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.