2016 Toyota Camry 2.5 SE (USA)

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It has long been the practice for manufacturers to introduce some form of mid-life update or facelift to their models, as a means of generating renewed interest in their product as it battles with newer models from the competition. Many a PR department will spew out all sorts of hyperbole referring to an “all new…” and the more impressionable or gullible journalists seem to follow the same line when often it takes an expert eye to spot a slightly reprofiled bumper and subtle changes to the lights, which are often the only visual tweaks that are made these days. It is very rare, though not quite without precedent for a facelift to change every single body panel so significantly that the facelifted car looks like a new one, and yet the manufacturer still claims that it is just the mid-term update. But that is what Toyota did to their commercially crucial Camry for 2015. When what is known as the XV50 generation, essentially the seventh generation of Toyota to bear the name, though as with all Japanese models there is some complexity in the range which I won’t go into here, was released in the second half of 2011, it was not greeted with universal approbation. With the exception of 2001, the Camry had since 1997 been the best- selling passenger car in America every year, beaten only by the large trucks from Ford, Chevrolet and RAM, but with the competition not just from its long time fiercest and closet rival the Honda Accord, but also all the other mid-sized sedans all getting better and better, it was clear that it needed to be more than just a reskin if it was to maintain its market lead. The US press published their comparison tests, and apart from those who included the old model Chrysler 200 in them, everyone put the Camry at the bottom of their rankings. It was not just the rather slab sided styling with the odd rear lights that looked like someone had bitten a piece out of them that troubled them, but also the fact that the dynamics were as anodyne as before, the Camry epitomising the phrase “automotive appliance” better than anything other than a Toyota Corolla. Of course, the market did not seem to care. Automotive white goods that will do the job of getting people from A to B, reliably and comfortably are just what thousands of buyers are looking for, even if the journalists are hoping for something with more sparkle to it, aesthetically and from behind the wheel. The first sign of trouble came in 2013 when the US’ Consumer Reports withdrew their “recommended” status. This was actually because of concerns of some of the safety standards, specifically the off-set front crash test results, rather than the insipid dynamics, but it must surely have been the catalyst at Toyota HQ for them to realise that their new car really was not good enough and it could not be expected to last the 6 or 7 years of a full model lifecycle with only cursory changes. An emergency program was launched to fix things, with the results being shown at the New York Show in April 2014, with the “big minor change”, as it was dubbed, going on sale later in the year as a 2015 model year car.

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Although under the skin not much had changed, the facelifted Camry looked nothing like the pre-facelift model. Gone were those flat sides, and what we saw instead, with every panel apart from the roof having been changed, was something that looks more like a Lexus, or at least what a Lexus would have evolved to had every stick from the Ugly Tree not been used to beat their latest designs into fruition. The front end contains a massive black grille, a design feature which has been applied to every Toyota since, but whereas on the Yaris it looks ridiculous, here, it almost works, and the rest of the car, whilst not likely to be feted for its beauty at least looks neat and unprepossessing. Whilst the chassis and engine choices – a 2.5 litre 4, a potent V6 and a Hybrid – remained the same, a lot of detailed work was undertaken to try to make the car less soggy to drive. Detailed refinements were made to the interior to make it look a little more luxurious, and equipment levels were revised, along with amendments to the trims available. To all intents and purposes, that makes it a “new” car. Having sampled pretty much all of the US market rivals apart from the Honda Accord which is a very rare spot in a rental fleet, it seemed like it was time to see what I thought of the class’ best seller.

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In the past, the volume seller has been the LE model, and this has been the one you most commonly saw in the rental fleets. Occasionally, the posher XLE was around and more recently, some of the SE models appeared. This was supposedly the sporty Camry, a concept I always thought to be an oxymoron, as adding a slightly crass body kit, tightening the suspension a bit and slapping on 17″ alloys did not really make this sporty in the sense that anyone other than Toyota’s marketing department would recognise. I certainly did not, as I managed to sample both an LE and an SE version of the pre-facelift Camry, and I struggled to find much of a difference, even though others had assured me that the SE would prove better to drive. (“Better” being a relative term!). Since the facelifted cars appeared in the rental fleets, I have noticed that almost all of them are badged SE, and indeed it was one of these which I secured for my test. Instead of the rather dreary collection of grey and silver painted ones that are more common, I managed to get one in the rather attractive deep pearlescent blue that Toyota call Blue Crush Metallic.

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Let’s cut to the chase right away. This Camry did strike me as something of an improvement from behind the wheel.  Indeed, I will go further and say that, in SE spec at least, it is perfectly acceptable now. It still won’t win the section of the comparison tests on driver appeal (Ford and Mazda will fight that one out, with Kia and Hyundai not too far behind them), but nor will it automatically be relegated to last place. The familiar 2.5 litre 4 cylinder engine is still the one that powers most Camry models, and that was certainly the case for the test car. It generates 178 bhp, and is coupled to a 6 speed automatic gearbox. Indeed with this generation of Camry, the manual option was withdrawn completely. My notes use words like “civilised” and “refined” to describe the car. It is. The engine and transmission are well matched and the car is very smooth in operation at all times. But it also does not lack the requisite power to get itself and you out of any potentially nasty situations when you need a burst of acceleration. It retains its composure and noise levels remain particularly low, so the enthusiast will feel deprived of any aural clues that the horses under the bottom have just been kicked into action, but the driver and passengers will be grateful as this means that this is a serene cruiser.

