Mid-life upgrades are supposed to incorporate new headlights, grille and bumper designs at most. At least that’s the general consensus among auto-makers.
Someone forgot to tell one brand though, because the updated and more affordable 2015 Toyota Camry you see here shares only the roof panel with the outgoing car, which itself only launched 3.5 years ago. So while each is essentially the same underneath, the pair now looks completely different.
We will spare you cliches involving cardigans, but suffice to say that Australia’s dominant mid-sized car has shed any piece of drab clothing you’d care to name. It actually looks pretty sharp, save perhaps the naff blacked-out inlay within the C-pillar — especially with 18-inch wheels.
Globally, the mid-sized segment remains a vital one — notably in the US and China. And as you might have noticed, there’s some seriously competitive product out there, perhaps more than ever before.
Toyota acknowledges it cannot simply rely on its reputation for reliability any more. It may still own more than 40.0 per cent market share, but how many of them are valuable private buyers? About one-third.
The company knows it must lure customers that buy on emotion as well as fleets that buy on reason. It’s all symptomatic of the company’s wider push under racing driver CEO Akio Toyoda to make more interesting cars.
But it’s not just the revolutionary look — for a Camry, anyway — that is interesting about this ‘Big Minor’ change, as the company calls it. Because this Camry is also the final one that will be built in Australia. Toyota’s Altona plant in Melbourne closes at the end of 2017, remember.
After that, we will get an imported Camry.
As we’ve reported, the decision to spend $108 million — including about $24 million federal tax dollars — on development of a car that will be made here for only two-and-a-half years was a hard sell for Toyota Australia, but kudos to it for doing so.
Between now and the end of 2017, the company will make about 230,000 cars, three-quarters or so of which will be exported. And while the Camry remains a fundamentally ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ car, in its final locally made guise it serves as a fitting legacy to the factory that churns it out.
Firstly, it’s great value — up to $5000 cheaper than before. At base level, the Altise — the one that made up a massive 85 per cent of sales on the predecessor, is now $26,490 plus on-road costs or $28,990 drive-away.
It’s a $3000 jump to the Atara S at $29,490, up another $2500 to the Atara SX at $31,990 and $5500 to the Atara SL at $37,440. Hybrid versions of the Altise cost an extra $4000 at $30,490, or an extra $3000 on the Atara S and Atara SL.
See a full, detailed breakdown of the 2015 Toyota Camry pricing and specifications here.
This more equitable ‘walk’ between specification levels rectifies what Toyota saw as an issue on the old car. As a result, it hopes more buyers will pony up for a variant positioned above the Altise. Netting these sorts of buyers is a key plan in keeping demand, and thereby factory scale, sufficient.
Obviously the most interesting addition to the range from a driving perspective is the aforementioned Atara SX. Toyota Australia’s 200-strong engineering team decided on model-first black 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 225/45 Bridgestone Turanzas made in Poland that give it a sportier look.
There’s also revised Hitachi shocks with higher low-speed damping force, retuned rebound spring rates, a 6.3 per cent faster steering rack with re-calibrated ESC, new stabiliser links and new bushes for the stabiliser bar and lower arm.
A sporty Camry? Not a sentence you hear every day. “Very un-Camry-like,” as the global chief engineer for the model, Masato Katsumata, put it at this week’s launch.
What does all this mean? You may recall the Camry RZ, which added sporty bits to the car without any mechanical changes. That actually sold really well. So Toyota Australia got dispensation from Toyota in Japan to make this special sporty version all for itself.
The result? You have a Camry that sits a little flatter, with suspension that settles more swiftly and undoes any propensity to bob about on straight-ahead. The re-jigged dampers don’t bring too much reciprocal problems to the low-speed ride, either, though the 18s naturally do — slightly.
There’s no change to the 135kW/235Nm 2.5-litre Australian-made petrol engine under the bonnet, however, so suspension tweaks only go so far. Ditto the six-speed automatic gearbox with its smooth shifts around town, but moments of slurring and unwillingness to kick down on entry.
The new steering ratio for the electric-assisted power steering system gives you a little more heft on centre, though it remains — no fault of Toyota’s local team — a little numb and non-linear from half-a-turn in. But it’s a Camry… don’t worry, it’s pleasant and light in urban areas.
