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The limited edition Toyota Camry RZ is according to the big-T brand a sort of homage to the 86 sports car, and a celebration of a nameplate that is 30 years old, 21 of which it has spent as the top-selling medium car in this country.
Based on the entry-level Camry Altise, the Toyota Camry RZ shares its Inferno Orange hue with the Corolla Levin ZR and 86 (though there are other hues available). It also takes its 17-inch alloy wheels (replacing Altise’s 16s) and sports suspension with the flagship Camry Atara, only the rims are painted gloss black to match a lip spoiler, lower grille and side decals uniquely added to this grade.
While there may be some questions over the style of this tarted-up Camry, there’s no arguing with the value proposition.
Although the recommended retail price for the Camry RZ is $31,990 plus on-road costs, the Toyota website currently has it offered nationally for $28,990 driveaway.
In addition to exterior accoutrements it gets a touchscreen audio system that replaces the slimline, monochromatic display and push-button audio unit in the base Altise. Adding the touchscreen also means the addition of a reverse-view camera, while a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshifter lifts the otherwise staid interior considerably.
Other standard kit includes cruise control, an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, automatic on/off headlights and regular air-conditioning, though left to the higher-grade Atara are leather trim, satellite navigation, push-button start and dual-zone climate control.
Unfortunately the bland grey cloth trim and all-plastic door panels of the Altise remain, which presents a contrast to the bright and apparently sporty exterior.
The interior plastics and some of the fit and finish isn’t to class standards, though ergonomically the dashboard is superb, with graphics and font size large enough that even a pensioner with lost spectacles could see them.
Simplicity rules, and it works – there are buttons labelled audio, phone and track up and down, while the multi-function trip computer can be accessed from steering wheel-mounted buttons, and the cupholders, glovebox and centre console storage bin are all extra-large.
Space and seat comfort also take priority in the Camry RZ. Despite the dowdy trim, the driver’s cushion is deep and broad, with good side supports and a base that tilts to provide great under-thigh support.
The rear bench is similarly accommodating, and a flat floor means there’s excellent legroom even for the middle passenger – unlike in the rear-wheel drive Commodore and Falcon with their sizeable transmission tunnels.
Unlike some rivals in the medium class – and most of the price-point compact SUV competitors – the Camry also comes with rear-seat air vents.
Unlike the more expensive Camry Hybrid, too, the boot in the petrol-only Camry is full-size without a space-intruding battery pack. However gooseneck hinges on the bootlid will crush your luggage, unlike with the more elegant solution of gas struts used in rivals such as the Mazda 6. On the upside, there is a full-size alloy spare wheel underfloor.
Where the entry-level Camry Altise and Hybrid offer a comfortable suspension and tall-profile 16s to match their cushy seats, the Camry RZ on the same sports suspension and 17s as the Atara SX and SL is simply too hard.
Particularly around town, where most Camrys will spend their days, the RZ is constantly jiggly and thumpy, and occasionally harsh. Its ride is especially poor at low speeds, though it does deal with bigger hits better at higher speeds.
Often the upside to having firm springs and dampers is stellar smooth road handling, but in this respect the Camry RZ remains competent but uninspiring. It feels planted and grippy, which we’re especially thankful for during the streaming rain that poured at an inopportune moment as corners appeared during our test drive.
The Bridgestone Turanza ER300 tyres and alert stability control provided impressive inherent active safety if a driver were to swerve in these conditions.
There’s no doubt, though, that a Mazda 6 and even a Honda Accord Euro are far smoother and more dynamic drives.
Surprisingly, the handling highlight in this Toyota sedan is the steering, which on our test car actually seemed more direct and responsive than other Camry grades we’ve tested, though it still suffers from a nervous empty patch on-centre.
Touchy throttle response also gives the Camry RZ a lively feel off the line, as if this large 2.5-litre four-cylinder sedan is aiming to act like a more powerful big six-cylinder. That’s fine, but it also pressures the otherwise grippy tyres into spinning wildly in the wet off the line unless extreme care is taken.
It’s the only real flaw in an otherwise excellent drivetrain. The engine is workman-like the way it provides plenty of urge down low in the rev range, yet maintains an eagerness right to redline, however it doesn’t exactly sound inspiring.
The six-speed automatic transmission is even more of a gem, imperceptibly picking up lower gears on hills so the driver can maintain speed without needing to use more throttle.
Conversely, the auto works with the cruise control to change back gears going downhill to maintain speed.
It creates an effortless driving experience that really should make the average buyer think twice about needing a Commodore, Falcon or stablemate Aurion six-cylinder, or even the pricier Camry Hybrid.
There again, the Ford also comes as a four-cylinder and it’s miles punchier and more comfy again…
On our test loop, which consisted of urban running, freeway driving, and country road touring in equal parts, the Camry RZ returned 10.0 litres per 100 kilometres, up both on the claimed combined average of 7.8L/100km and also the low-sixes we’ve seen on a similar route in the Camry Hybrid.
Along with five capped price services at $130 each, decent economy and impressive equipment for the price, the Camry RZ has genuine pragmatic appeal.
As with the pricier Atara models its family focus comes undone by its harsh suspension which, despite its apparent intention, is far from sporty.
The entry Altise and Hybrid remain the underrated, thinking person’s family car if you can’t stretch to the class-benchmark Mazda 6 that starts beyond $32,000.