the wheels closer to each corner. Moreover, it’s allowed the fitment of more complex double-wishbone rear suspension to assist driving agility, the costs for which have been offset in part by the platform’s production scale.

Beyond this, there’s a wholly redesigned cabin, an array of active safety technologies, an overhauled petrol-electric hybrid that’s quieter and more frugal, and a smoother new V6 range-topper with an eight-speed auto (albeit still sending torque to the front wheels, as ever) to supplant the Aurion. There are even paddle shifters.

The message is that while Toyota will still service big fleets that want bread-and-butter motoring, there’s something in this line-up that might actually speak to people’s emotive side. Maybe. Possibly. Let’s not get carried away...

We’ve just returned from the Australian launch event, where we had a crack in all three powertrains (the familiar 2.5-litre petrol is about the only bit of the old car carried over). We can’t be too definitive, but we can say things look positive.

Consider the features available on this Camry that have never been fitted to any predecessor: LED headlights, 19-inch wheels, various driving modes to choose from, a 10-inch head-up display (HUD), wireless phone charging, plus all-speed radar cruise control and AEB – this latter pair being featured even on the base model.

Those are features designed to lure actual car people, as well as bean counters. But before ploughing on, let’s rewind for a sec.

The range kicks off at $27,690 before on-road costs for the Camry Ascent, which equates at launch to a drive-away figure in Victoria of $31,713 – almost $5000 more than the campaign drive-away pricing being offered for years on the old Camry Altise made in Australia: the pricing of which was subsidised to keep demand high, and the factory humming.

The pricing climbs to $29,990 for the Ascent Sport ($34,114 drive-away), $33,290 for the SX ($37,548) and $39,990 for the SL ($44,534). All of these prices are for the base 2.5-litre petrol engine.

The Ascent, Ascent Sport and SL can all be had with the petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain for between $1000 and $2000 more depending on grade. The V6 can be had in high-end SX or SL grades for $4000 more than the 2.5 versions. Got it?

The things that really stand out beyond the Ascent opening price is the fact that the RRP of the Ascent Sport hybrid is $2000 cheaper than its equivalent predecessor, while the V6 versions are a fair bit pricier than the campaign runout pricing available on the Aurion (sometimes got as low at $29,990 drive-away).

We won't bore you with whole equipment lists, because you can read all about that in detail here. But here's a quick summary:

The Ascent 2.5 gets autonomous emergency braking, lane assist, radar-guided cruise control, seven airbags, a reversing camera with guidelines and a five-star ANCAP crash rating. Big tick for safety. This base version also has LED headlights, 17-inch alloys, a 7.0-inch touchscreen and driver's lumbar support. The hybrid adds dual-zone climate control and keyless-go.

The circa $2000 pricier Ascent Sport adds some sporty body add-ons, premium steering wheel and shifter, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, electric driver's seat and parking sensors.

The SX gives you extras such as 'sports' suspension, racier 19-inch wheels, better-grade LEDs, a spoiler, paddle shifters, part-leather seats, rear USB ports and a wireless smartphone pad.

The range-topping SL adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross alert to the active safety suite, reduces the wheels to 18s, adds a sunroof, a 10-inch HUD, ambient cabin lighting, electric memory seats with ventilation and heating, and rain-sensing wipers.

The Ascent Sport and SX look the winners, though the Ascent ticks all the requisite safety boxes to appeal to its target audience. One spec issue you should know about is the fact that only the Ascent 2.5 gets a full-size spare wheel.

Every hybrid and V6, and the Ascent Sport/SX/SL with the 2.5, get a space-saver, with the trade-off being 31L extra boot space (524L versus 493L).

The cabin has a few attributes over the old car, principally the adoption of an electric parking brake across the range instead of a foot-operated version. As expected it all feels perfectly built, and the adoption of some nicer-grade plastics and other contrast materials ups the ambience (aside from the Ascent's urethane wheel). It'll probably look the same after 10 years of use.

The seats and steering wheel have sufficient adjustment, while all the key controls are simple to reach and the infotainment software's menu layout becomes intuitive once you get your head around it. Ditto the sub-menus on the digital instruments, and the buttons on the steering wheel.

Criticisms include the extensive use of glossy black plastic around the fascia that acts as a magnet for dust and fingerprints, and which glares badly in direct sun. We're also not sold on the faux stitching on the dash, or the fact that Toyota still won't allow Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – features that many buyers now expect.