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The engine was not really the problem before, it was the steering and handling. The former was far too light and vague and the latter was a victim of the very soft suspension that even the old SE version failed to address. I cannot make the same complaints now. Again, the enthusiast won’t be wowed, but the steering is now well up class par, with enough feel and a weighting which makes the car light and easy to manoeuvre but not at the expense of depriving the driver of any sensation. The Camry goes round corners more willingly, too. For sure, it rolls a bit and there is clear understeer, as I could tell from a few of those swooping bends on the Angeles Crest Highway that are a good test for any car. Indeed, I have previously seen Toyota on this very road with camo-ed up prototypes, so I know that it is likely that the Camry would have been tested on the self same road before being signed off. The stiffer suspension and use of 215/55 R17 wheels have no detrimental effect on the ride, either, which remains good, adding to that sense of composure on a journey. The brakes are well judged with good stopping power available from only quite light applications of the pedal. A foot operated parking brake pedal is fitted. All-round visibility is generally good, with a reversing camera that displays an image on the audio screen a useful aid to help you to judge whether back of the car is. Despite the quite thick and angles C pillars, there were no particular issues with the over the shoulder view at angled junctions. I did not drive the Camry as far as some rental test cars, covering only 152 miles, and a fair few of these were up in the mountains north of the LA valley, which will not have helped fuel economy. I put in 5.67 gallons to fill the tank, which computes to a fairly unexceptional 26.8 mpg US or 32.02 mpg Imperial. I have achieved better with some of the Toyota’s rivals, notably the particularly frugal Nissan Altima.

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Although the first impressions are that the interior is largely as before, Toyota have actually revised this, too. In this SE trim, you notice the red stitching that is on the seats, around the gearlever gaiter and across the dash first of all, then you spot that the seats are mix of leather and cloth and that leather is used across the top of the dash, and door casings as well as to wrap the wheel. Investigate a lot more deeply, though, and you will find that it is not all as up-scale as you had been led to believe. There are some very cheap feeling components, especially the plastic cover over the cubby in front of the gearlever and the grey insert on the dash in front of the passenger over the glovebox does not help matters. Like all Toyota models that I have come across in recent memory, there were a lot of scratches on the plastic around the ignition key slot, and I noticed that the trim on the B pillars was coming away from where it should have been firmly stuck. This may be a “reliable Toyota”, but it does not mean that it will look showroom fresh for all that long, and even when it does, the quality is only as good as Toyota think it needs to be. The dash itself is neat and relatively simple and has lots of large knobs and buttons that are easy to use. The instrument pack is different from the last Camry SE I drove. There are two large dials now, for revs and speed, with smaller water temperature and fuel level gauges set in the lower portion of the larger dials, freeing a space between the two instruments for a digital display area. You can cycle through the different screens by pressing buttons on the right of the steering wheel hub, and these are largely around trip details, of average fuel consumption and range. There is no digital speedometer repeater. The left hand spoke of the steering wheel contains the buttons for audio unit repeater functions, and you will need these as the tuner knob on the radio is quite a stretch from the driver’s seat. There are a pair of column stalks, with lights operated by turning the end of the indicator stalk. A separate stubby stalk on the lower right of the wheel is used for the cruise control. The centre of the dash contains the latest Toyota audio unit. Gone is the separate digital clock that used to sit above this unit, it is now incorporated into the main unit, and it is easy to adjust, as I found the time to be wrong when I collected the car. The audio unit has a touch sensitive screen which reduces the number of switches and knobs on either side of it. It is a fairly basic system, lacking XM Satellite radio. The button marked “Car” only seemed to have two screens, showing average fuel consumption over 5 minute intervals on one panel and longer term trend data on the other. The third option is for “Settings” which is how I adjusted the clock and you can also change a few other things in here, such as beep reminders. Below this unit are the knobs and switches for the air conditioning system. And that is more or less it. Simple and easy to use.

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There is electric adjustment of the driver’s seat, including a lumbar support feature. The front passenger gets a simpler manual arrangement, and which lacks both the lumbar support and even a seat height feature. For the driver, though, there is plenty of adjustment possible and the column goes in/out as well as up/down, so it was easy to get the optimum position relative to the controls to suit my body proportions. The seat proved comfortable, though I did not give it the ultimate test of sitting on it for long periods of time, as I only had the Camry for a day and was in and out of it a lot for photo and scenery stops. Rear seat passengers get a good deal. There is lots of space here, more than in any other car in its class, and with an almost flat floor, even the middle seat occupant should not feel unduly hard done by. Legroom is very generous with the front seats set well forward and decent enough when they are positioned towards the rear of their travel. There is just enough headroom. I found a couple of inches between my head and it touching anything. What it would have come into contact with would have been the top of the rear window, such is the angle of inclination of the backrest. There is a drop down armrest with the almost universal pair of cup holders in the upper surface. Map pockets in the back of the front seats and long but relatively thin door bins give occupants here somewhere to put their bits and pieces on a journey.

