Review: The Toyota Camry (XV70) is the sports sedan old minds will refuse to acknowledge

(2020 Toyota Camry prices and specs | Gallery)

It handles better than a Mazda 6, and has a steering wheel that’s more communicative than some recent BMWs. It has a gaping wide mouth that scares young children away. How is this a Toyota Camry? A Camry is supposed to be sedate, staying in the safe middle ground, serving everyone well but impressing no one.

It’s understandable that many can’t accept the new Camry’s image, especially those who grew up at a time when Sony ruled consumer electronics, Microsoft was a big name, Apple was computer while phones were Nokias, and the Camry owner's demographics were defined by balding middle-aged men with pot-bellies.  

Today, Samsung is the new Sony. Google is the new Microsoft. Apple is the new Nokia, and middled-aged men now hit the gym and run marathons instead of riding in golf carts. Why would today’s Toyota Camry be the same as your father’s (or uncle’s)?

In any case, your father and uncles are likely to have traded in their Camry for an SUV. Look around you, uncles no longer drive a Camry. They now drive Honda and Mazda SUVs. Older gentlemen need a taller car that’s easier on their aching joints to get in and out of.

If the Toyota Camry nameplate is to remain relevant, it needs to change, and what a change it did.

Exterior

From the front, the Camry looks shockingly aggressive but a big part of that is due to the Red Mica colour seen here. When painted in a more sedate Silver Metallic or Burning Black, it actually looks like any typical Toyota sedan.

The wide stretching slates at the lower front bumper and chunky C-pillars give it a very strong road presence. It looks bigger than it actually is.

In truth, the Camry is actually smaller than a Honda Accord (outgoing 9th generation model), which is 50 mm longer, 10 mm wider, and 20 mm taller than the Camry.

This being a Thailand-made Toyota, panel gaps are as expected, consistent and deviated by no more than 0.5 of a milimetre from the opposite side.

Paint thickness are in the 100s of micrometres in front, and above 150 in the rear, but this particular test drive unit is over two years old.

The side mirrors are linked to the reverse gear so it tilts down when you reverse, for better visibility of the kerb, just like a German car but unlike a Volkswagen or a BMW, you can't disable the function in the Camry, which is a problem because sometimes you need to watch out for pillars and cars instead of kerbs.

Reverse gear-linked side mirrors can't be disabled, but you can workaround it

The simple workaround is to adjust the mirrors once when the car is in Reverse, and another time when it's in Drive. Since the memory allows for different mirror positions in Reverse and Drive, individually set for both mirrors.

But our biggest complaint is that the keyless Smart Entry only works on the driver’s door, and this is on a car that costs nearly RM 200k. That’s a bit hard to stomach.

Interior

Open the door, and the power adjusting driver’s seat and steering wheel retract to make entry easier – just like a Mercedes-Benz C200. It's a nice feature but remember to use the right key. The Camry's steering wheel and driver's seat has two memory positions and it can be tied to the individual key for different driver's settings. 

Note the floor-hinged accelerator pedal

Although the latest Camry aims to please the driver, a large chunk of the Camry’s sales come from corporate sales, many of which will be used to chauffeur senior management staffs of many Japanese companies, and that’s a good thing even for enthusiast drivers because this means that comfort in the Camry will never be compromised even as it pursues the path of better driver engagement.

As such, the latest Camry retains its signature shoulder adjustment switch, so the boss sitting behind can push the front passenger seat forward. There's also the usual power operated rear sun blinds, and manual lifting side window blinds.

However, unlike previous Camry models, this one no longer has a flat-ish rear floor. Although it’s still a front-wheel drive, there’s big hump in the middle, not to house a propeller shaft to drive the rear wheels but to improve the chassis’ torsional rigidity.

Keen drivers who noticed the floor-hinged accelerator pedal however, will immediately understand that this Camry pays as much attention to the enthusiast driver as much it takes care of the rear passenger’s comfort.

Floor-hinged pedals allow for more precise control of the throttle, but it's getting rarer these days as turbocharged engines become more common, and since turbocharged engines are not as linear as naturally aspirated ones, floor-hinged pedals make little difference.

Materials feel expensive. Shame that the infotainment doesn't support Apple CarPlay/Android Auto

Overall touch and feel of the cabin is very good but it’s still not as a good as the facelifted Mazda 6, which still has the most expensive interior in its class. It is however, miles ahead of the new Volkswagen Passat and the outgoing generation Honda Accord.

The Camry’s 9-speaker JBL audio system however, is a lot better than the Bose system used in the Mazda 6, which is only good for its bass but does little else. In fact, we will go on to say that it sounds better than even the Mercedes-Benz C200’s Audio 20.

Just one complaint, and it’s a huge one – for a car that costs nearly RM 200k and is supposed to be aimed at the more sophisticated buyer who doesn’t want to follow everyone else in buying an SUV, the Camry doesn’t come with Android Auto/Apple CarPlay.

Driving experience

Like all recent TNGA platform Toyota models, the Camry didn’t disappoint. Far from it. It was such a joy to drive, good enough for us to overlook that it’s powered by an aging 2AR series engine.

