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2012 Toyota Camry - First Drive First Look +VIDEO

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2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Compare Toyota Camry - Toyota Buyers Guide
2012 Toyota Specs (PDF)

Can it compete with the challengers?
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

We in the media gathered in Dearborn, LA, New York and Kentucky yesterday to simultaneously experience the official launch of the new, seventh-generation Toyota Camry, best selling car in the US for 13 of the last 14 years. Owners and enthusiasts watched on the Web. This is a mighty important launch for Toyota as the Camry is their bread-and-butter family car, being refreshed at a time when the company has just transcended a pair of crises.

You certainly can’t stay on top of the mid-size family car heap for long without earning it. But the competition is intensifying, with Hyundai and Kia’s new offerings and a new Malibu on the way. Toyota will have to hustle to continue leadership in this category.

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The 2012 Camry will arrive in dealerships beginning the first of October. Built in Georgetown, Kentucky and Lafayette, Indiana, the 5-passenger sedan touts about 80% US content. Camry Hybrid will come on line shortly thereafter. With supply troubles related to the tsunami and the unintended acceleration woes behind them they expect to ramp up production of the new Camry quickly.

By the way, with just a 30-day supply of the current Camry at dealers there might be some bargains to be had.

While the new Camry is on the same platform as the current version Bob Carter, Toyota’s group VP, says 90% of its parts have been re-engineered and 100% of its sheet metal is new. We can see that the sheet metal changes are not dramatic and we’ll guess that is true for the mechanical components as well. After all, with a car that has been this successful it would be difficult, and perhaps unwise, to make radical changes.

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The Camry’s profile, stance and ambiance are virtually unchanged. The slightly narrower C-pillar, modest lower body cladding, more stylish headlight and taillight designs, larger lower front fascia and other evolutionary fascia updates, distinguish the exterior. But even with those changes, most observers would need to see the cars side by side to tell the difference.

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Inside, we find a considerably updated, upscale presentation. Most noticeably the dash is now in two sections with the inward section showing the popular stitched look. The past generation dash appeared to be one huge molded plastic unit with no personality. This one has both more personality and much richer materials. Without changing the exterior dimensions they’ve been able to add just a bit more interior space and we found it to feel roomy and comfortable.

Watch the complete walkaround of the new Camry

Information output and controls remain simple, though we thought the Hybrid should have more information and better graphics. In keeping with the competition we found the interior quieter than expected as we trundled along some of the rough Dearborn streets.

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Both 4- and 6-cylinder engines carry over from the current models: that means a tepid, but adequate 2.5-liter, 178-horsepower 4-cylinder, and a plenty strong 3.5-liter, 268-hourspower V6. Neither engine is direct injected and both are normally aspirated, so the engineers at Toyota have opportunities to improve performance in the near future if they need to. Both engines are mated to a smooth and sophisticated, electronically controlled 6-speed automatic transmission.

Fuel mileage for the 4-cylinder engine is 35 mpg on the highway and 25 in the city with a combined average of 28. With the V6 you can expect around 30 mpg on the highway and 25 combined. The Hybrid claims 43 mpg on the highway and 39 in the city with a combined 28 mpg.

   • SEE ALSO: Video of Toyota's Hollywood Unveil of 2012 Toyota Camry

Suspension design remains conventional with independent McPherson struts in front and multi-link in the rear. The rear suspension geometry has been changed to improve ride and comfort as well as improve straight-line feel without compromising typical Camry ride characteristics. They’ve also added electric power steering, which is considerably lighter and more efficient than conventional hydraulic-mechanical systems. In our short drives around Dearborn we felt little difference.

Toyota’s new Entune™ voice-activated infotainment system with a small variety of apps is available on the new Camry. This is the second application of that system first offered on the new Prius. Current apps allow audio, navigation and information choices that younger buyers are beginning to demand in their vehicles.

All of these changes apply to the Camry Hybrid as well but one more change is worth noting there. Somehow they’ve added 2.5 cubic-feet of cargo space in the trunk. One of the Hybrid’s major drawbacks has been that lack of trunk space. Visually, at least, that couple extra cubes looks like a huge improvement.

The marketing folks at Toyota will be putting a great deal of effort into a major advertising campaign, including a major presence during the Super Bowl and presiding as pace car at the Daytona 500 race as well as continuing as one of the key brands challenging in the NASCAR series. We also expect them to be offering substantial incentives to promote the new Camry to get it off to a good start as they continue the push to define themselves as an American brand, in spite of Japanese ownership.

Aggressive pricing is further evidence of Toyota not taking anything for granted. The base LE model starts down $200 from the current model at $22,500. The SE is down $1,000 at $23,000, Top-of-the-line LXE starts at $24,725, down $2,000. And the 2012 Camry Hybrid price moves down $1,150 starting at $25,900. These prices are without the $760 destination charge.

So, while we will reserve judgment until we’ve spent some serious seat time with the new Camry we can say at first blush that direct comparisons with the current competition will not have Camry coming out at the top. We also agree with our colleagues that Toyota will do well with the new car as their deep well of loyalists and brand fans gobble up the new Camry.

Whether it will continue to lead while so many competitors challenge with great products remains to be seen.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved