The imported Toyota Camry SL Hybrid is actually – shock, horror – a desirable offering that is far more than a mere sensible choice. Who'd have thought we'd ever see the day?
The new, imported Toyota Camry has won itself a lot of fans since its launch at the end of last year. As we hope to have established over the ensuing months, its days of being a ‘good enough’ taxi in disguise are well and truly over.
Perhaps the best example of this revolution is the tech leader of the line-up, oddly the one we were yet to review: the $40,990 (before on-road costs) flagship SL specification level with petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain that cuts fuel use in half compared to the punchier 3.5-litre V6 option.
There’s not much on this new Camry that’s carried over from the old model. It sits on a version of the modular architecture under the Toyota C-HR and Prius, as well as the new Corolla that’s winning a similar number of plaudits.
As a result of this stiffer platform, the Camry is far happier chewing through corners than before – a feeling enhanced by the lower seating position. At the same time it remains quiet and cushy, and massive inside.
But it’s the design that sets this iteration apart. Contours along the bonnet, side profile curves, and particularly lovely integration of the A-pillar and front three-quarter panel look great. Our tester’s red paint and multi-spoke alloys top it all off.
The interior sports a sporty leather steering wheel with an electric column adjustment like a Lexus, and a driver-centric instrument fascia that blends into a backlit wood-look strip ahead of the passenger. Everything is soft to the touch, though the faux stitching really is a touch naff.
It’s certainly brimming with equipment. On the outside there are 18-inch alloy wheels with a temporary speed-limited spare in the boot, LED headlights, tail-lights and daytime running lights, and rain-sensing wipers.
There’s also leather seat trim, proximity key access, dual-zone climate control, 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, Bluetooth/USB, satellite-navigation with SUNA live updates, Qi wireless smartphone charging, digital radio, plus rear cabin air vents and USB points.
On the safety front, the Camry scored a near-faultless 36.1 out of 37 in ANCAP crash testing conducted in 2017, and standard fare includes AEB, collision alert, lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, reversing cross-traffic alert, active cruise control, parking sensors at both ends and a reversing camera.
There are also cooled front seats (weirdly there’s no heating in them, but come summer you’ll be thankful), electric steering column adjust, electric front passenger seat adjust, a large digital instrument display, a full-colour head-up display, and a sunroof.
Where it’s a little ‘off’ is in the realm of infotainment, with Toyota’s refusal to embrace Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in favour of the clunkier Toyota Link app remaining a gripe. Ditto the excessive use of shiny black plastic over the fascia, which is a real magnet for smudges and dust.
Storage is great, with a cubby beneath the sliding Qi charger pad, while it also has a bigger centre console than most.
The back seats offer similar leg room sufficient for anyone 190cm or below, generous under-thigh support, plentiful outward visibility and foot space, and acceptable head room despite the sunroof. Rear vents/USB points feature.
With the hybrid batteries being mounted below the cargo floor, you are free to drop the back seats down via little levers in the boot. With the back seats in use, the boot remains long and deep, with extra space liberated by the temporary speed-limited spare wheel underneath.
The Camry has a very different drivetrain to its competitors. There’s a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine running on a fuel-saving-oriented cycle putting out an uninspiring 131kW at 5700rpm and 221Nm at 3600rpm. But it has help.
Instead of a turbo, there’s an 88kW/202Nm electric motor with a small amount of battery storage (a nickel-metal hydride rather than more efficient, but pricier, lithium-ion unit) taking the system output to 160kW of power.
For short distances, below about 40km/h and with minimal throttle input, the Camry can be driven in EV Mode as a fully electric car. Ditto in reverse gear. But most of the time, the engine powers the front wheels and sends charge to the battery pack, with performance augmented by the front-mounted electric motor.
It’s all matched to a CVT infinite-ratio gearbox and gets a few driving modes to either maximise fuel savings (Eco) or performance (Sport). The upshot of all this complexity is remarkable combined-cycle claimed fuel use of 4.5L/100km, far superior to any petrol rival, and matching or beating most diesels while emitting fewer NOx carcinogens.
It’s also as seamless as this tech gets in operation, with Toyota’s decades of experience showing. The engine kicks in without many vibrations or much noise, the CVT ‘droning’ under throttle is minimised thanks to sound-deadening, and the dual powertrain has more low-down torque than you’d think, giving it strong, surging acceleration. It’s quite quick.
On our combined drive loop with significant urban driving, we managed 5.3L/100km without any overt effort at conserving fuel. That’s impressive.
You’d be misguided to opt for the $1000 cheaper 2.5-litre petrol non-hybrid Camry SL, though we’ll point out that this spec can also be had with a crisp (but thirsty) 224kW/362Nm V6 engine with an eight-speed auto for an additional $3000.
The Camry sits on Toyota’s modular TNGA (GA-K) architecture, adding stiffness and lowering the centre of gravity. While chiefly a cost-saving effort, company head Akio Toyoda also demanded the engineers make this Camry drive in a more engaging fashion.
They delivered, as the fitment of pricey double-wishbone suspension at the rear might suggest. You sit low in the cabin, and while the electric-assisted steering is vague (and overly resistant in Sport mode), the body control through corners remains excellent, even though the ride comfort is never short of high.
This Camry doesn’t merely tolerate twisty roads, it actually handles them with some verve. That’s a new thing to this badge. It also has a few nifty features, notably the auto hold function that stops you ‘creeping’ in D in gridlock, and radar-guided active cruise control. You can also potter around silently at low speeds.
From an ownership angle, Toyota’s three-year/100,000km cover is starting to look a little stingy. It does, however, offer eight years/160,000km of warranty on its hybrid battery. The Camry has annual service intervals (or every 15,000km, whichever comes first) capped at $195 per visit for the first five services. Cheap as chips, that.
To say the new Camry is the best to date is an understatement. It retains all of the old car’s strengths – space, value, efficiency, low running costs – and adds a dose of design nous, dynamic verve and high-end cabin features.
It'a a legitimately excellent luxury sedan without the price tag, even though its image is something to be overcome.
Photos by Joel Strickland