Powerful ponies, stunning new looks and funky interior, the boring best-seller for years is now a free, sporty spirit. Alvin Thomas takes the 2018 model for a long drive to unravel the mysteries, body and soul
The Toyota Camry that has been on sale in the Middle East for over three decades is a car of many shades. It’s a family cruiser. It’s a youngster’s first car. It’s a young employee’s trustworthy mode of transport. It’s your taxi driver’s reliable car that runs for hours straight. And the list goes on. But, over the course of its existence, it has never been one thing: A sports car.
So, then why is my garnet red test Camry fitted with quad exhausts, 18-inch alloy wheels, a lip spoiler and, above all, an ‘SE’ and ‘V6’ badge? Is the Camry finally having a crack at the sports sedan segment? Or have the tables turned so much that Toyota is now aiming to dethrone competitors from the US?
To answer my queries, I took the Camry for a long drive – after all, this could very well be the first ‘real’ sports sedan from Toyota’s stables.
To begin with what now seems to be a transformation process, the Camry – which is now entering its eighth generation – dons a new look… from head to tail. I’m not kidding, either. The PR has (obviously) termed the fascia ‘Keen Look’, but it really does stand out from among the competing sedans in this segment. For instance, there’s a two-piece grille upfront that now nestles the Toyota emblem, and the air intake vents take up a greater portion of the bumper – it’s uncanny but incredibly handsome and sporty.
The side profile is sleek, too. While the extra-large windows don’t do much to hide the sedan-like proportions of the car, the chiseled side mirrors and the bevelled door line and the 18-inch machine-polished alloys do manage to add to the appeal.
The rear, however, is where people will start to take notice. If anyone looking at you from their rear mirror mistakes you for a regular Camry driver, then rest assured, the posterior will change their opinion. The ‘SE’ variant comes standard with a lip spoiler and quad exhausts (!). Just to get things into perspective, these are features that cars like the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio and Jaguar F-Type V8 bring to the table.
Nonetheless, if you’re ever thinking that the Camry is all show and no go, you’d be wrong… again. It’s not that the base Camry, with its 2.5-litre in-line four-cylinder producing 178 ponies, is a slouch, but the 3.5-litre V6 in my tester – which produces 298hp and 363Nm of torque – is just fast. Plainly put, it’s a lot brisker than you’d think.
Again, let me bring the facts to the table. Your family-hauling Camry now produces as much power as a 2004 Audi S4, 2015 Ford Mustang Ecoboost and even a Ferrari 348 Spider (which when new, retailed at about RO60,000). So, it’s safe to say that the Camry is now playing in new grounds.
Power kicks in higher in the rev-range but the torque delivery is linear as you’d expect from a traditional V6. However, the eight-speed automatic gearbox is quick to put down power to the front wheels, especially when the drive-mode selector is set in ‘Sport’ mode.
Sport mode also sharpens up the throttle and adds weight to the steering wheel. However, the punch you receive from about 4,700rpm does add a bit of torque steer drama when taking off from a standstill. Albeit, the car will still clock up a 6.8 seconds 0-100kph time, which is impressive.
While the SE only adds exterior body styling and wider tyres to the mix, it is still by far the best cornering Camry I’ve ever tested. Cornering ‘Gs’ are quite higher than the regular variant, thanks to the sticky Bridgestone Turanza tyres. Mind you, it is still soft enough to glide over bumps without much judder.
The suspension tuning is bang in the middle of soft and harsh, with emphasis on cabin comfort, but it is somewhat eager when you’re taking corners that are well within the limits of the tyres. Pushing it further will only reveal understeer.
The chassis is well-tuned and, contrary to popular belief, quite enthusiastic in sharp bends. The stiffness of the chassis isn’t close to that of its rivals (which his great), but is definitely enough to eke a bit of lift-off oversteer – which will undoubtedly be siphoned off by the busy traction control system. It’s extremely fun to wrestle with the electronic nannies, to be honest.
Adding to the comfort of the car is the electric steering system, which is undeniably light, even in Sport mode. Characteristically, it has no feedback to it; however, it is very responsive and sharp. The brakes, meanwhile, are linear and soft but not too ferocious.
Moving over to the interior, I’d have to say that this is, by a mile, the best Camry interior till date, period. The red and gray dual-tone interior combination is stunning to look at. Mine was the humble gray and beige duo, but it still had stitched elements on the dashboard that added to the allure.
The most striking feature of the interior has to be the distinctive and angular section on the dashboard, which holds the 8-inch wide touchscreen that runs Toyota’s own software. It’s fairly responsive and also comes preloaded with navigation. Meanwhile, there are physical buttons for your a/c and infotainment needs. These buttons are well-weighted, and the larger ones are also embossed.
My variant came with the gorgeous 7-inch wide TFT multi-information display on the instrument cluster. It’s sizeable and offers necessary information, but the graphics are a bit excessive.
The leatherette-wrapped seats are comfortable and what you’d normally find in a Camry. They offer adequate amounts of side bolstering and lumbar, and are eight-way adjustable. I also found them to be very compliant during long journeys.
Rear space has always been the Camry’s forte – and it keeps the trend going. Leg and head room are in plentiful, and the large windows will ensure that passengers don’t feel claustrophobic at any point.
As is expected from a large sedan, the boot space is excellent, too. With its rear seats in position, it offers about 427.5 litres of cargo area.
The coming of more power into a car that was already practical and good to look at has spelled well for Toyota’s flagship. Think of the Camry as a car that brings together the best of both worlds. But the reason it stands out isn’t just because of its brute engine and passenger-friendly interior; it’s because it’s a ‘Camry’.
It’s still the same car that you probably rode in as a youngster and grew up with. It has a soul – and that’s something you just cannot put a price on.
Not in a million years did I ever think I would say this: The Toyota Camry SE may be all the car you would ever want.