Thursday, December 18, 2014

Full Test: Buick Encore

Photo courtesy of Buick.

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Blog Contributing Editor

When Buick introduced the Encore for the 2013 model year, I had my doubts. In the North American market, it doesn’t really compete with anything. It is virtually identical to the European Opel Mokka, which is not an expensive coffee drink, but rather a subcompact CUV. Built in South Korea, the Encore shows the global product reach of General Motors today.

With one full year of Encore sales in the books, the little Buick has shattered sales expectations. Over 30,000 units found homes in the U.S., where analysts predicted sales in the 14-18,000 range. What’s so appealing about the Encore? In an extended test drive, we tried to find out.

Among other vehicles on sale in the U.S., the Encore’s size is probably closest to the MINI Cooper Countryman. The MINI is dimensionally quite similar other than being about 7 inches shorter in length and a couple inches lower. The two vehicles are also very similar in weight.

The similarities pretty much end there. The Encore is not offered with the high degree of customization that comes with the MINI, but it holds the line much closer on price, too. Starting around $24,000 and maxing out near $32,000, the base Encore is undercut in price by the base Countryman ($22,000), but the Countryman maxes out north of $44,000 with the John Cooper Works package.

The Encore is a small vehicle that drives big. Other than the powertrain, it’s easy to forget the Encore’s tidy exterior once you start driving. It feels more like a midsize vehicle behind the wheel. Contributing factors to this include the comfortable ride, higher seating position and reasonably well-muted wind and road noise.

The Buick’s 6-speed automatic is coupled to GM’s 1.4L turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder, (same engine as the Cruze) putting out 140hp and 148lb-ft of torque, with peak torque available at 1850rpm. This flat torque curves makes the engine feel larger than its size in around-town and low-effort driving. It’s only when you wring it out, that it feels like a tiny 4-cylinder—flooring the Encore brings more noise, but not much more power. This is largely unnecessary unless you’re passing someone on the freeway or a two lane road. In those scenarios, the reserve power isn’t there, but you really shouldn’t expect it. The automatic works unobtrusively, and is rarely caught in the wrong gear. Because of the sufficient low-end torque, there is rarely a lugging sensation while accelerating.

Handling is competent. While there is a fair bit of body roll, the Encore doesn’t pitch and buck like some softly-sprung vehicles do under braking or through a sweeping corner. The 18-inch alloys are wrapped in 215-55-R18 Continental ContiProContact tires, which balance ride quality with handling competently. While I don’t see why such a small vehicle needs 18-inch wheels, as a smaller diameter wheel with a taller sidewall tire would be beneficial for both the ride and fuel economy (reduced weight), two important factors for the car as a Buick and as an economy crossover, the larger wheels are in vogue and they don’t noticeably detract from the driving experience.

The interior is a pretty nice place to spend time. The seats in our test were cloth with vinyl trim along the bolster. They have reasonable support, though the seatbacks are a bit flat. The dash and door materials are mostly soft touch, which lend a feeling of quality. The backseat is reasonably comfortable given the small size of the Encore. I didn’t love the layout of the center stack. There are really too many buttons all grouped together rather than nicely organized into functional sections. Over time, I learned how to use it, but it trails systems like Chrysler’s Uconnect or Toyota’s newer Entune system (in the 4Runner, as we previously reviewed, not the Camry) for usability. The climate controls, however, were extremely clear and easy to use. Two knobs, directional vent buttons, A/C, and defrost. I did like the blue-green backlighting that outlined the stack and visually divided the convenient two-level glove box.

My only other issue was with the steering wheel controls. The ‘SRC’/<> button, short for “source,” functions differently than most other cars. In the Buick, it seems that it will only switch between preset radio stations—not seek through either the radio dial or the full list of XM stations as most do. The ‘SRC’ part of the button changes the band or toggles to the auxiliary device, functioning as expected. On older GM cars, the ‘Mode’ button did the same thing. The Bluetooth and cruise control are both easy to use, with good sound clarity for phone calls.

