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2018 Toyota Camry: Drives Like a Dream, Looks Like a Nightmare

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/25/2018 Dan Neil

a car parked on the side of a road© Toyota Owner loyalty: What is it and where does it come from? Every year tens of thousands of Americans go to dealerships and trade in their old cars for new ones of the same make and model, sometimes for the second, or third, or fifth time. This car-buying behavior dates back to 1950s-era expansion of the middle class and the doctrine of planned obsolescence.

Such fealty isn’t the market force it used to be. But they are still out there, these swallows of Capistrano, and they will be returning to Toyota dealerships in great murmurations this year for the redesigned Camry ($24,390-$35,845). The best-selling sedan in the land has enjoyed historically high owner retention rates—the most recent figure is 36%—but that’s down. Everyone wonders, will they roost again?

The U.S.-spec Camry is built in Kentucky on Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) and competes with other mid-size front-drive sedans such as Honda Accord (also reborn for 2018), VW Passat, Nissan Altima and Mazda6. Camry’s powertrain options include a 203-hp four-cylinder; a 301-hp V6; or a hybrid gas/electric combo (208-hp system net). The hybrid is the penny-pinchers’ special: 52 mpg average and $28,695 MSRP.

Our test car was the speedy one: the XSE powered by a 3.5-liter V6 and 8-speed automatic, which ran like a naturally aspirated sewing machine on 87 octane. The 3,572-pound sedan accelerates to 60 mph in a crisp, matter-of-fact 6 seconds, if so asked. That’s special. The TGNA Camry is also a bit lower and broader than before, on a slightly longer wheelbase. The added stance, combined with the XSE’s firmer suspension and the 235/40R19 Bridgestones, helped our test car access stick and stability well beyond the Camry’s usual adequacy. And yet even on the more aggressive tires, our tester fairly glided on interstate, with minimal tire noise seeping it into the cabin.

It’s a better Camry: rock solid, silky smooth, super safe (five-star crash ratings across the board), and surprisingly vivacious.

Alas, the price of loyalty is high. For example, a 2018 Honda Accord EX-L with navigation undercuts a comparably equipped Camry by about $4,000. Sheesh.

But given the trend lines, Camry’s real rival sits across the dealer lot: the RAV4. The compact crossover has nearly the same starting MSRP, with the same passenger volume (100 cubic feet or so), higher ground clearance and higher driver sight lines, optional all-wheel drive, and 38.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity, to the Camry’s 15.1. Except for the fuel economy (30 mpg for RAV4 to 41 mpg for Camry), why wouldn’t you switch?

Here we can make some deductions about Camry lifers. Obviously, they skew older, having lived long enough to own a series of cars. Second, they enjoy long-term stability, in finances and family, so that a single car style can fill their needs for many years.

Third, it seems fair to say, these men and women have an uneasy relationship with change. Historically, Camry’s product boffins have avoided big swings in tech and taste so as not lose its huge, risk-averse audience. Over time, however, that approach set the car on its path of spiraling beigeness.

No more. In the run-up to the new Camry, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda ordered his designers to be bold, to banish the boring. And they have tragically succeeded. Actually, the Camry team managed the rare double-header, drafting not one but two atrocious front clips, one for the S line and another for the L. Never mind traditionalists. The rest of us can’t get our heads around it either.

Typically I don’t bang on about exteriors because, first, styling is subjective; and second, it’s objective, in the sense that aerodynamics largely dictates the surface of things, especially on the nose of the car. Fun fact: The front of the Camry is so aero efficient that Nascar teams were able to use a version of its production XSE grille, not a decal, on the nose of its Nascar stockers.

But visually it’s a mess, a tangling of two grilles, actually: the webbed hourglass shape of the Lexus brand, above and over which is imposed Toyota’s recognizable spread-wing design, rendered in composite. It’s like the pharaohs wearing two crowns to signify the Upper and Lower Egypt. It looked naff on them too.

I’d also issue demerits for the vulgar hood shut-line and the faux air ducts in the lower bumper. And the mug they hung on the L-trim models is even worse—like the car has a mouthful of Venetian blinds.

It seems I have a couple bones to pick with the new Camry. For example: the product planners chose to retain the big 3.5-liter V6 in the powertrain mix. That committed the silhouette to a higher hood height than otherwise, which equates to a higher scuttle, the intersection of hood and windshield. Meanwhile, the new architecture lowered the H point (for “hip”) as well as the window sills. Together these features create a sense of having to look over Camry’s hood rather than across it.

Contrast that with the new Accord, in which the dash top slopes down and away, like the floor of a movie theater. As in all shared-architecture car designs, the scuttle area is where the dreams of designers meet the reality of platform engineering.

I actually like the Camry interior, especially the way the dash contours together on the diagonal, overlapping like the lapels of a double-breasted blazer. Front and center is a black-glass panel, about the size of home plate, which hosts the app-driven touchscreen interface controlling navigation functions (if so equipped), entertainment, and connectivity functions. The system even allows owners to start their cars remotely using a smartphone app. But, weirdly, it doesn’t include Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

Loyalty to an automobile is a kooky, irrational impulse, a debt of gratitude paid to an object that doesn’t know and cannot feel. But it’s real and it’s powerful. Grille or no grille (no grille!), I predict the Camry faithful will keep the faith.

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