We live in an era of individuality. Whether it’s cellphones or sedans, Americans want products that reflect their individual tastes and needs. That’s especially true in the auto industry where buyers can choose from hundreds of different offerings and even a luxury brand like Mercedes-Benz has promised to deliver 30 new models by the end of the decade.
Yet a few key products routinely defy this trend, none more effectively than the venerable Toyota Camry which in 2013 generated about 408,000 sales in the U.S. alone, with the Japanese maker expecting that to reach 415,000 this year. When you’re clear and away the industry’s best-seller, why change your formula?
And for the past three decades, Camry has, indeed, changed relatively little – which is why Toyota delivered such a shock when it unveiled the updated 2015 Camry earlier this year. Introduced barely three years after the last full model update, we might have expected only the most modest revisions, perhaps a new fascia and some tweaks to the interior. Instead, Toyota has changed nearly every single body panel and heavily reworked the cabin.
“The world moved around us,” acknowledges Camry Chief Engineer Monte Kaehr. And despite its seeming success, the Japanese giant realized that in the face of increasingly tough – read stylish and emotionally enticing – competition, it faced a very real prospect of being toppled as king-of-the-midsize-hill.
To get a closer look and a better feel of what Toyota has accomplished with the 2015 Camry, we headed down to Jacksonville, Florida, for a couple days of driving what is no longer the classic plain vanilla sedan that we have come to know. But the question was whether the changes Toyota has made go far enough to win over new buyers without alienating its traditional loyalists.
One only has to do a quick walkaround to recognize just how much the 2015 Toyota Camry has changed. The only holdover body panel is the roof. The updated sedan features more muscular haunches, with a bit more sculpting to the doors, fenders and hood. The most dramatic change, however, is the gaping grille yawning wide beneath the brand’s familiar logo.
It is already the most controversial element of the redesign. While the overall look of the sedan is much more graceful than ever before, the grille is, to our eyes – and those of most of the media colleagues we queried – ungainly and awkward. Toyota is offering two versions with the 2015 Camry, a slat design on models like the LE, and a honeycomb grille on the sportier versions, such as the new XSE. The slat grille is far less awkward.
On the whole, the slightly longer body gains a bit more of a predatory look. Is it the “passionate” design that Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda has promised? That’s in the eye of the beholder. The look of the new Camry is far less extreme than the Ford Fusion, never mind the Hyundai Sonata. But traditional Toyota buyers are likely to be in for a pleasant surprise.
Toyota has based much of its success on its reputation from quality, reliability and dependability – QRD in industry lingo. The problem is that most of today’s midsize models are solidly well built. The Chevrolet Malibu topped the chart in the latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey, though Camry (and the Honda Accord) remains a leader in longer-term studies.
Nonetheless, with the quality issue less of a critical measure, it’s no wonder Toyota has had to broaden Camry’s appeal. Among other things, it has had to reverse some of the steps it took over the last several generations of the sedan, where it cut corners in order to hold down production costs. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the interior of the Camry.
The 2015 model’s cabin has been notably upgraded, adopting more soft-touch materials on the doors and instrument panel. There are better fabrics, whether the base synthetic, leather or new premium-leather. The base car is still something you’d expect in a rental fleet, but the top-line model, with its French contrast stitching, is much more lavish, if yet more conservative than many of its competitors.
There’s a larger and more intuitive touchscreen, as well as a digital driver information display in the center of the gauge cluster. There’s an upgraded JBL audio system, as well as an improved EnTune infotainment system that allows a number of smartphone apps, such as OpenTable and Pandora, to be operated from the touchscreen or steering wheel controls.
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We had to cut some slack for the inevitable issues experienced with pre-production models – the occasional mismatch of graining and an odd panel misfit – but there were still a few holdover signs of cost-cutting, such as the oddly cheap and poor-fitting coinholder to the left of the steering wheel.
We were also surprised by the lack of a grab handle to help close the trunk, a nice detail when the sheet metal is covered with slush on a blustery winter day. On the other hand, thank you, Toyota, for finally adding the tap-to-turn feature that blinks the turn signals thrice when you tap the stalk.
With the 2011 update, Toyota tried to push the emotional envelope with the Camry SE model. The new-for-2015 Camry XSE goes a step further. As with the entire line-up, its brakes have been recalibrated to deliver a more linear feel and greater stopping power. That fits well with a car that Toyota promises can be driven more aggressively. The XSE is clearly the most solid and nimble Camry we’ve experienced – in part due to the added spot welds the maker repeatedly mentioned during our background briefing. Improvements in the electric power steering system also help.
That said, the XSE is where some competitors start off. We’d love to see the base Camry adopt this more dynamic tuning, with the XSE going for an even more taut and well-planted ride. But even in current form, we expect the XSE to be the model of choice for young buyers moving into a Camry.
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While the body and interior of the 2015 Camry have undergone significant revisions, Toyota largely carried over the sedan’s powertrain options. That includes the most popular package, a 2.5-liter inline-four making a competent, if not outstanding, 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque.
Paired to a six-speed automatic, we did find it gets a little noisy when you put your foot to the floor. Under normal acceleration and at cruising speeds, it is smooth and reasonably responsive. That’s when you notice the additional steps Toyota has taken to hold down road noise.
For those who want more power, there’s a 3.5-liter V-6 available for the XLE and XSE models. Also paired to a six-speed automatic, this option churns out a more sporty 268-hp and 248 lb-ft. It will get you to 60 in a reasonably quick 6.5 seconds though it makes a surprising bit of noise under full throttle.
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The four, incidentally, delivers an EPA-rated 25 mpg in urban driving, 35 on the highway. The six cuts that to 21 and 31.
Meanwhile, for those wanting maximum mileage, there’s the 2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid, which starts at $26,790 in LE trim. For 2015, Toyota even adds the Hybrid option to the SE model. The gas-electric carries over the 43 mpg City/39 Highway rating. We found the Camry Hybrid relatively quick among models sharing the familiar Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system – but also surprisingly noisy when driven hard.
You can get into a base version of the 2015 Toyota Camry for as little as $23,895 – for the LE trim. Load it up and you’ll quickly push into the $30,000 range. No surprise for anyone who has priced competitors like the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord or Ford Fusion.
For the money, you’ll get a vehicle that’s undergone a number of significant updates. It boasts a clearly more aggressive design than we’ve seen on Camry before, albeit a look likely to generate some controversy. The interior has some nice upgrades, and there are a number of new safety, comfort and convenience features.
Is it enough to lock down Toyota’s long-standing lead in the midsize market? We expect it will more than satisfy most Camry loyalists, and win over a fair share of new buyers, as well. But the 2015 sedan doesn’t quite deliver the level of passion Toyota promises and that could make it vulnerable to some of its more aggressive competitors.