Over several weeks, the Encore averaged about 30mpg. Gas mileage in mixed suburban use seemed better than on the freeway. On an extended interstate drive, driving 75-80mph, it dropped into the mid 20s. It’s worth noting that I was driving into a headwind for most of the drive. The headwind also showed the Buick’s tendency to dance around a bit at highway speeds. I had to pay closer attention and make little steering corrections frequently. This can likely be attributed to the Encore’s higher profile combined with its relatively light curb weight. On the return trip, in UpShift’s long-term GMC Acadia (more on that later), I immediately noticed how much less effort it took to keep the car pointed straight down the road.

The Encore has been a pleasant surprise for many in the industry, including Buick itself. The efficient interior packaging, competitive fuel economy, and low entry-price are certainly factors that have contributed to this success.

Monday, October 13, 2014

First Drive--2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude 4X4

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor
Jeep’s new Cherokee represents a rethinking of the SUV concept from the brand that practically invented the segment during World War II. It is a drastic departure from the Cherokee of old—no longer slab-sided and boxy, but sleek and aerodynamic. No longer old-school, but instead giving the option of three different 4-wheel-drive systems. Last week, I had the opportunity to drive a Cherokee Latitude 4x4, with the 2.4L “Tigershark” inline-4 and Chrysler’s industry first 9-speed automatic. Let’s take a closer look.

            The design of the new Cherokee has been the subject of much debate, acclaimed by some and scorned by a number of hardcore Jeep purists. Frankly, a “square Cherokee” would just be competing with the (square) Wrangler Unlimited (the 4-door model) for sales in the current Jeep lineup. The 4-door Wrangler was never offered during the rather long production run for the previous Cherokee, 1984-2001. Jeep wanted to compete within the high-volume small and mid-size crossover segment—and based on sales through the first model year, they’ve done quite well. This is an area where the Liberty, which the Cherokee replaced, never excelled. To the mainstream customer, the new Cherokee represents a compelling alternative to a sea of silver Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV-4s.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

2014 New York International Auto Show Recap

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

While the buzz that surrounded the Detroit Auto Show this year was toned down a bit for New York, the Big Apple was still home to some important product introductions. Here are some of our takeaways and thoughts on the show.

Thumbs up:
Jeep Renegade

Photos by Matt Kalish, except where noted.
The ‘baby Jeep’ made its U.S. debut at the New York Auto Show. For those familiar with the auto show circuit, the world premier was at Geneva in March. The Renegade is a truly international Jeep: it was designed in Detroit by Chrysler’s Jeep division, and will be built in Italy. Due to the global sales aspirations for the product, it will be offered in several powertrain configurations. In the U.S., we will see the 1.4L turbocharged inline 4, offered with a 6 speed manual or segment-first 9 speed automatic, shared with the larger Jeep Cherokee and the Chrysler 200. The larger, naturally aspirated 2.4L inline 4 will also be available with 2wd or 4wd. In Europe, diesel engines will be available. It will also be offered with a “Trail Rated” option, known as the Trailhawk.

In all configurations, the Renegade is reported to achieve more than 30mpg highway. Jeep is hoping that it will appeal to audiences worldwide and expand the reach of the Jeep brand, due to its compact size, and since it will be offered at a more affordable entry price than vehicles like the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. It certainly looks the part, with iconic circular headlights, an upright profile, and well-designed interior, which includes touches such as a “mud-graphic” redline in the tachometer, and center stack vents that resemble the profile of ski goggles.

Alfa Romeo 4C
The 4C marks the long-awaited and triumphant return of Alfa Romeo to the North American stage, a market that was abandoned by Alfa in 1995 (with the exception of the expensive, limited-production 8C sports car). While the Giulietta and MiTo hatchbacks have been on sale in Europe for the last few years, Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne waited until the 4C was ready to re-introduce the brand to the U.S. I think it was worth the wait—the 4C is stunning in-person and from what I’ve read and seen, is quite the driver’s car.

