I’ve spent more time as a passenger in versions of the Toyota Camry than I ever have behind the wheel. As a go-to vehicle for Uber drivers, it’s become synonymous in my mind with awkward small talk, free mints and five-star ratings.
And based on those experiences alone, I’d be giving the Camry a solid two stars.
But when I discovered I’d been assigned to review the 2020 Toyota Camry SL hybrid, I relished the chance to smash the stereotype. “Go on, change my mind,” I whispered to the four-door sedan in its handsome shade of ‘emotional red’, perhaps a self-aware nod to its historical lack of emotional appeal.
We last reviewed this particular model in August 2018, and since then not much has changed. (We've also published a comparison this week the Accord Hybrid, check it out here.)
There’s been an addition to the pre-collision system to include pedestrian detection, the removal of a sunroof option on the four-cylinder petrol and V6 variants, and the incorporation of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and that’s about it.
But given it’s the top-seller in its segment (medium cars under $60,000), the Camry is more than worthy of a second look. And I mean that in more ways than one.
The Camry SL hybrid on test is $41,590 plus on-road costs. That compares with the sportier, top-end Camry SL V6 at $44,590 and the entry-level Camry Ascent Sport at $28,290 plus ORCs.
Toyota offers two other hybrid Camrys – the mid-priced Ascent Sport hybrid for $32,590 plus ORCs, or the more affordable Ascent hybrid for $30,590 plus ORCs.
If you look at more immediate competitors like the Honda Accord hybrid sedan at $50,490 plus ORCs or the Mazda 6 Atenza sedan, which tops out at $49,890 plus ORCs and isn’t a hybrid, that makes the SL hybrid look pretty damn reasonable.
Meanwhile, the Skoda Octavia sedan, which is usually the third-highest seller in the class, tops out at $49,990 plus ORCs for the sporty RS 245 flagship – a full eight-grand more than the top-spec Camry.
Sure, you’re not getting a premium brand or Mazda’s good looks (in my opinion), but the Camry’s dollars make sense (pun intended) if you’re shopping in this class.
I wouldn’t call it gorgeous, but standing in front of the Camry in its current iteration, I was struck by how much Toyota has improved on the design front. I’m not exactly a big fan of its more zany creations (cough, C-HR, cough), but I appreciate the Japanese brand taking what were fairly pedestrian cars and giving them a bit more kerb appeal.
This latest design update, which kicked in from 2017, replaced the formerly gaping grille (which made the car look like it constantly had its jaw on the floor) with a sleek, angular front that tapers into a latticed grille with lots of angular edges adding visual intrigue.
I was also struck by the Camry’s size. It’s 1.8m wide and almost 5m long, and looks quite substantial for a car classed as medium.
Inside, the Camry echoes the luxury feel of cars far more upmarket and seems to be channelling its step-sibling, Lexus, with some strong interior design details – to varying degrees of success.
I appreciated the sunroof, perforated leather seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel, but could have done without the easily smudged, shiny black plastic dash inserts. There’s also a striking S-bend that winds its way between the dash controls, but won’t be to everyone’s taste (in one of my passenger's words, "That’s a bit much").
Another strange interior design touch is an imitation wood insert just above the glovebox that’s actually just artfully sculpted plastic. I get what they were trying to do, but real wood would have been a much more classy, impactful addition.
Under the bonnet
The Camry is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and an electric motor that, together, produce enough oomph (131kW, 221Nm) that you’ll never be left fearing whether or not you can make it up that hill.
This pairs smoothly with the front-wheel-drive Camry’s continuously variable transmission and, as is typical of hybrids, feels particularly sleek at low speeds.
Under the right circumstances, the Camry can be driven strictly in ‘EV mode’, relying solely on the electric motor’s battery storage. But this can only happen when the battery isn’t too low and you’re not accelerating too hard – if either of these things changes, it will deactivate. Thus, it’s certainly not to be relied upon as a viable ‘Oh crap, I’ve run out of petrol’ strategy.
Behind the wheel
My first spin in the Camry occurred amid monumental Melbourne hailstorms with freeway flooding and very minimal visibility. A baptism of fire (or rain), if you will. In those circumstances, the Camry SL hybrid was a very peaceful car to be inside.
The large, solid-feeling body made me feel secure, and the ride height was elevated enough to feel like I had ample frontward visibility.
The car cuts through the noise and vibrations of the road, but emits a whirring noise at lower speeds that sounds a little like far-away sirens (I kept checking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t in the way of a very quiet police car).
At lower speeds, it’s also dangerously quiet. That's something I learned when slowly approaching a pedestrian in an empty car park, who turned around and was clearly stunned to see she was about two metres from a moving vehicle.
