Toyota Australia continues its local manufacturing with the seventh generation Camry launched in Melbourne this week. Prices start from $30,490 for the fleet-favourite Altise and top at $39,990 for the newly introduced Atara SL.
Sporting a new 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the new 2012 Toyota Camry is more powerful and fuel efficient than ever before.
It's been over 24 years since the very first Toyota Camry was built in Victoria and over the last two and half decades the Japanese company has manufactured over 1.6 million Camrys in Australia alone.
Despite a great deal of competition, the Toyota Camry has remained the best selling medium-sized car in Australia for the last 18 years, by no mean an easy feat. It's ingenuous to criticise the Camry for its conservative characteristics but it's much harder to argue with numbers.
The locally built Camry's success is not just an Australian story either, with Toyota Australia currently exporting more than 75 percent of its production to the Middle East. The export program, which started in 1996, has been the lifeline of the Camrys Australian production, providing the much needed scale required to make the operation worthwhile.
Now in it's seventh generation, the Toyota Camry has grown considerably. So much so that the term medium-size is almost misleading, given it bares near identical proportions to the Toyota Aurion (classified as a large car) and offers generous head and leg room for all five passengers.
Although it's labeled as a brand new Camry, underneath the completely reskinned exterior exists a platform very similar to the outgoing model. Nonetheless, the new Camry has gained considerable improvements in all regards.
Keiichi Yoneda, deputy chief engineer of the Toyota Camry, said the new model was designed with two goal pillars in mind: emotional and rational.
It would be almost fruitless to argue against the rational aspect since the Camry has proven itself beyond doubt as one of the most reliable and logical choices for anyone looking for a practical A-to-B vehicle in Australia. As for a vehicle that you can connect with emotionally, that's a totally different proposition.
Toyota is not known for its flair and emotive designs, in fact it's best regarded as the maker of soulless yet super reliable, durable and high quality vehicles. This may not sound so bad at first but with the age group of Toyota buyers on the rise, the brand needs to do more to reconnect it self with a younger (or younger at heart) audience to ensure future success. The recently unveiledToyota 86 sports car is one such move, but it needs to apply this philosophy across the model range.
It just so happens that it’s also more profitable to sell top-spec luxury models to private buyers than concentrate heavily on fleet sales. Currently almost three in every four Camrys sold in Australia are to fleets. To turn that figure around with the new model, Toyota Australia will launch Camry Atara variants, aimed directly at private buyers, with Camry Altise still taking care of the fleet segment.
Apart from the exterior and interior differentiations between the two models, the new 2.5-litre engine is available in two unique configurations for Altise and Atara with power ranging from 132-135kw supported by 231-235 Nm of torque respectively. Manual variants are no longer in existent with all models driven through the front wheels via a sequential-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, which is a vast improvement over the old five. Fuel economy has improved 11 percent, down to 7.8L/100km.
Toyota has paid a great deal of attention to improving the quality of the new Camry, so much so that it spent considerable resources reducing the vehicle’s panel gaps from 4mm to 3.5mm. This makes it one of the best in the business and even superior to Lexus vehicles. It also helps produce a quieter cabin and better aerodynamics.
Overall exterior size is almost identical to the previous model, except for the width, which has grown by 5mm thanks to the addition of chrome door handles. Interior width however, has increased by 30mm due to better and more innovative trimming.
CarAdvice headed to Melbourne to review the Toyota Camry and frankly, we weren't expecting much in terms of an exhilarating drive. Our first test car was a Camry Atara SX, the sports model with dual exhausts, a higher power output and uniquely tuned suspension. Despite all talk of more emotional and sporty appeal for private buyers, making one of the world’s most common cars more exciting is not an easy task.
Behind the wheel the most obvious point of difference between the old and new Camry is the steering feel, having switched to electric power steering has meant Toyota engineers have been given much more freedom in the tune and feel. As a result, there is now a sense of actual engagement with the steering being noticeably more responsive and heavier than before.