The 4C will come with a 1.75L turbocharged 4-cylinder putting out 240hp and 258lb-ft of torque. That sounds only decent until you realize that the curb weight is a hair under 2,200lbs. For frame of reference, the lightest Ford Fiesta on sale in the U.S. weighs 2537lbs. This means the 4C has a better power-to-weight ratio than the Porsche Cayman S. The claimed 0-60mph time of the 4C is 4.5 seconds—this Alfa will have serious performance to back up its looks. It should hit Maserati dealers (the chosen distribution network) sometime this quarter.

The entire Mazda display
Leave it to Mazda to bring a superb and outside-the-box setup to New York. Not only did their classy black exhibit space feature their current and constantly improving production car lineup, they decided to bring a collection of Miata-based concept cars to celebrate 25 years of the MX-5 Miata. They also chose to showcase the chassis—yes the chassis, not the whole car—of the next-generation Miata, which will be shared with an Alfa Romeo roadster.

With regards to their production lineup, Mazda has figured out that fuel economy is really important to today’s car buyers, and they’ve responded with some of the most efficient vehicles in their respective segments, such as the hot-selling CX-5 that I see everywhere, and the new-for-2014 Mazda6. Hopefully the new Mazda3 will pick up its slow sales out of the gate as well—critics have raved about it, but the public hasn’t quite caught on yet. I give Mazda a lot of credit—they don’t have the big R&D budgets of larger automakers, yet they are putting out some truly eye-catching products with impressive engineering behind them.

Chevy Cruze
The Cruze is not a bad car. In fact, I have three friends who have purchased Cruzes, and all are very happy with them—a testament to the fact that General Motors now takes the segment seriously. Another friend, who is never impressed with GM, rented one and really liked it—this says a lot.

Photo courtesy Chevrolet
The problem here is the 2015 ‘restyling.’ The car looks nearly identical to the 2014 model, which had nothing really wrong at all. The grille/fascia gets some mild tweaks, and a couple new features show up on the interior, such as infotainment updates and a couple additional USB ports. That’s it, as far as I could tell. The Cruze is a solid compact car. With a new model coming in a year or two, I’m not sure why Chevy spent money on the refresh.

Missed opportunities:

Dodge Charger
Photo courtesy Dodge
I was really disappointed when I saw the refreshed 2015 Dodge Charger. I’m a big fan of the 2011 heavy refresh/redesign of the LX-platform Charger, which originally debuted for 2006. The 2011-2014 model is the perfect blend of classic muscle car appearance with modern touches, like menacing-looking projector HID headlights, sculpted side profile, and the ‘racetrack’ LED taillights that can be spotted from half a mile away. The 2015 model gets a less-aggressive looking front fascia/headlight treatment and a softened ‘racetrack’ pattern at the back, more closely resembling that of the Dart. Furthermore, a manual transmission is still nowhere to be found on the Charger’s option sheet—not even on the R/T or SRT models.

To add insult to injury, it was just announced that the 2015 Chevy SS—a direct crosstown competitor from the Bowtie gang, will have a 6-speed manual available, as well as GM’s physics-cheating Magnetic Ride Control. MRC was an option previously restricted to high-spec Cadillacs, the Corvette, and Denali-trimmed SUVS. It’s not like the manual gearbox isn’t in the Chrysler parts bin—the Challenger offers a 6-speed option. While it doesn’t make much sense to offer a manual on the Charger’s corporate cousin, the more luxury-oriented Chrysler 300, it’s baffling to see why the Dodge continues to be automatic only, since it’s positioned as the sportier offering.

Infiniti’s naming scheme
This is not breaking news, but the issue really manifested itself as I walked around the Infiniti display in New York. “What’s this called now?” I found myself saying aloud to our photographer, Matt Kalish, as I climbed into one of their crossover SUVS.

