Yes, the new Toyota Camry is that good - even as a driver's car.
Mazda acknowledging that its benchmarking the redesigned 2018 Toyota Camry instead of BMW should be a wake-up call for all other brands competing in the mid-size sedan segment. Since it first launched in 1982, the Camry has been the safe, reliable and conservative choice for millions of buyers. However, old Camrys lacked driving emotion, and emotion matters. Emotion, reliability and excellent build quality. That's the new Camry, and its six main competitors with upcoming redesigns must now view it as the new benchmark.
The Chevrolet Malibu, since the nameplate was revived in 1997, has never been better. That, however, may no longer be good enough. The current ninth-generation Malibu hit the market for 2016 with sleeker styling. It's also bigger than its immediate predecessor, which lacked proper rear seat legroom for this segment. With a couple of four-cylinder engines and a hybrid variant to choose from (no V6 option), the Malibu is a safe and smart choice, but given the Camry's newfound mojo, Chevy's chassis engineers may need to take a suspension tuning lesson from the Camaro and Corvette in order to get the Malibu, due for a facelift likely next year, ready for battle.
For many years, it was the Mazda6 that repeatedly won praise as the so-called driver's car of the mid-size sedan segment. It still is, but the new Camry is perhaps its most serious challenger for the zoom-zoom crown. Therefore it's not in the least bit surprising Mazda engineers were the first to openly admit just how good of a driver's car the Camry has become. Up until now, Mazda benchmarked BMWs, but this Camry is proving to be a formidable competitor. While the Mazda6 has just been refreshed for 2019, eventually a complete redesign will happen, and we can't wait to see how Mazda applies its newfound Camry lessons.
On the one hand, the Ford Fusion has everything going for it, especially the fully-loaded V6 Sport trim and its 325 hp of fun. However, we recently learned Ford has not officially signed off on a Fusion redesign because of the crossover invasion. If there is to be a next-gen Fusion, Ford has a lot of work to do to make a relevant player. The current Fusion dates back to 2013 and despite a mid-life refresh, the new Camry is by far the better choice – even for the family man/woman with a heavy foot.
We've been fans of the Kia Optima ever since its 2010 redesign where, literally overnight, it became one of the best-looking sedans in its segment. Its fourth generation successor, launched for 2016, is also a looker but what the Optima lacks is – you've guessed it – driving personality. It's not dull like previous Camrys, but its Toyota competitor has set a new standard. Fortunately, Kia (and its sister brand Hyundai) poached former BMW M engineering chief, Dr. Albert Biermann. He's the man responsible for the new Kia Stinger GT. Can he also deliver a fun to drive front-wheel-drive sedan? The new Camry is definitely his new benchmark.
At this very moment, the final touches are being applied to the next-generation Nissan Altima. It will debut late next month at the New York Auto Show. Fortunately for Nissan, it's had at least a year to get its hands on the latest Camry and take it apart to discover its secrets. Nissan is definitely no stranger at building excellent cars that are also fun to drive. Remember the original four-door sports car, those old Maximas? Well, today's Maxima, which is larger than the Altima, isn't exactly the four-door sports car it once was. This presents a golden opportunity for the sixth-generation Altima. Here's hoping Nissan understood that as well.
Before it was built in America, the Volkswagen Passat was known for its premium feel reminiscent of Audis. Ever since the made in America, for America, Camry-targeting fifth-generation Passat entered the market in 2011, many longtime owners fell out of favor with it because of its mainstream turn. In short, it became far more conservative in design, drove like an American highway cruiser, not something for European driving tastes. It was not cheaply built, but that extra special touch was gone. Fortunately, a redesigned Passat isn't too far off. VW really ought to take a good hard look at today's Camry to fully understand what it's now up against.