Toyota’s Camry has been the country’s best-selling midsize sedan for so long that no one but Toyota bothers to keep track any longer.
Year after year, it has served the needs of the American mainstream.
This year, though, Toyota challenges its own status quo. The fully made-over 2018 Camry ($23,645) is dramatically more engaging — in both appearance and performance — than any Camry before it.
It’s a risky proposition for Toyota; too much change risks alienating loyal consumers. But Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda is steering the company in a more expressive, more emotional direction.
Lower, wider and more assertive
The new Camry is roughly the same size as before but has a lower profile and a wider track. This more aggressive stance is underscored by an eye-grabbing new grille, an array of bold creases and character lines and a flowing, elongated roofline.
For some, the new look may be a step too far, though sales results have been positive. Reportedly, waiting lists exist for the black-roofed, two-tone XSE which, with its mesh grille, huge air intakes and sculpted rocker panels, is the boldest of the five Camry trims.
A new base engine, a 203-horsepower four, is standard across the board, while the two top trims — XSE ($29,150) and XLE ($28,600) — qualify for one of the segment’s few remaining sixes. The carryover 3.5-liter V-6 makes 301 hp, 33 more than last year’s iteration.
Both engines pair up with an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Equipped with the four, Camry runs the 0-60 sprint in 7.9 seconds; the six trims that to a rapid 5.8 seconds.
A lightweight new platform drives wholesale changes in Camry’s dynamics. Its wheelbase grows longer, its center of gravity comes down and its suspension is revised to better handle cornering forces.
Toyota sorts Camry’s trims into parallel tracks. The L, LE and XLE have a traditional appeal, while the SE and XSE follow a more aggressive course. With their sport-tuned suspensions, 18-inch wheels and tires and revised steering calibrations, they are the most enthusiast-friendly Camrys in the model’s history.
The base L is the family loss-leader. Its standard equipment list includes keyless entry, automatic LED headlights, a rearview camera, a 7-inch touchscreen interface, Bluetooth connectivity, a single USB port and a six-speaker sound system. It runs 16-inch steel wheels.
Still, even the L is equipped with the Toyota Safety Sense driver-assist suite, which includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and mitigation and auto-dimming LED headlights.
The lane-departure feature is too sensitive and can’t be turned off. The adaptive cruise system is hyper-vigilant, as well, and tends to overreact when it detects slower traffic ahead.
Comfort, ride quality persist
Camry’s playful new persona does not do harm to ride quality. Its firmed-up suspension settings dial out body lean and other unwanted motions, but our XSE tester absorbed broken road surfaces without fuss.
Corner turn-in is crisp and accurate, though the steering system provides scant driver feedback. With an extra 200 pounds up front, six-cylinder trims are more nose-heavy and prone to understeer than four-cylinder models.
The transmission responds slowly to initial throttle input before engaging with a disconcerting surge. It’s especially finicky when the driver has selected the aggressive Sport driving mode and “S” transmission setting.
The Camry cabin is airy and open. The XSE and XLE feature abundant soft-touch materials and near-luxury materials quality. Lower trims are decidedly less luxurious.
Entune infotainment is Achilles heel
Seats are broad and comfortable, though not as deeply bolstered as one might expect of a car with performance aspirations. There are no gains in rear-seat legroom or headroom this year, though 6-footers will be content with their accommodations.
Toyota’s Entune infotainment interface is the Camry’s Achilles heel. Smartphone integration includes neither Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and the majority of Entune’s apps require the phone to be plugged in and Bluetooth operative. Only the XSE and XLE include native navigation, forcing other owners to rely on a smartphone app many find insufficient.
Regardless, the new Camry represents a new boldness at Toyota. Akio Toyoda appears well o his way toward reshaping one of our most familiar brands.
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2018 Toyota Camry XSE V-6
Vehicle base price: $
Trim level base price: $34,950
As tested: $38,230 (includes destination and handling)
Options included driver-assist package; birds-eye-view camera; Entune 3.0 premium audio with navigation and app suite; Rusty Flare Pearl paint.
EPA rating: 26 combined/22 city/32 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified