Attention bargain shoppers: Just in time for the holiday shopping season, here comes the 2012 Toyota Camry SE, a midsize sedan that offers an attractive list of features, but leaves no penny unpinched when it comes to look, feel and sound.
The Camry offers excellent fuel economy and a new voice-recognition system that's among the best on the road.
Aside from those features, Toyota had modest ambitions for the seventh generation of the midsize sedan that's become the default choice for many buyers. The car's platform and powertrain choices are largely unchanged, though they offer more of most everything the casual shopper wants: fuel economy, features and room.
The interior is unimpressive, however. The materials look and feel very basic and the gaps between pieces of trim are uneven. Wind and road noise are very noticeable.
The new Camry is a bit of a throwback, despite offering advanced voice-recognition and connectivity systems.
The new Camry's basic interior recalls the days before Toyota became a benchmark for solidity, fit and finish.
The midsize sedan's fuel economy, passenger space and trunk size all rank at or near the top among midsize sedans, however.
Prices for the 2012 Camry start at $21,995 for a base model with a six-speed automatic transmission and 178-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine.
A 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is available in models starting at $26,640. A hybrid model gets a total of 200 horsepower from its 2.5-liter engine and electric motor. The hybrid has a continuously variable transmission and starts at $25,900.
I tested a nicely equipped Camry SE with the four-cylinder engine and options including JBL speakers, navigation and Toyota's new Entune system for voice-recognition and some Web services. It stickered at $26,600. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Camry competes with midsize sedans like the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.
The Camry will be challenged early and often in 2012, when new versions of the Accord, Altima, Fusion and Malibu go on sale.
For now, at least, the four-cylinder Camry matches the Sonata for class-leading fuel economy. The EPA rates it at 25 mpg in the city, 35 on the highway, 28 in combined driving.
The SE's drivetrain provides good acceleration. The ride is soft. It absorbs bumps smoothly, but leans noticeably in fast curves.
The passenger compartment provides plenty of head and legroom. The trunk is large, with a wide opening for easy loading. The trunk liner is flimsy and lacks an inner handle. The lack of padding contributes to a tinny sound when you close the trunk.
That lack of sound insulation carries over to the passenger compartment. Wind and road noise are very noticeable on the highway.
That bargain-shopper feel recurs throughout the interior. The dashboard, doors and center stack are covered in hard plastic. The gaps between some of the trim pieces are uneven, which was unheard of in Toyotas at the brand's peak.
The Camry's styling is somewhat reminiscent of the Toyota Corolla compact, with tall, relatively flat sides, a big greenhouse and a short hood and deck.
The 2012 Camry is the first vehicle with Toyota's new Entune system, which offers Internet connectivity and voice recognition for phones, navigation and more. The voice-recognition system is outstanding. It batted a thousand understanding names and complicated addresses.
I had less success evaluating Entune's Internet connectivity. Toyota wouldn't provide an app to test Entune with my own phone. I was stuck with a very glitchy Motorola Droid with Verizon service, provided by Toyota.
The phone's ability to connect to the car was inconsistent, and the connection was frequently interrupted when I tried to use Entune to listen to Pandora Internet radio. The voice recognition for phones, navigation and the audio system gets an A-plus; Entune's promise of Internet connectivity for audio and other services still has to prove itself.
The 2012 Camry provides lots of features at an appealing price. It lacks the driving dynamics and interior fit and finish of the best midsize sedans. The new Camry could have its hands full as new versions of key competitors hit the road over the next few months.
2012 CAMRY SE:
-Base price: $21,995 (excluding destination charge)
-Price as tested: $26,600
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