Wait! That’s a Camry?
In today's automotive landscape, Toyota's strong brand reputation is mostly enough to move units of new models. No matter how good (or bad) a new Camry is, there will always be someone who will buy it on name recognition alone. But what happens when the competition finally wises up and gives Toyota a true challenge? Toyota’s dominance in the market has spawned compliancy, causing the Camry to become a humdrum, middle of the pack type of car—until now.
Other car manufacturers have wised up, and the Camry’s competition has never been stronger. Toyota can no longer just show up and compete on name recognition alone, which is why it made such a bold statement with the new 2018 Camry XSE.
It seems obvious for an automaker to improve with each new generation, but the 2018 Camry feels more than just an incremental step in the right direction. I spent my week with the 2018 Camry XSE, the sportiest (and most expensive) of the non-hybrid Camry models. The XSE trim starts at exactly $29,000 for the 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. My loaded tester model came with the optional 3.5-liter V6 at a cost of nearly $6,000. This may seem like a lot to spend on an engine upgrade, but the Camry’s refreshed V6 engine now produces 301 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque.
Just let that sink in: a new Camry has more power than a Mustang GT from 10 years ago. While other automakers have switched to turbocharged four-cylinder engines, Toyota has kept it old school with a “low-tech” V6. Automakers have inundated us with horsepower in recent years, yet it's still hard to believe Toyota is selling a Camry with more than 300 hp. Thanks to the enormous power and a new, smooth shifting, eight-speed automatic transmission, the Camry XSE hits 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. Performance is impressive, but the Camry is still bested by competitors like the Honda Accord 2.0 (with the 10-speed automatic), Chevy Malibu, and Ford Fusion Sport.
Should you opt for the more efficient four-cylinder mill, expect a more pedestrian 7.6-second 0-60 time. I easily recommend the more powerful V6 as it's still a sipper in the grand scheme of efficiency. The EPA rates the V6 Camry XSE at 22 mpg city, 32 highway, and 26 combined. In my week of testing, these numbers seemed fairly accurate, though I wasn’t quite able to match the estimated 32 mpg highway figure. The Camry XSE with the V6 rings in at just under $35,000, but my tester model came with a few options, pushing the price up to $39,253.
The XSE trim comes very well optioned, but my tester had a few additions, including a bird’s eye 360 degree camera ($1,050), navigation with JBL audio ($940), and the two-tone black roof ($500). I enjoyed the functionality of the 360-degree camera, but wish Toyota included Apple CarPlay and Android Auto instead of forcing buyers to pay nearly $1,000 for navigation. The two-tone paint drew a lot of looks, though I suspect the Streak Blue Metallic color would have turned heads all on its own. Toyota also sells a softer version of the Camry called the XLE, which focuses more on luxury than sport. People who aren’t looking to make as bold a statement may opt for this similarly priced trim.
My money would easily go towards the sportier XSE, with its 19-inch aluminum wheels, gloss black front grille, dual exhaust with quad chrome tips, sport leather-trimmed seats with eight-way power adjustment, and sport tuned suspension. It still isn’t as nimble or as involving to drive as the Mazda 6, but this is by far the most exciting Camry I’ve ever experienced. Unlike previous Camry models, the steering in the 2018 XSE isn’t completely devoid of feel. The on-center steering feedback is quite good, though it still becomes vague on turn in. Overall, this is worlds apart from previous Camry models, which offered nothing in terms of steering feedback.
The sport-tuned suspension on the XSE trim is a bit firm, but not punishing. Dampening prevented the car from crashing down uncomfortably on rough roads, even if it did bounce a bit. I would describe the ride comfort as less than ideal for a grandparent who is trading in their old Camry, but perfect for a young Corolla owner looking for a sporty upgrade. Even with a firm ride, the Camry never felt tiresome on long journeys thanks to a pleasantly appointed interior. Materials feel soft, though the build quality in the Kentucky-built sedan felt a bit lackluster in spots.
The center console didn’t feel well fastened down and certain trim pieces felt loose. I took the Camry on Florida’s ultimate test of build quality: Interstate 4, a pothole-ridden death trap, which is as rough as an armadillo with acne. Over the roughest stretches of I4, I heard the least Toyota-esque noise imaginable: interior rattle. I chalk this up as an outlier with my test car, because Toyota is typically known for building some of the most well constructed cars in the world. The interior vibrations only became a problem on the harshest of road surfaces. In normal driving, the Camry was perfectly comfortable and the interior was well laid out.
My test model came with a black interior, although a bold red interior is also available. The centerpiece of the interior is a refreshed 8-inch touchscreen with Toyota’s Entune 3.0. Overall, the system has the same basic layout as before, but touchscreen response is now much crisper with a more modern aesthetic. As of this test, the system lacks Apple CarPlay or Android Auto Integration, but future Toyota models will be available with Apple CarPlay. Voice command was very effective at recognizing prompts on the first attempt, but I found myself missing the smart search functionality of Apple and Google.
Entune 3.0 is a nice improvement for Toyota, though I experienced several surprising issues with the system. For starters, the Bluetooth call quality was awful. People on the other end of my phone conversations reported an intolerable echo on their end. The Camry also had difficulties playing Bluetooth audio. Any sound would come through my Google Pixel rather than the car speakers, forcing me to use an AUX cable to listen to music. These small issues aside, the cabin of the Camry is very roomy and the leather seats are comfortable, while still offering an adequate level of bolstering and lumbar support. The dashboard looks futuristic, but controls are easy to locate and operate.
I particularly loved the placement of the Qi wireless charger in front of the shifter. The tray slides forward to allow for more storage, while still allowing the phone to charge. Back seat space is amble, though it is difficult to seat three adults due to a tunnel in the floor. Rear seat legroom is 38-inches, so even long-legged occupants had plenty of room, but the Accord bests the Camry with 40.4-inches of rear legroom. The Accord also bests the Camry in trunk space with 16.7 cubic feet of space compared to the Camry’s 15.1 cubic feet. Like the Accord, the Camry offers a 60-40 split folding rear seat, though massive intrusions from the rear wheel wells constrain the size of the opening.
Overall, the Camry is a nice size for a small family and is a worthy alternative to one of those trendy crossovers. The 2018 XSE hasn’t reinvented the Camry, but it has transformed the car into a compelling choice among its midsize competitors. A few years ago, I would have advised buyers to avoid the “boring” Camry, unless they were just looking for the most reliable means of transport available. The Mazda 6 is still the better choice for buyers who enjoy driving as a hobby, the Ford Fusion Sport is still the more powerful option, and the Honda Accord is still a nice middle ground with outstanding resale and reliability.
The decision to buy the Camry XSE is going to come down to a personal preference on its new bold styling (compared to the more discrete Accord), and the increasingly rare option of a V6 engine. While other companies have thrown in the towel on V6 engines, Toyota has given its best effort to deliver a wonderful motor with smooth power delivery and stellar fuel economy. Turbo four-cylinders have their advantages, but when a V6 engine is this good, it’s hard to remember what those advantages are. The Camry hasn’t done enough to dethrone the Accord as my favorite all-rounder in the segment, but anyone looking to upgrade from an older Camry will be delighted with this massively improved new model.