There’s no getting around this—it’s a disaster. I try to pride myself on keeping up with nomenclature across the industry (I can name all the Lincolns), even as alphanumeric badging is getting worse, not better. An initiative spearheaded by new boss Johan de Nysschen, all Infiniti offerings will begin with “Q” for sedans and “QX” for SUVS. This is meant as an homage to the vehicle that launched Infiniti in 1989—the Q45 luxury sedan (45 stood for 4.5L V8…at the time). It seems logical enough from that standpoint—many manufacturers use “X” in some capacity to designate 4-wheel-drive, an SUV, or a CUV.

The problem is two-fold: one, in the numbers that follow the Q and QX, and two, the fact that current models are just getting the badge changes mid-production cycle—the worst possible way to destroy brand and model recognition. The FX35 and FX45, offered with 3.5L and 4.5L engines, respectively? They become the QX70 (I had to look this up). If size designated the '70,' akin to the way other luxury brands use numbers (BMW 3, 5, and 7-series; Audi A4, A6, and A8), this would make sense. But the QX70 is smaller than the QX60, which is based off the Nissan Pathfinder. 
Photo courtesy Infiniti
Even Infiniti’s bread-and-butter, formerly known as the G25/35/37, depending on engine size, gets roped into the circus. This is by far their most important car, and really put them on the map in the U.S. market. The all-new model is called the Q50, though it does not have a 5.0L V8 like the name might suggest. Instead, it has the 3.7L V6, which used to be the G37.

But wait, there's more. The old G37 sedan--which for the record, I really like--is being offered at a discount alongside the Q50, but they changed the name to Q40. The G37 coupe/convertible will be called the Q60.
This is a risky way to destroy brand equity and model recognition. We’ll see how sales respond to the confusing changes.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Full Test: 2014 Toyota 4Runner 4x4 Trail: It sure feels good to drive a truck again

All pictures by Ben Aghajanian

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

When Toyota’s 4Runner was redesigned for 2010, I wasn’t initially a huge fan. I loved the styling of the outgoing model, and viewed the new version as a less attractive evolution of the 4Runner DNA. While the basic silhouette was retained, the design details were not as appealing. The projector headlights were gone. The LED taillights were gone. The truck just didn’t look as sharp or desirable as before.

Some updates for 2014
Toyota made some changes for the 2014 model year. The projector headlights are back, and they work really well. I didn’t need the high beams at all in the week that I had the truck, which is very telling. It has a restyled front fascia. When I first saw it in pictures, I didn’t like it that much. However, I grew to like the look of our tester as the week went on. The magnetic gray metallic paint is definitely one of the best colors available. Semicircle cut lines flank the fog lights. The headlights have a menacing slant to them. The styling is certainly not to everyone’s taste, though. As I went through the carwash, one of the attendants asked what year it was. I told him, and he said “from further away, it looked like you had crushed the bumper” or something to that effect. Personally, I like the look because it stands out from the sea of me-too SUV styling and looks aggressive and sporty.

I spent this past week driving a 2014 Toyota 4Runner 4x4 Trail. The Trail spec comes equipped with off-road hardware such as a real, mechanical transfer case, complete with a good old fashioned lever to the right of the shifter. It also has skid plates, tall 265/70R17 tires, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension Setting (KDSS), crawl control, hill-start assist, a locking rear differential, and a multi-terrain selector. Got all that? Good.

The joys of body-on-frame construction
I love body-on-frame trucks.  When I got on the freeway for the first time in the 4Runner, I immediately called our managing editor, Nick Fala, and said “I just want you to know I’m driving a body-on-frame rig for the first time in a while, and it feels TERRIFIC.” There is a solidness to the structure of the vehicle that, in my mind, cannot be matched by many crossovers. As I set the cruise near 70mph, the 4Runner was very quiet, smooth, and composed over our less than stellar roads. The engine turned at a comfortable 2,000rpm. As I sped up to 75, it felt as though I was driving perhaps 60. This was the perfect vehicle for a long weekend road trip. Our destination was Boyne Mountain, in Northern Michigan, over 200 miles north of Detroit. 

Interior exceeds expectations
Once you hoist yourself into the cockpit (it sits up significantly higher than some other SUVS), the cabin is a very comfortable place to spend time. The driving position is excellent. From the driver’s seat, outward visibility is very good. The upright windshield, squared-off hood, and moderately-sized A-pillars contribute to this. Furthermore, the rear passenger windows and tailgate glass are also generously sized, which is fortunate given how high this rig sits. The cabin also boasts soft touch materials in the areas where it actually matters: the center console, atop the doors, and the armrests. While the dash is made of a more rigid material, you aren’t resting your arms on it, so that doesn’t really matter. The seats were pretty comfortable over a few hours of driving. I’d rate them an 8/10—very good, not quite to Volvo level. I wished for a tad more lower thigh support. Anyone with long legs knows what I’m talking about.

The interior functionality, fit, and finish are also very good. The 4Runner’s infotainment system worked much better than the Camry’s that I drove recently—also a 2014 model. In the Camry, my phone would not pair with the system. I tried several different methods. In the 4Runner, it synced right away, and my contacts and call log were downloaded within minutes. Bluetooth call quality was good, as was Pandora streaming audio quality. XM radio was a much appreciated plus during our long drive north. The stereo sounds good for a stock unit, with 8 speakers and decent power. 

Impressive passenger/cargo room and convenience features

Many people will tell you that body-on-frame trucks have cramped, uncomfortable interiors compared to their unibody, or monocoque chassis counterparts. The 4Runner seems to buck this trend/trait. Not only are the front seats comfortable and the front footwells roomy, the back seats are comfortable as well, have decent legroom, and the cargo area is quite generous. The second row seat has a 40/20/40 split, which allows long items (like skis and snowboards) to be hauled while still preserving room for 4 people. Each door has pockets in it that can hold maps or water bottles. In addition to two cupholders, the center console has several cubbies that are perfect for wallets, cell phones, cameras, or toll booth change. At least, that’s how we used them. All this, in spite of the fact that a traditional automatic shifter lever and a transfer case take up a decent amount of room. The one ergonomic oddity that I found? The window switches are all placed on top of the door sill—on each door, and the door handles are in front of the grab handle, which can make opening or closing the door awkward. Our favorite feature was one that’s a bit out-of-season: the power-sliding tailgate glass. It’s terrific for warm summer days.

On the road
Even though the 4Runner sits up high, it handles quite decently. One of my passengers described it as “nimble.” Highway onramps and offramps were dispatched with poise and surefootedness. It’s a bit of a bear to park in a tight lot, mostly due to the ride height, but the tight turning circle and quick steering ratio helps with this, as does the backup camera.

The more I drove the 4Runner, I wondered to myself “Why don’t I see more of these on the road?” I have a couple theories.

The first is advertising. When was the last time you saw a 4Runner ad, print or TV commercial? Exactly. Jeep markets the heck out of the Grand Cherokee. Their robust sales reflect this (174,275 in the U.S. last year versus 51,625 for the 4Runner).

For the second reason, let’s talk about the powertrain. The 4Runner has one engine for 2014: Toyota’s 4.0L V6, a “real truck motor” (more on that later). A DOHC design boasting dual variable valve timing with intelligence, it pumps out 270hp, and more importantly, 278lb-ft of torque. Under the vast majority of driving conditions, it has more than enough power. I rarely needed to rev it past 3,000rpm. It’s coupled to a 5 speed automatic. I have a feeling that this transmission has a little bit to do with the fuel economy we got during our week with the truck.

