2012 Toyota Camry

2012 Toyota Camry

America's best-selling car sticks with a winning formula

First Drive: 2012 Toyota Camry - Times have been tough for Toyota. In the midst of the global economic meltdown, the brand suffered under a widely publicized series of recalls. On the heels of those events, an earthquake and tsunami in the Japanese homeland crippled manufacturing.

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Freshened Styling

With America's best-selling car, the Camry, scheduled for a 2012 redesign, the timing is perfect for Toyota to restore its tarnished reputation. A homerun with the 2012 Toyota Camry would show that Toyota is not vulnerable, and it would set the bar higher for the American and Korean rivals.

But Toyota didn't take that approach. Instead of reinventing the car, Toyota aimed to improve it in several key areas, most notably fuel economy, driving dynamics, and connectivity. The Japanese giant also improved safety with a class-leading 10 standard airbags and reduced noise, vibration and harshness with added sound deadening materials.

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More Efficient Engine Lineup

The 2012 Toyota Camry features three engine choice, two of which carry over from last year, but fuel economy is improved in all three.

The base engine is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with nine more horsepower for a total of 178. Thanks to more frequent use of torque converter lockup, the engine can run at lower RPM. This, and the use of low rolling resistance tires, combine to improve fuel economy by three mpg overall with EPA ratings of 25 mpg city/35 highway. The optional 3.5-liter V6 benefits from the same changes, upping its ratings by one to 21/30 mpg.

The base engine in the 2012 Toyota Camry offers plenty of pep for most needs and is pretty refined for a four cylinder. Zero to 60 mph takes 8.8 seconds, about average for the class, and low-end torque is readily available from a stop. Those looking for the willing power should opt for the V6. It cuts the 0-60 time to 6.6 seconds and is silky smooth and whisper quiet. It's one of the best V6s in this class.

Most impressive, though, is the hybrid powertrain. Instead of last year's 147-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder, it now uses a 2.5-liter four that makes 156 horsepower. Improvements taken from the Prius, including reduced friction and mechanical and electrical losses, help improve fuel economy immensely, from 31/35 mpg to 43/39 mpg. That's an increase of eight mpg overall.

Better yet, the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid is quick. With 200 total horsepower (up from 187), power is much easier to access. Zero to 60 mph comes in just 7.8 seconds, which is almost V6 territory. I made a couple of passes at 60 mph on country highways and was amazed I was driving a hybrid. The Hybrid is clearly the star of the 2012 Toyota Camry lineup.

The Toyota Camry Hybrid has a couple of other features that will appeal to anyone who wants to be green. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system shuts the engine off at stoplights and can use on electric power alone up to 25 mph. A new "EV" button allows the car to drive on electric power alone for about a mile, provided the speed stays down. Using this mode eats up the battery, though, and doesn't improve fuel economy, so it's really just a gimmick. There is also an "ECO Mode" button that dulls throttle response and cuts back on air conditioning to get you a bit better fuel economy. I don't like how unresponsive the throttle is in this mode, but many Hybrid buyers will be willing to suffer it for an extra mpg or two.

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Same Ride, Improved Handling

The 2012 Toyota Camry has a deserved reputation for offering a smooth ride, but Toyota engineers aimed to maintain that comfort while improving dynamics. To do so, they reduced the weight (150-200 pounds depending on the model), changed the rear suspension geometry, tweaked the shocks and stabilizer bars and used inversely wound coil springs up front. The sportier Toyota Camry SE model received even firmer shocks, springs and stabilizer bars, as well as unique steering knuckles and lower suspension arms.

As a result, the 2012 Toyota Camry still delivers a ride worthy of a luxury car, but the handling is slightly improved. The Camry is more stable in a straight line, more controlled through corners, and it offers more road feel. It's still not as agile as a Mazda6 or a Honda Accord, but there is a refinement to the driving character that Hyundai and Kia can't match. The SE model has quicker moves and a firmer ride, but it's firmer without feeling appreciably sportier. Some will prefer the SE's quicker reactions, while others will think the ride is too firm.

The steering now features electric power assist in all models instead of just the hybrid, and the ratio is a bit quicker. Toyota says steering feel is also improved. While the steering is a tad quicker and predictable, it still doesn't offer much feel. The Honda Accord is still much more satisfying in this respect.

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Functional Interior

One area Toyota had a chance to separate itself from the competition was the interior. While the 2012 Toyota Camry cabin gets a new look, it doesn't impart the feel of quality that you get with the Hyundai Sonata or Kia Optima.

That's not to say the interior isn't nice. The dashboard has a new flowing design with a soft-touch surface highlighted by stitched accents. The upper door trim, door armrests and center armrest also feature soft-touch surfaces. The materials are pretty good for the class, but we don't get the feeling that Toyota spent much more money to achieve the look. The trim pieces at the base of the center stack, with their molded "stitching" look especially disingenuous.

Functionally, however, the cabin is improved. The control layout features large, easy-to-find buttons and they're all within arm's reach. Hybrid buyers will enjoy watching the power flow screen, which also shows past and current fuel economy. Toyota also provides plenty of cubbies and bins for small items storage.

The 2012 Toyota Camry is no bigger this year, but the interior space is more useful. The front seats have longer lower cushions to reduce long-trip fatigue, and the tilt/telescoping steering wheel has 33 percent more tilt range to help tailor a better driving position. Many of the panels and trim pieces have also been sculpted back to open up more space throughout. The result of all these changes is a more relaxed ride that offers better passenger comfort. The base seats are a bit flat, so we prefer the Camry SE's extra seat bolstering.

Toyota has also moved the front seats and pedals forward to improve rear seat room. By changing the shape of the front center console, Toyota has opened up two more inches of rear center seat legroom. It's still the center seat, though, so it's no fun to sit there. The outboard positions, however, have excellent head, leg and toe space, making the 2012 Toyota Camry very useful for families.

The trunk is large and deep, with 15.4 cubic feet of space. The rear seat folds down in a 60/40 split to make that space even more useful. The Hybrid's trunk isn't quite as accommodating, as the hybrid system's large nickel-metal hydride battery cuts space down to 13.1 cubic feet. The rear seat also folds only on the right side as the battery blocks the other side.

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New Connectivity

Six different audio systems are offered for the 2012 Toyota Camry. Higher end models get Toyota's new Entune multimedia system, which pairs with your smart phone to provide access to five mobile apps, and more are likely to come in the future. Available at launch are music streaming through Pandora and iheartradio, Bing local search, OpenTable dining reservations, and the ability to buy movie tickets from movietickets.com. The Bing app lets you search for restaurants or businesses and get navigation directions to them.

Entune also provides access to information previously offered by satellite services, including sports scores, live weather and traffic information, stock quotes, and local fuel prices. All of these services are easy to access through your dashboard screen and there is no monthly fee. You just need the right kind of phone.

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Toyota didn't hit one out of the park with the 2012 Camry, but it did make America's best-selling car better. It has the most airbags in the class, plenty of room for a family of five, good fuel economy from its two standard engines, and is now the best midsize hybrid. Handling is also improved and the interior adds space and fun new connectivity features. The 2012 Toyota Camry isn't about to stop the momentum of the Hyundai Sonata, but it is a strong choice among strong competition and it should maintain its sales lead. www.toyota.com

2012 Toyota Camry test drive review
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