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2012 Toyota Camry SE Review, Road Test and Autocross by Carey Russ +VIDEO

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MORE-Is The 2012 Toyota Camry Your Perfect New Car Match?

MORE-Toyota Specs, Reviews, Comparisons and Prices - Toyota Buyers Guide


Toyota's Camry has been at or near the top of the sales charts seemingly forever -- number one for the past nine years in a row and also for 13 of the past 14 years -- because it's practically the definition of "transportation appliance". The Camry has a reputation for dependability and reliability. It's conveniently-sized, big enough inside for four or five in comfort yet sized for easy maneuverability in traffic and crowded parking lots. Power choices in recent years have been a four-cylinder for economy, V6 for power, and hybrid for maximum economy, and trim levels are offered to make a Camry everything from a near-basic economy car to a leather-appointed near-luxury sedan. There's something for almost everyone in the Camry lineup.

Except maybe the car enthusiast.

Which, obviously from the sales numbers, hasn't been a problem. Enthusiasts may be vocal, even influential (and comprise most of the automotive press), but they are a definite minority in the population of car buyers. Even they may also have a need for a practical car -- older and/or exotic machinery can be fun, but is not necessarily the most reliable everyday transportation. And then there are "life stages" than make demands… 

The seventh-generation Camry, new for 2012, has major advances in vehicle dynamics. Gone, even in the Hybrid, is the soft suspension calibration that led to a disconnected operating (can't really say "driving"…) experience, replaced by a more European specification that combines compliance with control. The model lineup is familiar, with base L, core-model LE, luxury-oriented XLE, and sporty SE for the gasoline side. All are offered with a revised 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, now with 178 horsepower. The SE and XLE are also available with Toyota's 3.5-liter, 268-hp V6. Internal engine modifications and a six-speed automatic transmission for all models mean improved fuel economy. Outside, the styling is cleaner and simplified. Inside, say goodbye to tacky hard plastics and hello to a much better-looking environment -- with a touch more space courtesy of attention to detail. It all adds up to the best Camry yet, and a car that is much more than the four-wheeled equivalent of a pair of sensible shoes.

You may have noticed the use of "sporty" as an adjective describing the SE. In previous years, that was merely style description, meaning a minor and non-functional "aero kit" bit of exterior trim. This time it means a suspension upgrade and, for SE V6 models, larger wheels and tires. The result is a car that handles much better than any previous Camry. It's actually fun to drive, even (especially) on the sort of roads usually thought of as sport car habitat. I first drove the SE V6 that was my test car for the past week on an autocross course at a Toyota press event (see sidebar). It worked, and well, and a few hours of singing tires didn't even faze it. Back in the everyday world, a fun-to-drive character, good fuel economy (low 20s around town, high 20s on the highway), a fine drivetrain, and plenty of useful interior space make it a winner.

APPEARANCE: While simplified and less ornate, the newest Camry is immediately recognizable. And here simple is good, as in a more well-defined form with fewer baroque distractions. Nothing radical -- such is not the Toyota Way, at least for mainstream sedans -- but it is more dynamic-looking. A smaller grille and more complexly-shaped headlights define the front of all models, with the SE getting a flatter lower fascia with performance look thanks to a lower "splitter" and foglamps. From the side, there is a distinct echo of the late Toyota Altezza/Lexus IS 300, especially at the C-pillar and rear quarter. The SE's rear features a small spoiler at the rear of the trunk lid and faux diffusers with twin exhausts.

COMFORT: The most notable visual improvements to the new Camry are inside. Gone are the plain plastics, replaced by an upscale-looking mix of soft-touch, stitched material on the doors and instrument panel and, in the SE, textured metal-look plastics for door, IP, and center stack/console trim. Because of the new instrument panel, the front seats could be moved forward. The rear seat is moved slightly rearward, and a redesign of the interior door panels and reshaping of headliner and roof pillars and scooping of the rear of the front seatbacks adds more room for everyone, especially rear passengers. My test car had the optional Leather Package, which means lightly-bolstered sports seats with "ultrasuede" faux suede centers, multi-level cushion heaters, and power adjustment for the front passenger as well as the driver. And a high level of comfort and support. Instrumentation is easily visible, and climate and audio controls are simple and easy to use. Even the (optional) Entune connectivity and multi-media interface is painless in operation. All models have tilt and telescope adjustability for the steering wheel; the SE also has phone and auxiliary audio controls on the spokes and shift paddles (down left, up right) behind behind the spokes. Audio choices vary by model, but even the L gets an AM/FM/CD (all common formats)/auxiliary jack and USB//iPod connectivity system. My test car had the premium system with navigation and the Entune system. Good sound and easy to use. There's enough space in the rear for three average-sized people, and all models have a 60/40 folding seatback if the trunk isn't large enough. Unless you're carrying some outsized item, trunk space is unlikely to ever be a problem.

