Test Drive: Toyota burnishes Camry's crown

Test Drive: Toyota burnishes Camry's crown

October 4th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Business Diary

The new 2015 Camry gets new body work with a sporty Lexus-like fascia.

Photo by Mark Kennedy /Times Free Press.

FAST FACTS

* Model: 2015 Toyota Camry

* Exterior color: Ruby Flare Pearl

* Interior color: Black

* Engine: 2.5 liter, four-cylinder

* Horsepower: 178

* Transmission: six-speed automatic

* Fuel economy: 35 mpg highway, 25 mpg city

* Dealer: Capital Toyota

* Price (as tested): $30,809

Toyota Camry, America's best-selling car, gets a major update for the 2015 model year -- two years ahead of schedule.

That's bad news for the competition. In the important midsize sedan segment, Camry is No. 1, with domestic sales in each of the last two years of more than 400,000 units. (For comparison, that's about four times the number of Volkswagen Passats sold in the United States last year.)

Any time Toyota upgrades its bread-and-butter sedan, assembled up the road in Georgetown, Ky., it makes news across the auto world. And by producing a major makeover three years into the normal five-year product cycle, it's making a bit of history.

Typically, a manufacturer will introduce a new wheel package or paint scheme in year four of a design cycle and call it a Special Edition. On the other hand, the 2015 Toyota contains almost 2000 new parts, according to the manufacturer, including a dramatic reshaping of the sheet metal. Meanwhile, Toyota is leaving most mechanical improvements for later.

The result is a quieter, sportier sedan, which will no doubt remain the king of the hill. A clean-sheet Camry redesign, which will include engine upgrades, hits the market for the 2017 model year. (Full disclosure: I've owned several Toyotas including my current daily driver, a Camry hybrid.)

The first 2015 Camry in Chattanooga touched down last week at Capital Toyota on Lee Highway, and we rushed out to grab a test drive. Ed Emerson, sales manager, says it may be a few weeks yet before the 2015 Camrys arrive in large numbers. He says rapid advances in technology have caused Toyota to accelerate its product cycle. This may become the norm in the 21st century as consumer tastes shift more swiftly.

In popular LE trim, the 2015 Camry has a sticker price of $23,795, including destination charges. Our highly-optioned four-cylinder Camry XSE test car stickers for $30,809. A six-cylinder engine option is also available.

STYLING AND FEATURES

With its smooth door panels and sporty ground effects, the 2012-14 Camry has always looked a little bit like a stock car to me.

With the 2015 Camry, Toyota has borrowed styling cues from the suddenly sexy Lexus brand. The most noticeable change is a new fascia which has echoes of the spindle grilles seen on all new Lexus models. The spindle grille (think hour-glass shape) makes a car look powerful and sleek, like a fighter jet.

On sport versions of the Camry -- SE and XSE trim -- the grilles have an aggressive, honeycomb design. On other Camry trims, the grille has bright-work on top and five horizontal bars underneath that result in a more sedate look. All the new Camrys include rows of vertical running lights up front.

Our Ruby Flare Pearl XSE tester is a good example of how Toyota is attempting to amp-up the Camry's exterior. The car looks more expensive, you might even say more buttoned down -- as if the corners have somehow been tucked in and pressed. Our XSE tester also comes with 18-inch machined alloy wheels which add to the car's youthful vibe.

Inside, our tester has attractive black leather seats with ultra-sued inserts. The two textures blend well and fit the near-luxury aspirations of high-end Camry buyers. Our tester boasts a navigation system with high-quality graphics displayed on seven-inch LED screen, part of a $685 premium Entune tech package. The Camry's dash, constructed with soft-touch materials and featuring attractive red stitching, would look right at home in an Audi. A moon-roof adds $915 to the bottom line.

Another worthy extra is a $500 safety-enhancement package that combines a blind-spot monitor and a rear cross-traffic alert. All in all, the interior of the 2015 Camry is refined and comfortable, rendered more so by added layers of sound insulation that make this the quietest Camry ever built. Some trims offer a cordless charging system option that allows you to juice up your smartphone without plugging it in. How cool is that?

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Engine options are a 178-horsepower four-cylinder and a 268 horsepower V-6. The vast majority of Camry buyers opt for the four-cylinder engine, which has ample power for everyday driving. Still, those looking for a sports sedan experience will be tempted by stouter six-cylinder engine.

On our test drive, a loop that included both urban and highway driving, I was impressed by the hushed ride and secure handling of the XSE, which has a sport-tuned suspension. Toyota has worked hard to give the Camry a more European ride quality.

When the next-generation Camry hits the market in a couple of years, it will no doubt include more fuel-efficient, and powerful engines. But for now, the model soldiers on with tried-and-true engines mated to trusty six-speed transmissions. While competitors upgrade their mid-size sedans with such innovations as continuously variable transmissions (Nissan) and nine-speed gear boxes (Chrysler), Toyota is putting more of its R&D money into improvements customers can see and feel.

BOTTOM LINE

The 2015 Camry is the kind of re-imagining of a top-selling product that shows that Toyota is still on its game. The new Camry inspires confidence, while adding just enough spice to keep buyers interested.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.


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