Kyle Busch + Camry? We had to see this.
Toyota recently redesigned this top selling, mid-sized sedan, and the design DNA it shares with its NASCAR roots shines through. The 2018 Camry is a head-turner with its broad front end grille, sharp angles and cut creases ensuring it won’t easily be mistaken for the current version. Even at the base level of about $23,000 there are smart features, and at the top range near $35,000 there’s a sweet V6. This well-loved model continues to seat five very comfortably with a wide cabin and decent storage for phones and drinks, although the center console armrest cubby lacks a place for even a small handbag.
After 35 years as a top selling sedan in the US, the eighth version is the brand’s first all-new product utilizing the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), featuring a new engine, transmission, and suspension. Why is this relevant? Because it means this Camry is quite different than others you may have driven – or seen – before.
Muscles on the outside, curves on the inside
The exterior of the Camry echoes Kyle Busch’s NASCAR Sprint Cup ride, and the driver himself squeezed in a visit in between races to tout the product. And he wasn’t the only celebrity spotted (read to the end to find out more!). The front end grille of the new Camry offers two characteristics: the L and LE has a wide-mouth smile stretching from cheek to cheek uninterrupted. The sportier SE and XSE versions add distinctive sport mesh inserts to the corners, providing a welcome fierceness to the grin.
In the back, the L and LE have a generic exhaust pipe, but the SE and XSE are graced with quad chrome exhaust pipes and additional detailing around the tail lamps, further emphasizing those racing roots.
Sliding into the Camry for the first time, the graceful infotainment center immediately caught my eye. Oriented towards the driver without excluding the rest of the cabin, the ballerina-inspired lines are appealing and soften the otherwise rather spartan look. The seats were a bit hard, but that would only become an issue if you’re traveling long distances, and the power lumbar support available on most trims will help.
The front row has two cupholders and a nice covered compartment just below the climate control knobs with one of three USB ports available in the vehicle and a 12V cigarette plug perfect for charging a phone or keeping other useful items handy. However, the position in front of the shifter and on the driver’s side of the aforementioned graceful divider also means the passenger has to reach around to access those items, but it’s not terribly inconvenient. The radio (more on that later) is – blessedly – controlled by easily-accessible dials.
Four of the thirteen available exterior colors available are all new, and three colors are available with a contrasting midnight black metallic roof. While all three of the test vehicles I drove had black interiors, there’s also a Macadamian beige for a brighter look, or a really outstanding racing red, fabulous with any of the eight shades of white/gray/silver exteriors offered (though this may be a challenge when it comes to resale).
Safety is No Longer a Luxury, or at Least, Toyota Thinks So
Every 2018 Camry comes standard with a host of safety and security features, including Toyota’s Star Safety System featuring vehicle stability control, traction control, 4-wheel anti-lock braking system, brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. The vehicle is also equipped with Smart Stop Technology, which means if you press the accelerator and brake simultaneously by mistake (which can happen in a panic situation or if you drive with both feet, which you should never do), the brake takes precedence and the vehicle will come to a stop.
There are ten airbags standard, plus Toyota Safety Sense P, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and adaptive cruise control. The top-end XSE and XLE V6 models offer a complimentary one-year trial subscription of Safety Connect, which includes emergency assistance, stolen vehicle locator, roadside assistance, and automatic collision notification. Other trim levels offer this service as a subscription. This is a very worthwhile investment, particularly if you are often the only adult in the vehicle, or transporting young or aging passengers, or if you drive in low-traffic areas. In the case of airbag deployment or a severe rear-end collision, an operator will send help if you cannot call yourself.
Many Camry versions mean there’s something for everyone
The Camry has two different engines and multiple equipment (or trim line) levels. There’s a 2.5 liter, 4-cylinder engine – which will account for about 95% of all Camry sales – and a 3.5 liter V6. Both engines have an 8-speed automatic transmission. There’s also a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder hybrid version, with a lithium-ion battery in the LE trim and a nickel-metal hydride for higher trims (SE and XLE). The Camry only comes in front wheel drive, so there’s no all wheel drive option, something to keep in mind depending on your weather. A good set of snow tires will provide plenty of traction if you are in snowier climes.
Testing out the different levels of Camry
I test drove multiple versions of the Camry during a day spent in the Portland, Oregon area, but I did not drive every one, concentrating on versions Toyota anticipates will be most popular. Toyota did not provide us with the very base model “L”, which starts at $23,495 and will likely account for only a small percentage of sales. In a recent KBB.com survey, sedan shoppers told us two primary needs are fuel economy and value, and the “L” fulfills those priorities.
However, frankly, I would not consider purchasing this trim, which while well-equipped by some standards, also lacks many basic amenities which might frustrate an owner over time and the vehicle won’t hold its value like a better equipped version. Also, the 16” tires, steel wheels and 6-way power seat will make for a less than comfortable daily ride and drive.
The Camry LE: Nicely equipped for the price
The first version I drove was the $24,000 “LE” 4-cylinder, which demonstrated the new TNGA architecture with more bells and whistles than the base “L” trim. While the vehicle was quiet thanks to an acoustic noise-reducing front windshield, the driving dynamics were only so-so and the 17” tires were a bit noisy. I didn’t have as much confidence in the steering, handling and braking as I would like. I did like the upgraded 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat and I was able to adjust the seat just so; an important feature for those of us on the shorter side, and one I appreciate at just five feet tall. At the same time, my friend Brian at 6’7” was able to fit in the vehicle surprisingly well, much to his utter delight. The A-pillar, or the driver’s side support between the windshield and the door, did not intrude on my line of vision either, which is something for smaller people to watch when testing out a new ride.