Cabin space is typically generous front and rear on most grades, with the lower roof offset by the lower seats. The back seats also fold down 60:40 and allow through-loading even on the hybrid. However, be aware that the SL with its massive panoramic sunroof (or on an SX with the $1950 option) has decidedly less headroom.

I'm 194cm and my head was touching the roof on the front and back seats in these versions.

Is it just us, or would it also make sense to fit the rear USB points that are on the SX/SL to the base cars as well? If you're Uber-ing with friends or taxiing somewhere, and in the back, wouldn't you want somewhere to plug in your device for a charge?

To the underbody. The flexible TNGA architecture incorporates redesigned front MacPherson strut suspension, plus the aforementioned new double-wishbone rear suspension (more complex and dynamically able than the old struts). There’s also a new electric power steering setup.

The new model’s wheelbase is 50mm longer, though the vehicle is only 25mm lower overall, and the bonnet trailing-edge 40mm lower. The front and rear-seat hip points have also been lowered and moved aft. Torsional rigidity is said to be increased by 30 per cent.

We've been impressed by the dynamic balance of the C-HR and Prius, and can largely say similar things about the new Camry. Most grades combined pleasant steering resistance (except in sports mode where it's too weighty) with a relatively supple and pliant ride over sharp hits, good body control thanks to the car settling quickly after the rebound damper stroke, and excellent noise insulation.

It combines the familiar long-legged, cushy driving character with a hint of agility. Yes, the nose wants to run wide if you go in hot, the ESC is a little overbearing, and the steering is devoid of feedback, but this is still a Camry...

The exception to this is the SX, which has a stiffer suspension setup and 19-inch wheels on slim rubber. As a result, this car felt less settled, louder and more jittery/brittle over pockmarked roads without giving you a heap of dynamic upside. This configuration needs work. The V6 also feels heavy over the nose.

The only other grievance we'd add from a dynamic perspective is the lane-keeping aid read the road lines fine and gives audible chimes, but the function designed to nudge you back into your lane was less effective than most modern systems we've used. On the plus side, the radar-guide adaptive cruise control is excellent and quite intuitive.

The drivetrains are pretty on point for the class. The base 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine has 133kW of power at 6000rpm, and 231Nm of torque at 4100rpm. Fuel use is a claimed 7.8–8.3L/100km and the sole gearbox is a six-speed auto.

It's a perfectly adequate base engine that will go forever. We know this because it was the same in the old car.

The hybrid system features a different, new 2.5-litre engine running Otto/Atkinson cycles that makes 131kW and 221Nm, matched to an 88kW/202Nm electric motor, a CVT and nickel-metal hydride batteries that aren't as efficient as newer lithium-ion units, but are a heck of a lot cheaper.

The total system output is 160kW and Toyota's fuel economy claim is as low as 4.2L/100km – better than a gen-two Prius. What's best about this revised system is the reduced noise and vibration intrusion under heavy throttle which, paired to the almost silent driving character at low speeds and the less intrusive brake-regeneration system, makes this setup worth its small premium. Big tick here.

The new 3.5-litre V6 makes a healthy 224kW of power at 6600rpm and 362Nm of torque at 4700rpm, and uses a claimed 8.7L/100km. Good luck with that... In Toyota style it's as smooth as silk and vaguely sonorous, though the fact it needs high engine speeds to hit its sweet spot (it revs cleanly out to a 7000rpm redline) means you need to 'get up it' to really feel the oomph.

Matched is a new eight-speed automatic gearbox with paddles that helps the smoothness, but which even in its sports setting didn't kick down as quickly as we'd like when pulling out of corners or to overtake. At least you have the manual mode (which is told by the ECU to upshift at redline by itself, the disobedient bugger).

The ideal setups for us are the Ascent 2.5, Ascent Sport hybrid and V6 SL.

From an ownership angle, you get Toyota's three-year/100,000km warranty, plus improved servicing intervals of 12 months/15,000km to counteract the Toyota Service Advantage price cap hike to $195 per visit over a term of five services or five years. The old car was $140 a visit, but its term only covered five visits across four years.

So that's a quick look at the 2018 Toyota Camry, which brings a lot of good new attributes to the table. It looks bolder, drives better, offers more technology, and remains a practical and generally decent-value offering. Just don't expect to get any ridiculous bargains like you would have on the old car for a while...

To answer the premise: yes, this Camry is bolder and better, and has the right stuff to lure a wider buyer set. Whether anyone out there cares is the harder question to answer. Your thoughts?

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