SAFETY: Passive safety is addressed by a unibody structure that protects passengers and seat frames that help absorb side-impact loads. All models have ten standard airbags, with rear-seat side and front passenger knee bags new. As in all 2012 Toyotas, the Star Safety System™, comprised of Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and brake assist (BA). An electronic tire-pressure monitoring system is also standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: It looks better, there's more room inside, and mileage has improved at no expense to performance. But still, to me, the biggest improvement to the Camry is its chassis. Changes in design and greater use of lightweight high-strength steel in the unibody structure have increased rigidity and decreased weight. The basic suspension design -- MacPherson struts in front and a dual-link strut system in the rear -- is unchanged, except in important details. Such as shock absorber damping rates, stabilizer bar size, and rear geometry and spring, damping, bushing, and stabilizer bar rates. The SE is further improved with unique suspension pieces to further reduce unsprung weight and improve handling response, plus larger tires. No PR hype here - it works, and well. While firmer than any stock Camry previously, the SE is still comfortable. It also handles very well, whether on an autocross track (unlikely real-world Camry habitat), a poorly-paved country road, the highway, or city streets. It's even fun to actually drive, with the caveat that the variable-rate electric power steering and front-wheel drive are never going to replicate the steering and road feel of a rear-wheel drive sports sedan. A mainstream family sedan doesn't need to be boring if it's a 2012 Toyota Camry SE.

PERFORMANCE: At a weight of 3400 pounds, with 268 horsepower (at 6200 rpm), there's just under 13 pounds of Camry V6 for each metaphorical horse to move. So, when desired and under wide-open throttle, the Camry V6 is remarkably quick. 0-60? Under six seconds, so no worries on a short on-ramp to fast traffic. Yes, it's front-wheel drive and hard throttle like that will make the front light and send plenty of torque reaction back through the steering wheel, but such is front-wheel drive. Other than that, behavior is exemplary as heavy throttle is rarely needed. The 3.5-liter engine is a typical Toyota powerplant -- aluminum alloy construction, dual overhead cams with VVT-i variable phasing on all, and plenty of low-end torque even though the torque peak (248 lb-ft) is at 4700 rpm. Mostly, think of torque and horsepower maxima as what the audiophiles call "overhead" -- rarely used reserve for those times when really and truly needed. Most of the time the engine is practically loafing. The six-speed automatic and a longer final drive ratio mean that in D at highway speeds the engine is well under 2000 rpm, and at a similar spot in lower gears at lower speeds. Which means not much thirst -- the EPA estimated of 21mpg city and 30 highway seemed correct, with 26 overall for a week with more highway than usual. The SE gets steering-wheel shift paddles for quick manual shifting -- which I found entertaining on the backroads but never really necessary. Torque is your friend, and Toyota knows torque.

CONCLUSIONS: A mainstream family sedan does not have to be a boring appliance if that mainstream family sedan is a 2012 Toyota Camry SE V6.

Watch the complete introduction of the 2012 Toyota Camry

SPECIFICATIONS: 2012 Toyota Camry SE V6

Base Price			$ 26,640
Price As Tested			$ 31,177
Engine Type			aluminum alloy DOHC 24-valve V6 with
				 Dual VVT-i variable cam phasing
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 211 cu. in.
Horsepower			268 @ 6200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			248 @ 4700 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic with sport
				 and manual-shift modes
Wheelbase / Length		109.3 in. / 189.2 in.
Curb Weight			3420 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		12.7
Fuel Capacity			17 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P225/45 R18 91V
				 Bridgestone Turanza EL 400
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, 
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent dual-link
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				 front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		21 / 30 / 26
0 to 60 mph				5.8  sec

