For years, Toyota's Camry has dominated the family sedan segment with a focus on comfort and reliability — and blithe disregard for the particulars of handling and style.
The bland formula has made the trusty Camry the nation's bestselling passenger sedan for 12 consecutive years.
That won't work for another 12 years. The last generation Camry, built from 2011 to 2014, had fallen behind the likes of the Mazda6, Ford Fusion, Chrysler 200 and others in build quality, aesthetics and driving enjoyment.
But the 2015 Camry is a stiff counterpunch. Though the powertrains are unchanged, healthy doses of style, handling and refinement transform this sedan.
The redesigned Camry is the latest example of a larger corporate effort to add driving excitement and style to Toyota and Lexus cars, without losing their legendary reliability. The effort works. The new model moves the Camry — on sale now, starting at $23,795 — from the lower rung of the segment to a serious contender.
The improvements are most obvious in the Camry's cabin. Gone are the Kmart-quality materials in the outgoing model.
The doors close with a newfound authority. The interior trim is made from soft-touch materials. The instrument panel and dashboard buttons look and feel upscale.
Toyota also baked in extra sound-deadening materials. The Camry feels as quiet and solid as its peers, save for some wind noise at high freeway speeds. There's plenty of space throughout the car for tall people, especially in the back. The seats are stiff and shapeless, though they were better in the four-cylinder model than the V-6.
Though the changes to the Camry's insides added between 50 and 90 pounds, depending on the model, it's a worthwhile tradeoff. Fuel economy remains unchanged.
The four-cylinder makes 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. It's rated at 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. During 200 miles of testing in mixed driving, we averaged 25 mpg.
Toyota left the mechanicals of the Camry alone. All three powertrains carry over: the base four-cylinder, the V-6, and the hybrid. We tested both the base model and the V-6.
As before, the four-cylinder engine does its job without any drama or fuss. It has good power from a dead stop, and plenty for daily driving, though it does gasp for breath when pushed hard. But for drivers looking for efficient, quiet power, this is more than adequate.
The V-6 XLE model starts at $32,195 and makes 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. This engine delivered ample and smooth passing power on the freeway, a definite upgrade from the four-banger, and was admirably quiet around town. The V-6 is rated at 21 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. Over a long weekend with the car in mixed driving, we saw a 21 mpg average.
Both of these engines came matched with front-wheel-drive and a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission with sport mode.
Toyota also upgraded the suspension and steering of the 2015 Camry. It's a mixed effort. Though it's no Mazda6, the Camry does handle with an extra dash of enthusiasm, while remaining comfortable over rough roads.
But the steering on the V-6 model was too numb. Curiously, it was better, though not great, on the four-cylinder version. And the brakes felt oddly spongy, the kind of feel you'd expect on a low-rent hybrid car with regenerative brakes.
Toyota finished the 2015 effort with an all-new body. It softens many of the hard angles and edges from the outgoing version, and the new curves give it a more elegant persona. But it's still on the generic side of things, and not everyone will love the overbearing grille, which resembles a grinning fish.
Despite the $23,795 entry price, Toyota packs a lot of standard features into the base LE model. Highlights include power front seats, heated side-view mirrors, a 6.1-inch touch-screen stereo system, faux-wood trim, 10 air bags, stability control and brake assist.
The sport-tuned SE model returns, and based on its popularity, Toyota added an up-market XSE model to the Camry lineup. It keeps the SE's sporty inclinations — tighter suspension tuning and more aggressive styling — but adds the luxury of the XLE.
Our test car was an XLE. This trim level comes with a responsive and intuitive touch-screen navigation system. A 10-speaker JBL audio system, real-time traffic updates, heated leather seats, LED daytime lights and moon roof were also included.
It also added safety-minded options like radar-based cruise control, lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitoring. The loaded four-cylinder sells for $30,575, while the same trim with the V-6 sells for $34,990. Both sums are the going rate for loaded mid-size sedans these days.
Apparently, Toyota didn't need to do all of this. More than 400,000 people took home a new Camry last year, and sales through October are on track to beat that frantic pace.
The automaker could probably have kept that lead by slapping on some extra chrome or tossing in an extra air bag or two.
But that wouldn't been enough to catch the Camry's rapidly improving rivals. After several years of lagging behind, this new Camry's execution finally matches its popularity.