2018 Camry XSE: Make Toyota Fun Again
In this era of social media influencers and Bitcoin billionaires, I’ve always felt older than I actually am. The hype I experience about fancy kitchen appliances or dietary fiber is, quite frankly, embarrassing for a 25-year-old. Unfortunately, my level of “oldness” may have accidentally graduated from the “it’s too late to start a movie at 11pm” old to the full “yelling at cloud angrily” old when the only news article that drew my attention during the habitual morning car news crawl was the press release about the 2018 Camry and how Toyota is determined to shed their boring brand image by making the best-selling car in the world fun and exciting.
The press release detailed a comprehensive approach to creating a dynamic and emotional driving experience. The new Camry took advantage of the freshly minted TNGA platform—realizing a longer wheel base, wider track width, more rigid chassis and a lowered center of gravity. To further improve the Camry’s dynamic competency and composure, double wishbone suspension was introduced to the rear axle; a true rarity in the economic sedan segment.
Impressively, instead of hopping on the bandwagon of turbocharging small displacement engines to improve consumption numbers, Toyota decided to utilize an old school hot-rodding mindset to improve power output and efficiency of their naturally aspirated engines. The new dynamic force engines have reduced valve angles, higher compression ratio, longer stroke and a more advanced variable cam system—all in pursuit of better thermal efficiency. The result is more mid-range torque and better on-throttle response compared to the previous 2.5-liter engine—all while achieving a 41 mpg fuel efficiency. The 3.5-liter V6 is enhanced by the D-4S direct injection system, the power output elevated from 268 hp in the previous model to 301 hp in the 2018 Toyota Camry XSE.
Wrapping up all the technical enhancements is a completely redesigned exterior, heavily influenced by the aerodynamic development of Toyota’s Nascar program. The lowered body lines, combined with a set of muscular shoulders, mean that the new Camry now has the bulges, lines, fins and vents to make a BMW 5-Series feel inadequate.
The prospect of a future where even the most mundane car on the road can be engaging and dynamic is certainly exciting. However, marketing materials tend to over-promise and under-deliver.—especially coming from a company that is known for producing the beige-est of cars. To find out whether the new Camry is truly the promised herald of fun Toyotas or merely a pinker shade of beige, a 2018 Camry XSE test-drive was in order.
2018 Toyota Camry XSE Test-Drive & Review
Upon seeing the new Camry in person, in the XSE trim, it is immediately obvious that the new car is incredibly handsome. Comparing it to the previous model is like comparing a chiseled statue to a shapeless gelatinous blob. The dynamism of the design language works even when the car is stationary; tensed like some aquatic predator ready to swallow its prey in it’s menacing jaw. Honestly, the way this car makes its fancier and more expensive European competitors look pedestrian really warms my heart; it’s like seeing the skinny middle school kids that always gets picked on return from summer break 2-feet taller and 40lbs bigger than all the previous semesters bullies—you can’t help but mutter “Good for you, Buddy” with a smile on your face.
The interior of the car is as friendly as the exterior is intimidating. All the touch points are dressed in a soft touch material and the optional genuine leather is good enough to be in a Lexus. The satin silver trims work wonderfully with all the different interior color options—think more night club, less retirement home. The placement of the knobs and switches are intuitive and provide a satisfying level of tactile feedback. The lowered belt and hood line of the body means the outward visibility is improved over the previous model and the 360-degree camera view makes parking in tight spaces a breeze. The only complaint about the interior would be the navigation/entertainment unit. While it is utilitarian and responsive, the entertainment unit can feel dated compared to the other options on the market and lacks the design flair defining the rest of the car.
The new Camry is seriously impressive inside and out, but to really validate the "fun" claim it must drive as well as it looks. The car started silently with a press of the oversized start/stop button. Only the slightest vibration indicated the engine was running, and the center dash display began to spew out a ton of eco-related metrics. So far, worrisome. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a dramatic eruption of mechanical noises—the Camry is still a car for sensible people after all, but a bit of attitude would surely help with the whole “fun” aspect. With the sports button selected and the shifter in the "S" position, I pulled forward toward the exit of the empty parking structure and hammered the loud pedal.
The front tires squealed and chirped as the torquey V6 flexed its muscle. Unlike the prevalent turbo-charged 4-cylinders that produce a surge of power and run out of breath at higher rpms, the Camry's V6 pulls enthusiastically from 3,000 rpm to the redline. With no perceivable dip in power, nor the presence of turbo lag, the mid-sized sedan responded to every throttle input with precision and immediacy. The eagerness of the power delivery is, no doubt, contributed to heavily by the fast shifting 8-speed transmission. Having more gears with tighter ratios means that the gearbox can up and down shift liberally to suit the driver’s input without producing a jarring driving experience.
However, the gearbox was also my greatest source of frustration with this car. The absence of a true manual gear selection mode really hurts the driving experience. The gear selector and steering wheel-mounted pedals are only able to select the highest gear the transmission can be in, but the TCU is free to shift by itself within that parameter. The car will also complain if you try to downshift aggressively into a corner. Nonetheless, once you learn the behavior of the gearbox, it remains unobtrusive to the overall driving experience.
Toyota’s effort in improving the driving dynamic was immediately obvious within the first five minutes of driving. While most of the feedback from the tires were dampened out to provide more comfort, the steering is tight, fast and nicely weighted without any noticeable dead spots in the middle. What really surprised me was the way the car behaved when thrown into a corner—transitioning with minimal body roll and understeer. The suspension dampening also felt spot-on for spirited drives on less-than-perfect road surfaces; properly managing the weight transfer of the 3,350lb sedan without being overly stiff or bouncy.
Obviously, if 500 hp, smoky burnouts and terrorizing infants with your exhaust is the only way you can have fun with a car—than this Camry is probably not going to tickle your fancy. However, if one of the best point-A to point-B cars on the market happens to be fun to push around the winding roads, a cocoon of comfort and luxury, all while looking better than the garden variety 5-series... it is hardly appropriate to label it as boring. The new Camry is arguably not only the most fun Camry to date, it is probably also the most well-rounded one.
But What of Toyota's Image?
This whole discussion about fun brings up an interesting point. Why is it that Toyota is considered the epitome of boring while other car companies produce cars that are equally lackluster but doesn’t suffer the same prejudice from car enthusiasts? It is hardly fair to say that the Camry is drastically more dull compared to Nissan’s Altima, Honda’s Accord, or Chevy’s Malibu. Fundamentally, Toyota has an image problem. When people think Nissan, they think of the Z-cars or the GTR, Honda with their Civic type-R and Chevy its Corvettes and Camaros. When people think of Toyota, it’s all Prii (That’s officially the plural form of Prius, according to Toyota) and dented Camrys. It would be a shame if Toyota’s endeavor to make their sensible cars exciting to own and drive all go to waste because people will still see the car everyone and their mom owned and beat on for a decade.
In fact, during my week with the car, all the comments received were in the format of “This car looks great, for a Camry”, “This car handles well, for a Camry” or “This car feels really fast, for a Camry”. Let’s face it, its always going to be difficult to sell the most common and logical option as the cool one. Instead of trying to spice up apple sauce, what Toyota really needs is a line up full of exciting cars that will reshape people’s mental image of the company. (New Supra please!)