Driving Impressions

By June 11, 2007

We're trying not to gush over the new Camry, but only the four-cylinder automatic left us wishing for better. Lengthy sessions with four-cylinder manual and V6 automatic models seriously impressed us. We drove LE, SE, XLE and Hybrid models. We were impressed not only with the overall packaging, but also with the clear distinctions among the different models, both inside and underneath.

The LE with four-cylinder and automatic was competent if short of inspiring. Performance-wise, this is not surprising, given the mass burdening this class-trailing powerplant. The four-cylinder engine is buzzy, and we felt some torque steer, under full throttle the steering wheel is lightly pulled this way and that, a common phenomenon with front-wheel drive. There's noticeable body lean in corners. Wind and road noise were audible. Fit and finish were Toyota grade, which means very well done, with zero buzzes, squeaks and/or rattles, and tight tolerances between panels and parts.

The SE, on the other hand, was a fresh and welcome departure from the Camry's heretofore conservative legacy. Finally, a Camry that's fun and entertaining to drive. The manual transmission shifted cleanly, if not with sports-car crispness. Clutch engagement was smooth and easily managed. Foot brake and gas pedal are closely enough juxtaposed that heel-and-toe shifting is doable, although again, not with sports-car ease. The V6 eagerly spins all the way up to its programmed limiter at 6500 revolutions per minute, although we could feel the power drop off some beyond the 6200-rpm redline. It lugs without stumble from 1000 rpm in top gear. Steering turn-in could be a bit more precise, but cornering is markedly solid and stable, with little body lean. The sequential-shift automatic won't upshift when in manual mode, even with the engine bouncing off the rev limiter, but it will downshift if pressed. We're still struggling with the proper shift lever direction in these manu-matics. In some, pushing the lever forward feels right for downshifting, in others, the same feels OK for upshifting. In the SE, for whatever reason, we wanted it to go opposite the way that it does, that is, forward to go down a gear and rearward to go up one. But whatever, shifts were smooth but reassuringly certain. And while we never doubted the stopping power, brake pedal feel and travel were sedan-grade, too soft and too long, that is, for our preferences.

If there's any vestige of Buick-ism to be found in the new Camry, it's in the XLE. More than just the entry-plush interior, in ride and handling, too, the top of the line '07 was more soft and floaty than firm and planted. Not wandering or imprecise, mind you, as we were entirely comfortable and assured piloting it leisurely along gently curving two-lane byways and on lightly traveled or rush hour-packed, multi-lane highways. But the XLE is more of the set-it-and-forget-it mode of transport than one actively inviting driver participation in the task. Which, in its place, we found imminently enjoyable, along with the great sound system.

The Hybrid tucked right in between the LE and the XLE, in performance, especially, although the instantaneous torque from the electric motor at times delivered acceleration that felt equal to, if not quicker than the V6. And compared with the Honda Accord Hybrid, the transitions between just the electric motor powering the car to full hybrid, with motor and engine together, were much smoother. Not invisible, but more heard than felt, whereas in an Accord Hybrid we had driven a couple weeks earlier, the transitions sometimes felt like an almost-missed shift. But in terms of ride, handling and interior comfort, were it not for the graphic display of the hybrid's status, the substitution of a welcome, real-time, fuel economy gauge for the tachometer and the unique, abbreviated shift gate, we easily could have believed we were driving an XLE. The hybrid system combine