Gas mileage
In suburban commuting, I was getting around 15mpg with a light foot. The “eco” light on the IP was lit almost all the time. As I headed from Cleveland to Michigan on the Ohio Turnpike, a road where traffic moves from 74-79mph typically, I was averaging about 16mpg. On the way home, I slowed it down a bit, driving 70-74. I averaged 19.7mpg between Detroit and Cleveland, a significant improvement. I barely crested 20mpg during one slower stretch through construction. Yikes, for a vehicle rated at 21mpg highway. All of these measurements were taken in 2wd mode. 

I was really surprised to learn that the 4Runner has not been upgraded to a transmission with more ratios. While some 7 or 8 speeds are clumsy, I think one more gear would be perfect for this truck. When you cruise at over 2,300rpm, gas mileage falls off quickly. Perhaps there is some valve timing or cam phasing that changes at roughly this engine speed. All that being said, the transmission shifts smoothly and is rarely caught in the wrong gear. 

A serious competitor
The 4Runner vastly exceeded our expectations. It felt both rugged and refined behind the wheel, and was quite comfortable over hundreds of miles of driving. The Bridgestone Dueler tires, working alongside the well-tuned suspension were unphased by some pretty beat-up roads. It really seems like a serious competitor to vehicles like the Grand Cherokee, and also stacks up well against more family-oriented vehicles such as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Nissan Pathfinder. The one major drawback is fuel economy. Although Upshift has not officially tested the aforementioned vehicles under similar driving conditions, each are rated a couple miles per gallon better on the highway. However, most of these vehicles have low-hanging, wind-cheating front air dams, lack low-range gearing, and don’t have off-road hardware (the Jeep and Dodge Durango are the exceptions). Given all of the equipment the 4Runner offers, the $41,825 sticker on our tester seems like a good value. It all depends what you’re looking for.

UpShift would like to thank Toyota for providing the 4Runner, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

1987 Volvo 240-The Ski Trip

Photo courtesy Volvo Car Group Global Newsroom

These cars hold legendary places in the hearts of gearheads and non-gearheads, alike. I won’t belabor the “every professor and/or college student drove one at some point” shtick, but this is in fact the presented scenario.

One of the advantages that Volvos seem to offer is that they are made of some type of ballistic, rustproof steel. This is probably one of the reasons you still see 25-year-old 240s and 740s running around the northeastern United States, bodies fully intact, whereas other cars from the era would have long since rusted away.

One of my good friends owns one of these 240s, a blue 1987 sedan with the bulletproof ‘red block’ inline four and an automatic transmission that appears to have gears, because it shifts once in a while. We drove it to Gore Mountain in the Adirondacks last weekend, home to arguably some of the most rugged terrain east of the Mississippi.

A significant plus of older automotive design is that cars were square. This is especially true of Volvos. Consequently, 4 of us were able to squeeze ourselves into the cabin, and three sets of skis and a snowboard in the trunk. Remember, trunks used to actually have room for stuff, before the gunslit trunk opening became a trend.

This particular 240 is a bit of a time capsule, as it only has about 165,000 miles on it. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect by any means, as the interior is suffering from the typical-for-Volvos-from-this-era deterioration. Only one speaker works. The driver’s seat is a little crooked. And, I’m pretty sure it needs an alignment, or new tie rod ends, or both.

However, none of these things really matter that much. This thing is SOLID. Driving it feels like piloting a Cold War-era tank. The steering is rather loose, which means on roads such as twisting New York State Route 8, I had to pay very close attention to where the lines were. Also, effort was lighter than I expected, probably due to the play on-center, which furthers the illusion that you are, actually, driving a tank.
The red block engines are known for their longevity, not their power output. It would be more accurate to say that this car gathers momentum, rather than accelerates. Despite this characterization, it did an admirable job of powering us up into the mountains. In other words, there is enough torque. I had no clue what the RPMs were, as there is no tachometer. On the Volvo, it doesn’t really matter.