Fun to drive and Toyota Camry don’t usually go together, but big boss Akio Toyoda is on a mission to make Toyota fun to drive again.

Is it better to drive than the new Mazda 6? As heretic as it may sound, the answer is yes, it is better than the Mazda 6. Not by a lot, but if you want to know which is better, that's our anwer. 

A Camry that you will want to get in and drive. Should it be 'What is the world coming to' or is it 'What a time to be alive'?

In what way is the Camry better? Well the Mazda is actually still more agile than the Camry, and feels lighter too. However, the Mazda 6’s agility and sharp handling can only be appreciated on a very specific type of road conditions. The Camry however does 90 percent of what the Mazda can do, but across a wider variety of driving conditions.

On highways, the Camry’s calmer steering is not as fidgety as the Mazda, but along twisty roads, you still get the similar ‘Jinba Ittai’ one-ness with the car type of feeling.

In other words, the Camry is a better all-rounder and we appreciate its broader spectrum of competency.

As expected, the aging 2AR series engine is the Camry’s weakest link. We have no issues with its lack of turbocharging. In fact, I personally prefer the linearity and more precise throttle control of naturally aspirated engines. What was clearly lacking is direct fuel injection, which the Mazda 6 has.

The weakest link in the car, but it's not that bad, really.

Against younger competitors, the Camry’s aging port fuel injection engine’s shortfall in power is apparent. Our own acceleration tests recorded the Camry sprinting from 0-100 km/h in 10.5 seconds on a hot afternoon and rather rough tarmac.

On better conditions, we reckoned that a sub-10 seconds run is possible, but there’s no doubt that the Mazda 6 will do the same in 9 seconds plus. Braking from 100-0 km/h was done in 3.1 seconds, taking 40.5 metres to come a halt, using Brigestone Turanza T005A tyres.

0-100 km/h in 10.5 seconds, 0-100-0 km/h in 14.5 seconds, in less than ideal conditions

The Mazda 6 2.5L’s engine also sounds a lot nicer, compared to the slightly rougher sounding unit under the Camry’s bonnet.

The only consolation is that unless you are driving it back to back against the Mazda 6, the Camry’s shortfall in driving performance is not noticeable. The difference is not big enough to be noticeable when driven in isolation. For what it is, the Camry is still fast enough, and the 6-speed torque converter automatic's shifts are precise and plays well with the driver.

The Camry comes with the full suite of Toyota Safety Sense, but it's an older version so its adaptive cruise control is not capable of operating in stop-go traffic like the Corolla Altis. It works very well in our local traffic though, is not too intrusive and doesn't trigger prematurely.  

Ride comfort

Where the Camry lacks in power, in counters with its supreme levels of comfort. As mentioned earlier, the Camry’s ability to strike a very fine balance between firm body control and a cossetting ride is mighty impressive.

The best seat in the business

The seats are very comfortable – firm yet supportive on all the right pressure points – certainly more than a match for the tighter fitting C200’s seats, never mind any of its D-segment peers like the Honda Accord, Mazda 6 or Volkswagen Passat.

At 110 km/h, the Camry’s cabin recorded just 67 dB, even on rougher stretches of tarmac along MEX, surrounded by moderate traffic. It’s more than a match for the Volkswagen Passat’s Teutonically insulated cabin.

Toyota sedans are usually found to be lacking in space, this is true for the Vios as well as the Corolla Altis but in the Camry, it matches the Honda Accord’s class leading spaciousness.

It doesn’t matter if you are sitting in front or behind, leg and shoulder room is equally impressive.

If there is one complaint, is that the rear seat’s centre arm rest doesn’t come with a leather strap for easy pull-down. Flipping the arm rest down requires some very un-Camry-like fingering action.

Fuel efficiency

We averaged 7.7-litre/100 km on urban roads with a mix of smooth and heavy traffic. For a 2.5-litre 180-plus PS engine, fuel consumption is around what is expected for this class of vehicles.

Conclusion

The weakest link in this otherwise all conquering sports sedan is the aging engine. It’s a shame that it had to make do with an old engine but at the same time it’s hard to fault UMW Toyota Motor.

Supply of the new Dynamic Force engine remains tight. It’s limited only to certain bigger markets like Thailand and USA.

Many markets including Australia and Middle East - both important markets for the Camry – continue to make do with the same 2AR-FE Dual VVT-i engine, but of course in these markets the Hybrid variant is now the focus.

We can’t do the same because our Malaysian government still doesn’t want to confirm if they will continue giving tax breaks for hybrids and surely you know who to blame for that.

That and the oversight of a driver’s door-only keyless entry, are the only kinks in the Camry’s almost faultless appeal.

If BMW were to make a front-wheel drive sedan of this size (they already have a front-wheel drive 1 Series Sedan in China and Mexico), this is the benchmark they should measure it against. Its ride and handling is that good. Whether can your old mind adjust to the new paradigm or not is another matter. 

Toyota Camry
Toyota Camry