With an overall 35kg weight reduction compared to the old model as well as 15 percent more power and eight percent additional torque, acceleration feel is more linear across the rev range. 0-100km/h is achieved in 9.3 seconds (same result for both Atara and Altise, regardless of power/torque difference) but overtaking on highways is not a laborious task, with in-gear acceleration more than adequate for Australian conditions.
Suspension setup for the Atara SX is stiffer than the rest to offer a sportier drive, however the Bridgestone 215/55R17 tyres wrapped around Atara’s 17-inch wheels are not exactly in tune with the harder ride. The SX can certainly do with standard 18-inch wheels wrapped in high-grip tyres if Toyota is serious about attracting a different demographic.
Interior is spacious and as with all Atara models, the SX comes standard with smart entry and push button start, reversing camera, dual-zone air-conditioning, 6.1-inch touch-screen display audio with six speakers (supporting Bluetooth phone and audio streaming), leather steering wheel and gearshift knob plus an electric driver's seat. Specially for the SX is a unique rear bumper, lip spoiler, sports pedals, black-tinted headlamps and leather-accented interior.
To gain all that Toyota has to offer, the Camry Atara SL for $39,990 is the way to go. It features a JBL premium audio system with 10 speakers controlled via a larger and higher-resolution 7-inch touch-screen display with satellite navigation. Automatic wipers and dual electric front seats are also added. Unfortunately, fake woodgrain through the dash is also part of Toyota’s “luxury” look, which actually detracts from the stylish brushed aluminium look of the other models.
For those still listening to AM and FM stations, the up to date audio system supports digital radio and provides live traffic updates. The S and SX’s reversing camera is also upgraded with back-guide monitor (predicting where the vehicle is headed based on steering position).
Two of the more impressive features on the Camary Atara SL are the blind-spot monitor and automatic high beam assistance systems. Generally found in European luxury cars, the blind spot assistance system uses radars mounted in the rear bumper to detect any vehicles sitting in the Camry’s blind spot - it then gives a visual warning in the side mirrors which consequently flashes for attention if the driver indicates to merge. We were given a good opportunity to test the system at Ballarat airport and can report that it’s just as good as the equivalent systems found in Volvo or Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
The automatic high beam assistance is a feature we’re used to seeing in BMW vehicles. Once on, it works by automatically turning the high beam on when there is no vehicle in front or coming towards. It uses light sensors to detect either occurrence and has to be specially calibrated for Australia’s highly reflective street signs (something which BMW vehicles don’t do so well). Given our review took place during the day, this feature was not tested.
One feature we were disappointed not to see was active cruise control, a system by which the onboard computer can detect other vehicles in front and adjust cruise control to follow or slow down. Mr Yoneda told us that such a system would be very difficult to install at the Altona plant and internal research had shown that less than one percent of customers would be willing to pay for the option. Even so, we suspect that many customers are unaware of such a feature or have never used one in real life, as we’ve found it incredibly useful in cars such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Mondeo.
Our second test car was a Camry Atara S, the entry model into the Atara range that retails for $33,490. The standard suspension is a more comfortable ride over Australia’s relatively poor quality roads. Given the nature of the Toyota Camry, it’s unlikely that many would complain about the lack of stiff suspension, which is offered in the SX models. Indeed, it’s a smoother ride overall and given steering response is still top notch, it would be our pick over the SX as a daily.
Toyota has done a good job in feature packing the Atara variants to attract more private buyers, but is it enough? The question isn’t so much if the Camry is a good car, because it’s, it’s a great car. It’s more in regards to buyers wanting more flair, styling and sophistication. Despite all its styling updates, the Camry still appears conservative and without much character compared to the likes of Ford Mondeo, Kia Optima, Hyundai i45 and other rivals.
Overall though, the new Toyota Camry is a substantial improvement over the old. It’s quieter inside, offers more space, better driving dynamics and a nicer interior. It also features, for the first time, seven airbags (including knee airbag), bringing its safety credentials higher than ever. For a fleet customer it’s hard to look past the Camry Altise, but for private buyers the real question is whether or not the Camry Atara can evoke an emotional connection. We suspect that will remain a bigger challenge.