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The Times
  • Silvio Calabi: Vanilla, anyone? The ever-appealing Toyota Camry

  • “Camry” reportedly comes from the Japanese word for crown, kanmuri. You may think that it’s Lexus that is the crown of Toyota’s lineup, but no — the Camry has been America’s best-selling car for 13 of the past 14 years. Was there ever a more appropriate model name?

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  • “Camry” reportedly comes from the Japanese word for crown, kanmuri. You may think that it’s Lexus that is the crown of Toyota’s lineup, but no — the Camry has been America’s best-selling car for 13 of the past 14 years. Was there ever a more appropriate model name?
    This 2012 edition is the seventh and newest generation of the Camry, a car that arrived in America in late 1982. Back then it was a compact. In 1991 it outgrew that classification, and it has been a midsize sedan ever since. This category is the market bull’s-eye—the bread and butter, the vanilla ice cream, the men’s size 10 shoe. Where the really big bucks are to be made. Change is scary.
    Thus change is incremental and oh-so-careful. For 2012, the power of the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine has been bumped up by nine horses, to 178, but thanks to a dozen subtle other improvements, the combined city/highway fuel efficiency rating went up by 2MPG, to 28. Output of the optional 3.5-liter 6-cylinder stays the same, 268 horsepower, but Toyota expects its city/highway economy ratings to inch up also, to 21 and 30 miles per gallon. (The gas-electric Camry Hybrid’s MPG ratings jumped for 2012, to 43/city and 39/highway.) All gas-fed Camrys have 6-speed automatics with manual shift-ability, and the SE model’s transmission now has a faster-reacting Sport mode and shifter paddles on the steering wheel.
    Outside, the car’s dimensions have stayed much the same. But inside, the distance between the accelerator pedal and the rear-seat hip point was stretched by . . . 0.6 inches. And the front seatbacks were slimmed down to provide 1.8 inches more knee room for rear-seat passengers. This “lean car” thinking was applied to the A- and B-pillars and the headliner too, which have been re-contoured to offer slightly more space, or to make the cabin feel more spacious. The driver’s chair got an extra half-inch of vertical travel. The steering wheel tilts 33 percent farther. Underneath, new alloys of aluminum, steel and structural plastics have reduced weight, yet beefed up strength and aerodynamics. The suspension has been finer-tuned. More foam and felt insulation has been added. And so on and so forth. If it ain’t broke, how do you fix it?
    The fit & finish has been massaged equally assiduously. Our test Camry was a base-level LE with just $743 worth of options (the 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat plus floor mats and a First Aid kit, a cargo net and carpeting in the trunk), which raised its sticker price to $24,003. Yet the look and feel are not far off the Lexus mark. In fact, the contours and stitching of the dashboard padding and the high-quality, user-friendly controls would be an improvement to several much more costly sedans I can think of. Although it is possible to spend a good deal more and furnish a Camry like a Web-wired McMansion, “base level” does not mean “stripped.” Save for a heating-AC system that has to be adjusted manually and an old-fashioned key that must be inserted into an ignition slot and twisted, the standard of living in this plain-vanilla LE is quite high.
    Page 2 of 2 - So is the standard of driving. Operating the car is so transparent that to comment on it you really have to concentrate on turn-in, bump absorption, brake response, shift points, the feel of wet or dry pavement. You look for weaknesses, road noise or structural flex or any sort of coarseness, and then you realize there are almost none. It dawns on you that the Camry could hardly be more comfortable—and it has no bad manners, even way beyond the speed limit. One driver’s boring, it seems, is millions of others’ total satisfaction.
    According to the International Dairy Foods Association, vanilla is the top-selling ice cream in America. “Sophisticated yet apparently simple” is how foodies describe a top-end vanilla, and they caution ice-cream makers against drifting too far from the flavor’s basic goodness. You’d think they were talking about the Camry, wouldn’t you?
    Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of IMPA, the International Motor Press Association,  whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at calabi.silvio@gmail.com, silvio.calabi@nempa.org or 207-592-2619.
     

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