2012 Toyota Camry preview: Inappropriate behavior in a midsize sedan

To introduce its 2012 Camry, Toyota let CNET take various models out for laps on an autocross course, a cone-defined track with many tight turns.

Toyota Camry
The new Camry is designed for more-stable cornering than the 2011 mode. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Toyota showed off the new Camry's maneuverability by letting a group of journalists plow it around a cone course.

A sea of cones littered the blacktop, an orange hell describing a half-mile autocross course filled with tight turns, chicanes, and one long straightaway. A small fleet of 2012 Toyota Camrys waited to tackle this course, not the kind of car I would expect to pilot through here.

But Toyota insisted that, with the 2012 Camry update, the engineers emphasized driving dynamics, along with the mundane virtues that made this midsize sedan a top seller in the U.S. Despite lessening the amount of option configurations to 36 for the 2012 model, I still had quite a choice in which to drive: 2.5-liter four cylinder, 3.5-liter V-6, or hybrid, with three trim levels ranging from LE to XLE.

A Toyota product specialist noted the middle trim, SE, was designed as the sportiest. Not a sports car, per se, but with a stiffer suspension and cool 17-inch alloy wheels. No difference in the engine, and the same six-speed automatic transmission as in the other cars, but this SE had paddles on the steering wheel for manual gear selection.

Although a Toyota representative suggested taking the cars at a consistent, comfortable speed around the course, this small gathering of automotive journalists were already infected by the sight of the cones, determined to achieve driving history despite the fact the laps would not be timed. Similarly affected, I jumped into an SE model, although only a four banger, expecting to breach the checkered flags mere seconds after crossing the green.

Toyota Camry
The starting gate for the half-mile cone course. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Stomping on the accelerator at the start, the front wheels did not quite chirp, the heavy car with its 10 standard airbags keeping drama to a minimum. The launch was not fast, so I didn't have to brake hard for the first turn. To test the transmission, I had put it in Sport mode and left it to do the shifting for this lap. Even in Sport mode, it had climbed a few gears and did not want to drop down quickly as the car took the corner.

But pinning the accelerator convinced the transmission, after a few moments, that I was engaged in some sort of emergency, so it gave me second-gear power. Ahead was a short straight and a chicane, a quick right then left maneuver, similar to what you might have to do if a baby carriage rolled into the street. Yanking the wheel one way, then the other, the Camry shook off the directional changes with only a little roll, and no loss of grip. A sedan from an earlier era, without traction control, would likely have ended up sideways with that maneuvering.

Toyota Camry
The yellow flags mean 'hit the bakes now!' Wayne Cunningham/CNET

In the straight, the four-cylinder engine's 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque helped it get just over 50 mph before hard braking was required to avoid demolishing cones. The rumble of antilock brakes brought the speed down quickly, without any rotation or other unpleasantness from the car. But trying to pick up speed again after the next corner involved some Amazing Kreskin-style prediction. The power comes on a little late, after the transmission decides to downshift, so if I wanted power on the a turn's exit, I had to hit the accelerator just before the apex.

Diving hard into a sharp turn, giving the steering wheel a hard pull into the corner revealed the kind of understeer I would never expect Toyota to engineer out of the Camry. With all the weight forward due to braking, and the power coming on slow, the car wanted to proceed in a straight line. But some tire-shrieking and load balancing got it back under control, through the turns, and eventually onto the finish line.

Toyota also threw some rumble strips down at the end of the course so the Camry could show how well it rides over the rough stuff. Here, the suspension did an excellent job absorbing the jolts, the wheels thudding up and down, but the cabin remaining relatively undisturbed.

Toyota Camry
The new Camry, while no race-course champ, rolls less in the corners than the previous generation. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Doing another lap with the Camry SE in manual mode, it was easier to keep the power up by leaving it in second gear. But each time the tachometer pointed North, the transmission upshifted on its own. At first, not noticing this behavior, a second manual upshift put the car into fourth gear, completely sapping any power available for cone course antics.

In the tonier Camry XLE, this particular car with a 3.5-liter V-6, the car wallowed just a little more than the SE model, and was more prone to understeer because of the heavier front end. The power was equally slow to come on, but with 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, the car launched more quickly.

