As a critic, there are certain cars that inspire an obligation to review them, rather than a true desire. The Toyota Camry was squarely in that category. Despite its status as the best-selling passenger vehicle in the country for 12 years running, the ubiquitous family sedan was so lacking in character, it was an automotive wallflower.

Then I drove the 2015 update, inadvertently proving the maxim that expectations are a person's worst enemy. Like the stealthy 850-horsepower Camry dragster Toyota trumpeted at this year's SEMA show, the new Camry is quite the surprise.

Gone is the dull-as-dirt profile, at least from the front. Every version except the $23,795 base model gets a wide-mouthed honeycomb mesh grille that riffs off the alluring Lexus spindle of Toyota's luxury sub-brand, along with slivered headlights that are available with modern LEDs. Even the paint on my test vehicle was finished with a hint of glamour: In bright sun, the black paint sparkled with a glittery blue and silver.

Finally, there's a Camry that wants to be more than an everyman's just-get-me-where-I'm-going commuter and actually make that commute more fun.

Granted, I was loaned the most high-end Camry to test – the sporty XSE, which comes with a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 (and an $8,400 premium over base). Available in four versions, the new Camry can also be had with a 178-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and Toyota's calling card — a hybrid that yields up to 43 mpg, according to EPA estimates.

A sports car the Camry HSE is not, but it's off-the-line power is impressive. So much for my wallflower theory. It easily accelerated, whether it was from a freeway onramp into speeding traffic or from a dead stop. Stomp it too hard, however, and its front-wheel drive made itself apparent. There's a bit of torque steer to contend with, but the electronic power steering easily recovered.

The Camry's longstanding lack of pizazz wasn't lost on Toyota's engineers for its 2015 redo. The HSE is one of the two available versions that is sport-oriented and outfitted with paddle shifters that are best operated in "sport" mode managing the six-speed automatic transmission. Toyota's wannabe Ferrari mode even blips on the down shifts, though drivers will need to pay attention to hear them.

Across all versions, the body has been stiffened, the suspension finessed for better absorption of asphalt inconsistencies. On the HSE, the MacPherson struts out front and multi-link suspension in the rear have been upfit with faster coil springs for better responsiveness. Still, I wouldn't say its handling is truly cut out for the canyons. The Camry doesn't effortlessly sashay. Despite seats that are somewhat bolstered on the HSE, I was aware of the car's weight transferring from side to side, and my body along with it.

Now in its 33rd model year, the Camry started out as a compact sedan when it first came on the market and has since grown into a wider-bodied midsize. For 2015, it's grown ever so slightly more, adding 1.8 inches to its overall length. Toyota says it re-engineered about 2,000 parts on the car – the roof was the only piece that was left untouched.

One of the Camry's biggest goals with the update: a more premium experience enabled through upgraded style and technology. The interior of my test vehicle was finished in plush, touch-me ultra suede in basic black offset with red threadwork that Toyota calls "French-stitched," though what's French about it is unclear. It was so surprisingly nice looking that my 11-year-old literally cooed when he opened the passenger door for the first time.

Inside, the Camry defied my expectations for fit and finish. The ultra suede had a softening effect on the swaths of black plastic in the dash and door panels. And its seats were comfortable and roomy, even in the rear, where there was a decent amount of space for long femur bones with the front seats pushed all the way back.

At speed, the cabin was fairly quiet. Toyota added more noise-damping carpet in 2015, though some road sounds continue to seep in. Wind noise was more successfully mitigated with improved window and door seals and a revised side mirror shape designed to reduce air turbulence and its rustling, whistling effects. At least it wasn't so loud that I felt inspired to turn up the radio.

In the Camry, that radio is controlled with a 7-inch touch screen surrounded by the usual array of buttons to control the audio, navigation and other functions, though the buttons themselves were inordinately large and topped with equally oversized and redundant knobs for the stereo.

Situated just beneath those controls is a cubby that houses the usual USB port and 12-volt power outlet, as well as a first for the midsize sedan segment – a wireless charger for certain brands of smartphone.

Technology being a growing buyer consideration in cars, the Camry is dripping with it. A backup camera is standard equipment on every version except the base model. The pre-collision, lane-departure and radar-based adaptive cruise control are a reasonably priced $750 option. The blind-spot monitor and cross-traffic alert cost an extra $500.

As a bundle, all of the driver-assistance features in the Camry are a lot more intuitive than the VW Touareg I tested last week, which needed an extensive tutorial just to figure out how they worked.

On the Camry, they are unobtrusively built in and easily managed with buttons on the leftmost portion of the dash.

The blind spot monitor works like so many others, lighting up in orange on the far outside corner of the side mirrors each time a car wanders into the driver's blind spot. The lane keep assistant works in reverse — beeping whenever the driver is about to stray from the lane and showing, in no uncertain terms on the dashboard right in front of the driver, which side of the lane is about to be violated.

Forward collision alert allows drivers to adjust the amount of distance they'd prefer before the car goes into high alert, beeping with urgency that a crash is nigh. In my long weekend with the new Camry, the forward collision alert only kicked in once — when I was about to hitch my front end to the back of a Lincoln Navigator on the 405 — and it prompted the desired effect of imploring me to stomp the brake pedal.

The front end really is too pretty to mess up on the 2015 Camry, which, as a whole, impressed.



Susan Carpenter writes for the Orange County Register. She may be reached at scarpenter@ocregister.com.


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