Although the steering and transmission are both seamless and smooth, you do really notice the shift from electric motor to petrol engine. Occasionally, it can create a grumbling sensation like the one you get from a grumpy idle-stop system in other cars. I didn’t notice this shift quite so much in the hybrid C-HR I drove weeks earlier, but to be fair, the Camry has a larger petrol engine.
Parking, handling and just generally getting about in the Camry is made easy thanks to its surprisingly tight turning circle (which feels a lot smaller than the 12.4m quoted) and electric genes, but I did find the limited rear visibility a little challenging.
Coming off driving a compact SUV, it took me a while to adjust to the sedan way of life, and I think this transition would have been greatly helped if the Camry’s reverse sensors and camera were a little better.
In tight spots, I found it hard to gauge where the car’s nose and tail ended. The reverse sensors aren’t exactly intuitive and seem to go off at even the slightest obstacle (a low-hanging branch, for example), meaning it can be hard to gauge just how much room you actually have.
Similarly, the reverse camera is where the Camry can’t compete with its European rivals – it’s a tad low-res and just doesn’t have that plasma-screen-TV feel to it.
Standard safety across the SL Camry variants is impressive. Plus, all SLs get blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, while some other spec grades don’t.
Otherwise, you can pretty much expect the following to be available on most Camry variants, regardless of price: lane-departure alert, brake hold, pre-collision safety system with pedestrian detection (with the latter part a more recent addition), automatic high beam, all-speed active cruise control, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and seven airbags.
Higher grades of the Camry score front and rear clearance sensors; something I really relied upon when feeling a little unclear on the car’s dimensions. Although, I would have loved full front sensors, not just side sensors.
Lane-centring assist and a speed limiter are notable omissions, but the active cruise control compensates by erring on the conservative side, leaving a big gap between you and the car in front. While testing it at lower speeds, I noticed while the active cruise can pick up on parked cars to the side of the road and slow down accordingly, it failed to recognise a cyclist, so be wary (the pre-collision system on Corollas and RAV4s includes day-time cyclist detection, but the Camry misses out).
I was also lucky enough to experience the pre-collision safety system in action, thanks to a rogue pedestrian jaywalking across the road in front of me. It basically makes a loud beeping noise and flashes ‘BRAKE’ as an alert across the car’s visual displays. Terrifying, but at least it keeps you honest?
One of the major oversights in previous Camrys was the lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and something that has now been remedied thanks to a retrofit program.
In a nutshell, Camrys purchased before October 21, 2019 can be retrofitted with the smartphone mirroring tech for $199, while those purchased after this date are fitted with it as standard. The Camry I drove didn’t have it, so I can’t comment on its efficacy.
Otherwise, the Camry is impressively kitted out, with its 8.0-inch colour touchscreen, digital radio, electric seat adjustment with memory settings, front seat cooling, digital instrument display, and keyless entry and start.
Highlights include the head-up display, which is in full colour and includes speed and navigation instructions, as well as the satellite navigation system, which is extremely precise and easy to use (you just have to get used to the binging noise it makes every time you have to make a turn).
A wireless phone charger that stows away to offer more cabin storage is the cherry on top.
Space, comfort and practicality
Taller people might find the Camry’s front and rear head room a little limited, given the seat position is high and the sunroof makes the clearance a little low.
I found the Camry’s 524L boot to be unexpectedly deep and accommodating, although golf clubs might be more of a back-seat job. I am not a golfer so I couldn’t test this theory, but if you are a golfer, I encourage you to pick a less boring sport.
In the rear, passengers score satisfactory leg room, USB ports, air vents, velvety floor mats and some lovely, soft leather back seat pockets that will make your knees happy.
While the seat coolers are appreciated, I would have preferred seat heating, particularly as I prised the car door open with my cold, dead hands on a particularly frosty Melbourne morning.
Finally, the Camry’s claimed fuel economy is 4.5L/100km, which isn’t that far off the 5.7L/100km real-world figure I received from the trip computer. I had a full week of daily driving and it barely made a dent on the tank, bringing it to just above half-full.
Toyota offers a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty that is fairly standard amongst its competitors, and its 12-month/15,000km service intervals are cheap for the first five capped-price visits at $200 a pop.
I like to call the Camry ‘the Euro-rehab car’. In my mind, it’s the car you buy if you’re a former devotee of an upmarket brand and have tired of paying more for servicing, parts and prestige.
As existing Toyota fans will know, cover up the badge and any stigma around the Camry disappears.
On looks and feel alone, the SL is a sleek, comfortable, well-equipped car, even if it means sacrificing some sex appeal. Add to that the fact it’s a hybrid, and arguably a well-priced one at that, and suddenly it becomes a purchase that adds up.
And in case your finances still aren’t looking all that flash after embracing the ‘Oh, what a feeling’ lifestyle, you could always take up Uber driving. Don’t forget the free mints.