Display Audio with Navigation, Entune, and JBL - includes:
  6.1" touch screen, AM/FM/CD player with MP3/WMA
  playback capability, 10 JBL GreenEdge speakers in 8
  locations including subwoofer, Sirius/XM satellite radio
  with 90-day trial, HD audio with iTunes tagging,
  auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPod connectivity,
  vehicle information, hands-free phone capability, 
  phonebook access, advanced voice recognition,
  text-to-speech with programmed and customizable
  text responses, Bluetooth music streaming		$ 650
Convenience Package - incudes:
  integrated backup camera, auto-dimming inside
  rearview mirror with compass and HomeLink
  Universal Transceiver, anti-theft system with alarm	$ 895
Leather Package - includes:
  leather-trimmed ultrasuede sport seats and leather
  door trim, multi-stage heated front seats, 4-way
  power-adjustable front passenger seat		$ 1,050
Power tilt and slide moonroof				$  915
Carpeted floor mats					$  130
Wheel locks						$   67
Emergency assistance kit				$   70
Destination charge					$  760

Sidebar - 2012 Toyota Camry At An Autocross?

By Carey Russ
The Auto Channel

If you're not familiar with the term "autocross", it refers to one of the least-expensive forms of motor sport. All that is required is a large paved area, such as a parking lot. The course is laid out with rubber traffic cones and, sometimes, chalk lines. By necessity, autocross courses are short, usually less than an eighth of a mile, and slow, with most cars never getting out of second or third gear. Top speed is rarely over 50 or 60 mph, and that's on the longer setups with a decently long straight. Often 30 will be the maximum.

Power is not needed, and may even work against the driver. Nimble handling, with minimal weight transfer and quick, precise steering, is the order of the day. Good sticky tires and a healthy contact patch help, too. Brakes may get a workout, depending on driver style. Cars run one at at time, and, for competitive events, are timed on the course.

Autocrossing is one of the safest forms of motorsport. Out on that sea of asphalt, there's nothing to hit and plenty of runoff in case of driver error. It's difficult to overturn a modern car unless you hit something, and here there's nothing to hit. Off-course excursions bring pain only to the cones, and your tires.

Any sort of car can run on an autocross course but the most popular are, unsurprisingly, sports cars and sports sedans. The most damage likely to happen to an autocrossed car is to its tires. Figure a day of fun around the cones means a week or two off the life of the tires if the car has street tires.

So I was interested when Toyota announced that the main part of the regional presentation of the 2012 Camry to the automotive press would involve an autocross. I had recently driven the `012 Camry Hybrid just enough to be pleasantly surprised by the revisions to its ride and handling. Expectations ran high…

The course was moderately tight, with one long straight good for maybe 50 mph and plenty of slow- and medium-speed transitions. Plus a couple of good tight decreasing-radius corners for maximum challenge. Cars were 2012 LE V6, SE four and V6, and Hybrids plus 2011 LE and Hybrid models for comparison.

I started out slowly in an 012 LE, learning the course. The car felt surprisingly capable, and didn't exhibit excessive roll in corners, all things considered (read: it's no sports car so yeah it's cornering on the door handles but is happily doing so.)

Next up, 012 SE V6. Big surprise there, and I spent three or four stints in that particular car during the day. It felt better each time, as I got more familiar with it. Very competent within its limits. And that sort of good response and controllability means good active safety potential -- the accident you avoid is the one you don't have.

At one point I tried the four-cylinder SE, expecting that its lighter weight and less weight on the front wheels would give it an edge over the V6. Not so… which was surprising until I looked at the tires. The V6 had 18-inch wheels with P225/45 tires; the four 17s with P215/55s. Wider tires equal larger contact patch for better adhesion (all other things being equal) and lower profile giving quicker steering response, especially when pushed harder than in normal street driving.

Then I took the new Hybrid around. It wasn't as good at that sort of thing as the SE, but it did well enough. And its low rolling resistance tires were more fun, as they lacked grip and slid predictably and much more than the regular tires on either SE. Singing tires are happy tires!

Then on to the old Hybrid. The metaphor "flopping around like a fish out of water" came to mind at the first corner. Numb, slow steering, soft and indifferently-damped suspension, and slippery low rolling resistance tires conspired to cause massive conage. Now this is not the sort of activity in which Camry drivers of any sort, let alone Camry Hybrid drivers, will participate -- but it does highlight the car's potential for evasive maneuverability. And there is a difference in result between flicking the steering wheel to avoid a rubber cone and the same movement to avoid a pedestrian or deer…

The 2012 SE was the same car that I had for the past week. With the same tires. The effect of three hours or so of autocrossing on them? Not much. Yes, the front outside edges have a little more wear than expected given the low mileage on the car. But they work just fine.

As does the 2012 Camry SE.