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2012 Camry: Sharper angles, but nothing edgy in this update

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Say you wake up tomorrow and decide you want to learn to play tennis. Maybe you like Serena Williams' method of anger management, or perhaps it's Novak Djokovic's backhand you're after.


FOR THE RECORD:
Toyota Camry: A review of the 2012 Toyota Camry in the Sept. 29 Business section stated that the V-6 version is rated at 248 horsepower. The correct figure is 268 horsepower.


It's likely you'd head to your local athletically inclined big-box store and pick out the Toyota Camry of tennis rackets: something from a well-known brand that is reliably middling; it is free of drama, superfluity or excess cost; one that will simply get the job done.

This 2012 Camry is no different. Starting at $22,755 when it rolls into dealerships next month, it is an apparatus, a means to an end.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s mid-size sedan has served this purpose conscientiously for years, and Americans have rewarded it with corresponding success at the dealership. Since 1997, more Camrys have been sold each year than any other car in the U.S., with the exception of 2001.

Like any champ, the Camry has plenty of competitors trying to beat it. Nissan's aging Altima is the second-bestselling car this year, while peers such as the Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, the new Volkswagen Passat and forthcoming Chevrolet Malibu are also rapidly making improvements in the content, style and build quality of the segment.

Although the 2012 Camry and its hybrid version certainly improve in these areas, the updates are incremental and calculated. Don't expect it to vault above its competitors.

The most notable changes are the Camry's looks. The car wears all-new sheet metal while maintaining the identical length, width and wheelbase of the previous model. The new look is evolutionary, with added creases and angles replacing softer lines throughout the car. It's a good look and will enable the new Camry to handsomely blend in at mall parking lots nationwide.

The new aesthetics continue inside the car as well. The design of the dashboard and instrument panel is cleaner and simpler, and a layered crease accented by contrast stitching breaks up the dash in front of the passenger. Most surfaces are covered in pleasing, soft-touch materials.

If the buttons to control the radio and optional navigation system seem large enough for your glaucoma-afflicted great aunt to see from the back seat, it's because Toyota caught a lot of flack for how small the same buttons were on the previous Camry. At least they're clearly labeled and easy to use.

Overall, the space wizards at Toyota managed to wring out an interior that is marginally bigger than before, despite the car's footprint remaining the same. Rear legroom and interior space are among the most in the class, and a quintet of 6-foot-plus people can ride comfortably.

Although most spatial concerns are nicely addressed, the quality of the Camry's features leaves something to be desired, especially when cast in the light of what others are offering.

The navigation screen on the preproduction XLE model I tested was smaller than it was in the previous Camry and one of the smallest in the segment. This creates a cramped screen with less usable information, a flaw exacerbated by the cheap-looking user-interface.

And I was a little disappointed at the quality of the interior. Everything looked good and precisely assembled, but if you elbowed a door panel or prodded the plastic pieces in the lower part of the dashboard, they seemed flimsy and cut-rate.

Finally, although the trunk grows slightly, it's overall capacity still lags behind most competitors. Also unfortunate is the surprisingly small pass-through space when you fold down the Camry's rear seats.

Driving the new Camry isn't as overwhelmingly boring as you'd expect. The base engine pulls 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque out of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a hearty degree of pep and enthusiasm.

This engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting and sport mode. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the combination at 25 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. Over 240 miles of testing, I averaged 25 mpg. No zero-to-60 times were available from Toyota, but Car and Driver magazine estimated the four-cylinder would do it in 8.8 seconds.

My biggest complaint about the handling lies with the Camry's steering. I'm not expecting Porsche precision here, but to pilot the Camry is like driving while wearing a pair of Novocain mittens. More feedback, please.

The four-cylinder Camry comes in four variants: the base L, the LE, the sporty SE and the XLE. The $29,380 XLE I tested included the navigation system, a JBL sound system with 10 speakers and iPod connectivity, backup camera, leather seats, heated front seats and alloy wheels.

Buyers looking for more power can consider the 248-horsepower V-6, which starts at $27,400, while green-minded Camry buyers should consider the new hybrid Camry.

This hybrid sees the biggest powertrain change from the previous version of any of the new Camrys, as it now has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired with a 105-kilowatt electric motor for a total power output of 200 horsepower.

The hybrid's strong suit is its power and complete lack of anemia that can plague other hybrids. The system also transitions seamlessly from electric power to gas power or a combination of both, without the trademark shudder or lag. Only when I tapped the hyperactive brakes was I reminded that this was a hybrid.

Also new for the hybrid is its lower price point; the LE version that I drove starts at around $26,660. The car is rated by the EPA as currently the most efficient in this segment, at 43 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. My 75-mile weekend with it saw an average of 34 mpg. The slightly heavier hybrid XLE gets 40 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway.

All Camrys come with safety features including 10 air bags, traction control, anti-lock brakes and a tire-pressure monitoring system. And, as with previous Camrys, this one is American-made, with plants in Kentucky and Indiana doing the labor.

Camry faithful will undoubtedly salute the improved efficiency and aesthetics that add to the car's ethos, and probably will reward it with continued success at the dealership. The trouble is, Toyota's dedication to the conventional may mean a methodical yet more daring competitor may one day steal that sales crown.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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