Silvio Calabi: Toyota’s Camry is still boring — in the good way
“Driven anything really great lately?” I get that a lot, along with, “What do you recommend?” I used to respond with, “Well, what sort of driving do you do?” “How much do you want to spend?” and all that. But mostly the answers led to the same place, and now I just say, “Get a Honda or a Toyota.” (If this doesn’t do, then off we go to Korea, Detroit or Europe, not necessarily in that order.) Here in the Frozen North, Honda or Toyota means a CR-V or a RAV4, a Ridgeline or a Tacoma. But if they say, “No, I mean a car,” then the go-to is an Accord or this, the Camry — the best-selling car in America for the past 14 years. So says Toyota, and who’d doubt it? Like 1.5-percent milk and sliced bread, Camrys are everywhere, and fulfilling pretty much the same basic-necessities-of-life function.
Our 2017 is the eighth edition of the Camry, a family model that arrived in 1982. Since then, like all successful cars, the Camry has gotten larger, growing from a clever compact to a comfortable midsize vehicle, always with four doors and front-wheel drive. Also like many successful imports, the Camry has become a naturalized US citizen: Designed in California, engineered in Michigan and assembled in Kentucky, of bits and bobs nearly all made in the U.S. (Toyota employs about 30,000 people in this country, not including dealerships.) And of course Toyota began to compete in NASCAR with Camry-look racecars in 2007. It doesn’t get any more American than that.
Now imagine the pressure of creating a car that has to stay atop the sales charts every year (or the consequences of failing to do this). That’s like a pitcher never giving up a game. Indeed, the Camry’s three available drivetrains and four trim levels together are like a mix of fastballs and one sneaky curve, all aimed precisely over the plate. The curveball is the gas-electric hybrid Camry — virtually a must for Toyota, given its Prius chops and green reputation — but we’re driving one of the fastballs: A Camry XSE with the 178-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, a six-speed automatic transmission and an overall fuel-economy rating of 27 MPG. Our sample also has $2,800 worth of add-ons and a sticker price of $29,958, delivery included. The average new car sold here today has four doors and an automatic transmission, costs $34,000 and has an MPG rating of 24.9. See what I mean about a mainstream pitch? The most popular Camry this year happens to be the four-cylinder, $25,000 SE, which presently makes up 40 percent of the car’s sales.
The options on our dressier XSE include blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert, pushbutton ignition, a Homelink emergency transmitter and a power tilt/slide moonroof. Exciting? No. Useful? Sure. In truth, even the Camry’s biggest upgrade, the 268HP V-6 engine, isn’t really exciting. To be blunt, Camrys are . . . boring. Mostly in a good way, to be sure — as in reliable, inoffensive, trustworthy and long-lasting. The sort of boring you want a son-in-law to be. I have a weekend car in the garage, buffed and serviced to a high gloss and slumbering under a soft, fitted cover till spring. It’s the very opposite of boring, but every time I slide into it I hold my breath till it starts. I could stand some of that Toyota kind of boredom.
“Camry” is an English spelling of the Japanese word kanmuri, or crown. This follows Toyota’s predilection for regal headgear, from the Corolla and Corona to the Atara (Hebrew for crown and sold in Australia) and Tiara. But, as Will Shakespeare noted, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” — for someone’s always trying to knock it off. Toyota will preview an all-new 2018 Camry at the Detroit Auto Show next month, to gauge our reaction and possibly make a few final tweaks before the car goes on sale next fall in pursuit of a 15th record year. Until then, go dicker for a 2017. You may be a little bored, in that mostly good way, but you won’t be disappointed in the important things.
— Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.
— Grown-up space & comfort
— High resale values
— High safety scores