Toyota has never peddled the Camry as a performer. It has always been marketed as a conservative, comfortable family sedan with an emphasis on its durability and safety features.
The closest we get to an exception to that rule is the V-6-powered SE model. It is certainly the most fun you can have in a Camry, and Toyota made sure that continued to be the case when it redesigned the midsize sedan for 2012.
While its 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6 is a 2011 carryover, the new SE has been fitted with a stiffer, more athletic suspension than the other Camrys, and a more precise electric steering system with excellent on-center feel. The result is a midsize front-driver as lively and agile as it is roomy and practical.
Of course, most SE customers will opt for the 178-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline four because it's $3,640 cheaper than the V-6, gets five more miles per gallon, and runs strong enough to meet most folks' needs. But the V-6 gets from 0 to 60 in about six seconds, which gives it a couple of seconds on the four, not to mention a much niftier engine note. And while it drinks more heavily than the four, it is hardly ready for admission to the Betty Ford Clinic. EPAs of 21 city and 30 highway, up one m.p.g. from 2011, are hardly shabby.
Since Camrys typically get two model cycles out of essentially the same platform, this second-cycle redesign is predictably less extensive than the previous one. But the new car does boast pleasant styling, and some improvements in safety and roominess.
The new Camry retains the car's signature styling conservatism, while adding enough sporty cues to avert boredom. The result is a reasonably handsome design approach that Toyota has termed "rational tech-dynamism." (If you have any idea what that means, let me know. If you have any thoughts on why an automaker would sub-contract this naming opportunity to the Ministry of Silly Slogans, let me know that, too.)
The interior of the SE tester proved quite attractive, and displayed some clever tricks to increase roominess. The clean design included a handsome dashboard fitted with readily accessible gauges and controls. I particularly liked the optional leather and Ultrasuede sport seats, which proved as comfortable and supportive as they were attractive.
Interior roominess was enhanced by making the doors thinner. Similarly, a recession in the headliner above the rear-seat passengers increased headroom.
The list of safety features on the redesigned Camry is extensive. It has 10 air bags, including knee bags for the driver and front-seat passenger. The front seat frames have been reworked to decrease whiplash.
Driving the Camry SE is certainly not heavy lifting. The car handles adroitly, thanks to suspension tweaks like stiffer springs and shock absorbers and a more robust rear anti-roll bar. The car stays composed in the corners, with body roll nicely managed. And there's little tradeoff in ride quality. In fact, I prefer this suspension's controlled feel to the mushier Camrys I've been in.
The SE's electric steering is nifty business, too. If I were the head of Toyota, instead of the CEO of Haas household window washing, I'd put that system in every Camry.
The car brakes well and keeps cabin noise in check. I found the manu-matic shift paddles for the six-speed automatic transmission to be typical of the breed - that is, rather slow on the draw. When I wanted to get up to 60 in a hurry, which was a frequent urge in this car, I'd simply give the accelerator a World Wrestling Federation stomp and let the gearbox do the shifting.
(Where have you gone, the SE's manual gearbox? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What's that you say, Mrs. Toyota? The old rowing machine has left and gone away in 2012?)
At $26,640, the SE V-6 is roughly in the middle of the pack, between the $21,955 base Camry and the $29,849 XLE.
2012 Toyota Camry SE V-6
Base price: $26,640.
As tested: $30,485 (including shipping).
Standard equipment: Front-drive, 3.5-liter engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and a well-stocked safety and comfort cabinet with items like front seat knee bags, 18-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, a power driver's seat, and a navigation system.
Options: Include back-up camera, leather-trimmed seats and door panels, power front passenger seat, moonroof, heated front seats.
Fuel economy: 21 m.p.g. city and 30 highway.
Engine performance: Good grunt.
Ride comfort: Fine.
Styling: Camry conservative.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.
The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.EndText