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There is a particularly good sized boot. It is very long from front to back, and nice and wide and relatively deep. Capacity can be extended by dropping the rear seat backrests down, to give a long load platform, and there is a good sized opening through the rear bulkhead. Inside the cabin, there is a reasonably sized glovebox, bins on the doors, a very deep lidded cubby in front of the gearlever and a small one over the driver’s knee as well as another area under the central armrest. The centre console has a lipped tray area behind the gearlever as well as a pair of cupholders.

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There are 4 regular trims available: LE ($23,070), SE ($23,840), XLE ($26,310), and XSE ($26,310). All versions come equipped with the 2.5 litre four-cylinder engine as standard. A 268 bhp V6 is optional in the XLE and XSE trims and selecting it adds up to $5,000 to the bottom line,  which seems a lot, but is in fact comparable to what Honda charge for an Accord with a V6. The LE and XLE models are comfort-focused, while the SE and SXE models are sportier (this being a relative term!)  The base Camry LE starts at about $23,000, which makes it more costly than most of its rivals. The Honda Accord has a lower base price ($22,355) but comes without key features like an automatic transmission and an eight-way power driver’s seat. The Accord with a continuously variable transmission costs about $100 more. The Malibu starts at $21,680, and the Sonata at $21,600. The Sonata and Malibu both offer more standard features in the base trim but lack a standard power driver’s seat. The Camry LE also comes standard with a rearview camera, Toyota’s Entune audio system with voice recognition, a 6.1-inch touch screen, Bluetooth, six speakers, a USB port, and Siri Eyes Free iPhone integration. The Malibu and Sonata add Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration and larger 7-inch touch screens. You do still get plastic wheel trims over the 16″ wheels on the LE, though the upgrade to alloys only costs $275. The Camry SE costs about $800 more than the LE. Among its enhancements are a sport suspension, a leather-trimmed tilt/telescopic sport steering wheel with paddle shifters, and audio and Bluetooth hands-free phone voice-command controls. You’ll also get upgraded 17-inch alloy wheels with graphite finish. The XSE (around $26,300) is a nicer version of the SE. It comes with most of the features of the SE, plus larger 18″ wheels, wireless smartphone charging, dual-zone automatic climate control, and leather seats with faux-suede inserts. With the XSE you have a choice between the four-cylinder engine and a V6. The larger engine trim (around $31,370) adds LED headlights, a moonroof, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and an acoustic windshield, so you’re not just paying for more power. The XLE costs the same as the XSE and comes with all-leather seats and wood grain interior trim. It, too, is available with the optional V6 that adds almost $5,000 to the MSRP. Differences between it and the V6 XSE include a dual chrome-tipped exhaust. For 2016, there was also a Special Edition version of the SE. For $1,900 more than the SE, you get some sporty design elements, such as larger 18″ wheels and blue stitching on the seats, as well as wireless smartphone charging, a moonroof, and Toyota’s Connected Navigation system, which allows you to use your smartphone’s GPS on the Camry’s touch screen. It was available in a couple of colours that were unique to this model. Many options, such as blind spot monitoring, automatic pre-collision braking, the premium JBL stereo, and the V6 engine, aren’t even available unless you upgrade to the top-of-the-line XSE or XLE trims. Then, to get those features, you have to spend money on a features package. Blind spot monitoring and the JBL stereo cost $1,300, or you can spend $2,800 and get all of the features from the $1,300 package plus a full suite of advanced safety features, including automatic pre-collision braking.

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I thought this Camry was a marked improvement on the 2103 model SE that I drove around 18 month ago. Whilst it still is far from the enthusiast’s choice, it is now very acceptable to drive (in SE guise, at least) as well as to ride in. It is probably the “best” Camry there has ever been. And yet, there is an irony to this, as in 2016, the car was comprehensively dethroned from its long held position at the top of the best-selling cars in America several times in the latter half of the year. Although it did still retain its title at the end of 2016, sales were down by just over 40,000 units (down from 430,000 to 388,000) and in 2017, the car has lost out every month to date to other non-trucks. In fact, all three of the vehicles to have beaten it are not direct competitors, as they are the Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, but the ever-greater success of these three show how the market continues to shift away from the traditional saloon car. Toyota can take comfort in the fact that the Camry is still out-selling is traditional competitors (the Honda Accord only by a few sales, but it has often been that close). They’ve recently revealed a genuinely all-new 8th generation Camry for 2018. It has a very different look to it, one which could well upset the traditional Camry buyer, as it follows the same rather bizarre direction that all other recent Toyota’s have taken. It will be interesting to see if this is what saves the Camry, or if the radical new look is a massive new nail in the coffin which is clearly starting to be constructed. Judging that one is for another day, but for now, I can finally say that if you end up driving a Camry (SE), as your rental car, it is no longer the automotive version of penance that it used to be. Hurrah for that!

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