 Upshift would like to thank Jake Cline for providing the vehicle for this special feature.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Toyota Camry SE

 By Ben Aghajanian, Upshift Contributing Editor
One of the most popular vehicles on the road in America today, the venerable Camry was restyled for the 2012 model year. Toyota, in some regards, has struggled as of late, with serious recalls, questions about safety, and the resurgence in competitiveness of the Big Three. How does the latest Camry stack up?

The SE is Camry’s “sporty” model, available in both 4-cylinder and V6 trim. The model I drove was equipped with the 2.5-liter inline 4, putting out 178hp and 170lb-ft of torque, coupled to a 6 speed automatic with paddle shifters and a manu-matic gate on the shifter. The engine actually seems much more powerful than the specs suggest. It feels downright quick around town, with much of the torque available below 3,000rpm. It almost feels livelier driving with a light foot than my 240hp, 3.0-liter V6 Honda Accord, in which much of the power arrives above 3,000 rpm. That being said, punch both cars to the floor, and it’s clear that the Camry is tuned for everyday driving whereas the Accord is much faster at full throttle.

The 6-speed auto works relatively unobtrusively unless pushed. In automatic mode, it’s smooth and unobtrusive. Upshifts happen quickly unless you really put your foot into the throttle. When using the paddles, shifts don’t seem to be much quicker, if at all, but they are definitely jerkier. Still, it’s nice to have the option of manual override for the sake of engine braking and control.

The Camry’s interior is a mixed bag. On the positive, it has plenty of room, even for a 6’3” driver. I had no problem adjusting the seat to an agreeable position without bumping my knees into the dash and with plenty of telescoping travel from the steering wheel. I found the seat to be relatively comfortable over 15-20 minutes of driving. Another person commuted across town several times in the Camry, and thought that it wasn’t so comfortable. Your mileage may vary. On the other hand, some of the materials chosen are not so good. The front door trim underneath the handles was a very coarse-feeling, hard, black plastic. The armrest and trim toward the rear of the doors was slightly better and softer, thankfully, as a touch point. The rear doors were worse, as the whole door was covered in the harder material. The dash also featured some of the same hard, rough black plastic in certain areas. The stitching line across the top of the dash served as a nice dash of style and felt better to the touch. Additionally, the switchgear felt pretty good overall, with positive tactile feedback.
The backseat and the trunk also have lots of room. There’s plenty of cushion height, so your knees aren’t up off the seat, and the floor is nearly flat across the middle seating position. The seat has a 60/40 split fold to increase storage space from the trunk for large or bulky items.

The radio and infotainment system is both good and bad. Sound quality for the stereo was quite good overall, with strong, rich bass and clear, crisp notes. I was surprised to find that the car was unequipped with a backup camera. Visibility is quite good from all angles, so it doesn’t require one, however with the color touchscreen in the dashboard, it seemed as though it was equipped for it. The radio is controlled with a combination of buttons and on-screen controls, most of which were easy to use. I’d prefer a dedicated button to switch radio bands between AM/FM/CD/AUX/etc. rather than using the touchscreen, if I were to make one design change.

I could not, however, get the Bluetooth to work properly. I synced my phone via Bluetooth without much hassle, but Pandora would not play through the Camry’s speakers, even though both my phone and the screen said that Bluetooth audio was connected. I have not had this problem in other vehicles that I’ve driven with Bluetooth audio connectivity.

I’m not a huge fan of the Camry’s styling overall, as the side profile and rear end are rather plain, but I do like the front end on the SE models. It removes all of the brightwork for a monochromatic fascia, which looks both more tasteful and more aggressive.  The projector-style headlights illuminated the road well.

The Camry is class-competitive, but it’s no longer the industry benchmark that it was 20 or 15 years ago. I can personally vouch for this, having had a 1994 Camry in our garage for almost 10 years—a superbly reliable car, with a comfortable interior, premium materials, and sturdy construction. The recently redesigned Honda Accord, Mazda6, and Ford Fusion are all formidable competitors that might be better choices depending on personal needs. As a commuter car, the Camry is still a good choice.

Photos courtesy Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.