However, in the LE, there were some drawbacks to the interior, including a lack of automatic climate control and only a dial adjustment for hot/cold that cannot be set to a specific temperature. The LE also lacks push-button start, a rear trunk release, and keyless entry, important safety features for women instead of digging in your purse for your keys every single time. Even though the price point is appealing, some of the amenities may be missed when living with the LE on a daily basis.
The Camry SE: Small Upgrade in Price, Big Upgrade in Features
The next vehicle I drove was one trim up, the $25,200 SE, likely Camry’s biggest seller. This trim addressed a number of the drawbacks of the LE, providing the cabin with single-zone automatic climate control with a digital gauge, Smart Key System on front doors and trunk, plus remote keyless entry (no more bag digging!).
The SE also adds heated power outside mirrors the same color as the body (rather than black or chrome) with a turn signal and – very important – blind spot warning indicator. There’s also a power tilt/slide moonroof, intermittent windshield wipers, power windows with 4-window auto up/down, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass. The tires upgrade to 18” and provide better ride and better handling. While most of the roads we drove on were smooth, we made a wrong turn at one point and ended up on a patch of newly scratched surface waiting to be re-paved and the cabin remained delightfully quiet.
These are some key upgrades from the LE and well worth the $1,200 investment. Not only will the vehicle be safer and more satisfying to live with given the added features, it will hold its value better when you move on.
The Camry XSE: For Those Who Need it All
I also spent some time in the fully tricked out V6 XSE. There are three different and distinct driving modes for the V6: Eco, Normal, and Sport. The Sport mode was especially responsive and handled curves with confidence and aplomb. It also has a sportier and appealing sound (or exhaust note, to impress your friends), and it was definitely quick off the mark, with nearly 50% more horsepower than the 4-cylinder. However, at $34,950, I don’t know if it’s my first vehicle choice on the market today for that kind of money, and Toyota is expecting that the V6 will only account for about 5% of all Camrys sold so even they acknowledge the market is fairly limited. Again, something to keep in mind for resale value.
You’re also going to give up a lot in fuel economy, since the 4-cylinder gets 34 MPG combined (for the base L) and 32 MPG combined for the other trim lines. The V6 drops all the way down to 26 MPG combined, which can really add up over time.
Yes, There’s a Hybrid and Yes, It Gets Great MPG
If you’re thinking of dropping nearly $35,000 on the gasoline engine Camry, consider instead the Hybrid Synergy Drive-equipped models, which are available in three trim levels. These babies not only get an astounding Prius-like 52 miles per gallon combined for the LE, and 46 MPG for the higher-end SE and XLE, but at $27,800 for the LE, $29,500 for the much-better equipped SE, and $32,250 for the fully loaded XLE, they’re a great buy all around. The general consensus of the journalists I traveled with was that the hybrid was the best of all the versions we drove and even though I did love that V6, I have to agree.
Toyota Packages: Navigation, Wifi and Connected Car Apps
There are a few important things to know about the audio and interactive systems in the Camry. When Camry hits showrooms in July, all 4-cylinder models will be equipped with Entune 3.0 Audio with six speakers, Connected Navigation and App Suite, which includes Siri Eyes Free (with compatiable iPhone) and Google voice controls. The app suite also includes iHeartRadio, Yelp, NPR One, and Slacker Radio available without a subscription. These are clearly displayed on the 7-in touch screen.
The V6 XSE and XLE come equipped with an Entune 3.0 Premium Audio provided by JBL, which has an 8” touch-screen, AM/FM CD player, and nine speakers.
Toyota does not yet offer Apple Car Play or Android Auto, instead relying on Connected Navigation Scout GPS Link with optional WiFi, (standard on V6 models only), which is a subscription-based app and complimentary for 3 years. After three years, there’s a $25 annual charge.
There is an option for an embedded navigation on the 6-cylinder versions, but it’s still app-based, which is becoming more common as consumers start relying more on mobile phones for mapping and traffic. Example: I recently drove an $81,000 luxury model with no nav. Toyota representatives said they’re still negotiating over privacy concerns with Apple and Android, but it’s surprising and disappointing that these popular apps are not available at launch and potentially a distinct competitive disadvantage for the brand, when many other manufacturers do offer this capability.
If you don’t use navigation often, then this isn’t an issue for you. But if you’re someone who often looks for alternative routes to skirt around awful traffic, this is definitely a concern. You can still use other traffic apps on your phone, but it can rapidly lead to distracted driving, so use caution please. I would highly recommend spending time investigating more about the audio and connected vehicle features at toyota.com/entune for additional details prior to going to the dealership so you can select the correct package for your needs.
Maintenance and Road Side Assistance is Included Too—Just in Case
The 2018 Toyota Camry comes with Toyota Care, a complimentary maintenance plan for normal factory scheduled service, as well as 24/7 roadside assistance, for two years or 25,000 miles. The basic limited warranty coverage is also included, which is a 3-year/36,000 mile comprehensive, plus a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain, and a 5-year/unlimited-mileage corrosion warranty. The hybrid models add an 8-year/100,000-mile Hybrid-related component coverage.
Overall, while there is no industry-first or groundbreaking technology on the Camry, this makeover gives this sensible sedan a more modern face and feel, adds Toyota’s commitment to safety technology, and keeps its pricing approachable. If you’re in the market for a mid-size sedan, then this should be on your shopping list. Camry lovers will be happy and those who haven’t discovered it yet will be pleasantly surprised, too.
Disclosure: I was Toyota’s guest for this test drive; travel and accommodations were provided. Seeing the fabulous Robin Roberts at the on-site spa with a gaggle of girlfriends was just a bonus. All opinions expressed here are my own.