As such, we have to say the Camry Atara SX is an interesting addition to the range, with some small but notable handling improvements. But does anyone really want a slightly firmer-riding Camry that rewards when pushed? We’ll see.
As for the rest of the range, we drove flagship Atara SLs in both petrol and hybrid guises. Our petrol SL was fitted with the optional 18-inch wheel package ($2950 when paired with sunroof, a compulsory move), meaning it shared the SX’s wheel/tyre setup.
The base Altise on its 16s — and with its less potent 133kW engine, a by-product of its single-port exhaust system, apparently — has the cushier ride by all accounts.
As ever though, it’s the petrol-electric Camry hybrid that appeals more. Not only is it 50 per cent more frugal with a claimed combined-cycle usage of 5.2 litres per 100km, but its 151kW powertrain (comprising a 118kW/213Nm 2.5 petrol engine with a 105kW motor — has notably more punch.
The CVT is also a fairly good example of the breed, given it keeps revs where they need to be without impersonating a slipping clutch overmuch. It makes one wonder how the Lexus NX hybrid’s CVT is so ordinary. Likewise its brakes, while lacking a little pedal feel, aren’t too wooden, and the regeneration feels subtle.
Without the SX’s tuning, the dullness on-centre returns to the steering, the body control is diminished, and the slimmer tyres on 17s are moderately more inclined to screech.
But put the hybrid — or any Camry — in its natural habitat of freeways and urban roads, and drive within the car’s limits, and it remains a comfortable experience. Most low-speed corrugations are rounded off well enough, though there remains a little more tyre noise than some rivals (not that Mazda 6, though).
For the average Camry buyer (not the private-market, sports-focused ones Toyota hopes to excite with the SX), it remains a thoroughly serviceable, comfortable proposition. It’s not as cloud-like on its dampers as a Sonata or as sharp in the turns as a Mazda 6, but it’s fine. Just fine. As before.
Less changed than the outside is the inside. The Camry’s cabin is very recognisable — large, practical and a bit dull. There are some new trims, but they’re hard to spot.
In the positive column, it remains vast, about matching the Sonata for rear seat room. Back seat passengers get vents and map lights, while the rear seats clip forward — though you have to do this via the (sizeable 515 litre, or 421L in the hybrid) boot. Up front there’s a massive glovebox, console and good door pockets.
The instrument fascia is typically ergonomic, though the cheap-feeling lower plastics, cosmetic dash stitching and neon-green backlighting lower the ambience, as does the foot-operated park brake. The voice control system is also a little intransigent once it's decided not to obey.
The hybrid adds a nifty Eco dial and a 4.2-inch display screen behind the steering wheel with a host of driving data, though lacks a digital speedo.
There’s a decent list of equipment — as you can read about in full here — given all models get a 6.1-inch touchscreen with a reversing camera, a raft of connectivity and from the end of May will have Pandora integration.
The Atatra S and SX get voice control, plus bigger wheels, parking sensors and an electric driver’s seat, among other bits.
The Atara SL justifies its $5500 premium with a pre-crash safety system (autonomous braking at low speeds), active cruise control, automatic high beam, rain-sensing wipers, lane departure alert, a blind-spot monitor and rear cross traffic alert, leather-accented power-adjustable front seats with memory function, premium audio with satellite-navigation and front sensors.
That’s a lot of gear. But then again, the cabin layout invariably lends itself better to the lower grades, because despite the equipment it feels cheaper than it is on account of the materials and layout — especially next to the mid-range Mazda 6 that competes with it on price.
The fact that you can only get sat-nav on the Atara SL — not even as an option on the others — is a bit poor, really.
As always, it’s cost of ownership where the Camry is a big winner. You know it’ll run like clockwork, and you also get five scheduled services capped at $140 a pop. This covers a period of four-years or 75,000km. Its resale value is likely to be less desirable, though.
Ultimately, with its new — and much more stylish — clothes and sportier suspension offering, the 2015 Toyota Camry is clearly better than before. And those big price cuts make a world of difference — and they have to if Toyota is to ensure sufficient scale at its local factory.
Kudos to Toyota for committing to this final re-development for Altona before we switch to getting imported Camrys.
Will it convert swathes of private buyers? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s certainly more appealing. It’s still not as sharp or as premium-feeling as some rivals, but this big, dependable and (in the case of the hybrid) frugal Camry at least gets a little hint of style with its substance.