Toyota was also using this Camry XLE to show off some of its new cabin tech, its Display Audio head unit equipped with Entune app integration and JBL GreenEdge audio system. Display Audio is a new, midlevel head unit for Toyota, using flash-memory-based maps for its navigation system and a smaller LCD than the top-level system, which comes with a hard drive for its maps.

When paired with a smartphone loaded with the Entune app, the Display Audio system brings in weather, fuel prices, sport scores, and other information through the phone's data connection. Apps such as Pandora, OpenTable, and Bing search are enabled in the car's head unit, too. Entune also works with the premium, hard-drive-based navigation unit. The Display Audio system is available on LE, SE, and XLE trim Camrys, but its navigation feature can only be had at the SE and XLE trim levels.

Part of the fun with the Camry XLE on the autocross course involved blasting the stereo, creating a soundtrack for the wild gyrations of the car. This new JBL GreenEdge audio system sounded good over the screeching of tires, although I did not get the chance to really test it. The point of this new audio system is to create good quality and powerful sound using less energy. Toyota boasts that the system is 66 percent lighter than an equivalent system and has 50 percent better sound efficiency, whatever that means.

Toyota Camry
Crossing the finish line proved anticlimactic, as these laps were not timed. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The lower energy usage of the JBL GreenEdge system makes it a good choice for the Camry Hybrid, and future electric cars from Toyota such as the RAV4 EV. But on the autocross course, hearing the stereo in the Camry Hybrid over the shrieks of low-rolling resistance tires forced to deal with counter-inertial forces proved nigh impossible.

Surprisingly, the Camry Hybrid felt as capable as the other models on the autocross. Despite the extra weight of the nickel metal hydride battery pack, the car did not feel heavy. Toyota actually shaved weight from both gas engine and hybrid Camry models: 150 pounds from the former and more than 200 pounds from the latter.

Where a Prius would have waddled through this course like a cow waiting to be milked, the Camry Hybrid kept relatively stable through the fast right-left turns of the chicanes. Sure, it plowed into tight corners with, understeering toward the line of cones, but that behavior was no different than the other Camry models.

The Camry Hybrid's secret weapon was its net 200 horsepower, 22 more than the four-cylinder Camry SE. Again, not exactly thrilling acceleration, but very usable. On the straight the Camry Hybrid picked up speed rapidly. Toyota updated the gas engine part of the Camry Hybrid's power train for the 2012 model year, going to a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle four cylinder engine. By itself, that gas engine turns out 156 horsepower, with the electric motor bringing total power up to 200.

After my first run in the Camry Hybrid, I went for a second lap. But my efforts to test the EV mode failed, as the result of pushing the EV button was a message on the instrument cluster saying the battery was too depleted. The initial lap had taken its toll. Trying the next best thing, I ran the lap in Eco mode, another push-button option on the Camry Hybrid. Although normally Eco mode would reduce throttle response, my vigorous working of the gas peddle overrode that programming, so there was very little change in performance from normal Drive mode.

The cone course was not a valid test of fuel economy, so I will cite Toyota's EPA numbers for each model. The Camry Hybrid in LE trim gets an impressive 43 mpg city and 39 mpg highway, excellent mileage considering the roominess of the cabin. The XLE trim hybrid is a few mpg worse because of extra weight and accessories putting load on the engine. The four-cylinder Camrys get 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, whereas the V-6 models come in at 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

I asked Rick LoFaso, Toyota's corporate marketing manager, why Toyota was not using turbos, similar to competitors in the marketplace. He responded that Toyota had decided to stick with the tried and true V-6 as a way of giving buyers a power option.

Both the four-cylinder and V-6 engines in the Camrys rely on Toyota's variable valve timing technology. While these engines have proven efficient and reliable for many years, Toyota is getting behind the times. Eventually the company will have to come around to direct injection, which other automakers are employing for much greater efficiencies. Some of Toyota's resistance to change has to do with the cost of more-expensive technologies.

For pricing of the four-cylinder Camry, Toyota offers a very low trim L model for $21,995; the LE model, which begins to have some reasonable tech content, costs $22,500. The better news is that the sport-oriented SE model, which can be had with navigation, only runs $500 more than the LE, at $23,000. The high-trim XLE model runs $24,725. The base Camry Hybrid LE runs $25,900, with the XLE model going for $27,400.

The highest priced Camry is the V-6 XLE, at $29,845. Although this one would come with many standard features, expect a few options to push the price just over $30,000.

 

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