Toyota Camry gets even better

Friday, June 9, 2006

The Toyota Camry, the car that's bought new by more Americans than any other, year in and year out, is even better now.

The best-selling auto in the United States, the Camry sedan is an early-introduction, new-generation vehicle for 2007 with sleeker styling than its predecessors, new features and interior, the best Camry safety rating ever and the most powerful Camry V-6 ever.

It's enough to guarantee that the Camry will continue to be an American hit, potentially closing in on annual sales of 500,000. Last year's sales totaled 431,703.

But there's more to the Camry now.

Fuel-conscious buyers will find that a gasoline-electric Camry Hybrid joins the lineup for the first time with a government fuel economy rating of 40 miles a gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway. (Yes, city mileage is higher, because the gas-electric hybrid system operates more frequently at slower speeds, supplementing gasoline use, than it does at highway speeds.)

The 2007 Camry Hybrid comes to market as the second-best family car in fuel economy in the country, after the 2006 Toyota Prius, which is rated at 60/51 mpg.

The Camry Hybrid's rating is a significant boost over the best fuel economy rating for the previous Camry -- 24/34 mpg for a 2006 Camry with a four-cylinder engine.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $18,850 for a base, 2007 Camry CE with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission.

Camry competitors include the second-best-selling auto in the United States, the 2006 Honda Accord, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $18,775 for a base sedan with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission.

The 2006 Chevrolet Malibu, which like the Accord and Camry is a five-passenger, mid-size sedan, starts even lower -- $16,990 -- and includes a standard automatic transmission.

For 2007, there are four trim levels of Camry -- CE, LE, SE and XLE -- as well as the new Camry Hybrid. Starting price for the hybrid is $26,480.

Research showed that current Camry owners weren't looking for an appreciably bigger car. They just felt their Camry autos were a bit too "ordinary."

So Toyota officials hope consumers recognize the bolder look given to the new, sixth-generation Camry.

Besides sleek new sheet metal, wheels now are 16-inchers on the base Camry, up from 15-inch wheels before.

The sporty Camry SE comes standard with 17-inchers and a most-powerful-ever 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter, high-output V-6 that's borrowed from the larger Toyota Avalon.

All Camry power plants are new or revised for 2007. Even with more power, though, they carry higher fuel economy ratings than their predecessors.

The tester -- a 2007 Camry LE with 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four cylinder -- had the five-speed automatic transmission and sounded just a tad buzzy in aggressive driving. But the engine worked competently in everyday driving, and there was no stressing to merge into traffic or pass other vehicles. Torque peaks at 161 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.

In fact, given today's gas prices, I wondered if the jump up to a Camry V-6 with 248 foot-pounds of torque at 4,700 rpm really is necessary.

But buyers of a new Camry with V-6 get the smooth-running, well-managed, 3.5-liter engine from Toyota's bigger sedan, the Avalon, and it's responsive without being brawny. They also can get the first-ever six-speed automatic in a Camry -- and this transmission provides for "sport shifting" without a clutch pedal. It makes the Camry feel like a more expensive car.

During test drives, I immediately noticed how much quieter the new Camry is compared with predecessors. Seats also feel much better shaped and padded.

The overall interior, updated for a modern look and with more user-friendly buttons and knobs, has a sense of quality.

I appreciated that all Camrys now have steering wheels that both tilt and telescope, which makes it easier for big and small drivers to get comfortable.

Another surprise: Rear seatbacks in the Camry now fold down to allow for additional cargo space in all but the SE model and Camry Hybrid.

There are thoughtful touches. For example, cloth seats in the XLE model are coated by a protein that comes from silkworm cocoons in order to reduce possible skin irritation. This same material is used on women's bras in Japan.

The pricier models -- Camry XLE and Hybrid -- come standard with a Plasmacluster ion generator that produces positive and negative ions designed to reduce odors and airborne germs as well as mold growth in the vehicle.

Beginning with the 2007 model year, all Camry audio systems come standard with MP3 playback capability and an input jack for portable audio devices such as the Apple iPod.

There's more safety equipment, too. Front and side-mounted air bags for front-seat passengers, curtain air bags for front and rear-seat passengers and even a driver's knee air bag -- to help a driver stay in proper position behind the steering wheel -- are all standard in every Camry now.

The 2007 Camry earned the top rating of five out of five stars for both frontal and side crash testing in U.S. government tests.

But note that electronic stability control, which can help a driver retain control and avoid skids, is optional on all new Camry models.

Consumer Reports magazine says predicted reliability of the new Camry is expected to be "very good."

But there has been one recall of 133 new Camry cars already. The problem: Improperly assembled air bags that might not inflate properly.

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