LAST Dance

Toyota’s new Australian-made Camry drives as sharply as it looks. What a shame it’s also the last

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD


Toyota’s new Australian-made Camry drives as sharply as it looks. What a shame it’s also the last

EOPLE love to mock the Toyota Camry. Born from an obsession with conservatism and ease of operation, the Camry is both Toyota’s touchstone and something of a noose around its neck.

It sells like gangbusters in the US, to the tune of more than 400,000 a year, and it has been Australia’s biggest-selling mid-sizer (by a massive margin) for 21 years straight, yet the Camry is so straight-laced it would blush at the love scenes in Frozen. It simultaneously represents everything that’s great about owning a Toyota – an Australian-built one, for the time being at least – and the stifling conformity in not wanting to stand out from the crowd.

Yet it’s that very aspect that prompted Toyota’s most comprehensive mid-life facelift ever. Customer clinics revealed that Camry owners were chuffed with their cars but wanted more sex. And not the ‘dirty weekend’ kind. Nervous that Camry’s reign as America’s favourite passenger car may be under threat from Honda’s Accord and Ford’s Fusion (Mondeo), Toyota decided to throw the rulebook out the window and go for broke.

Well, not exactly broke given the Japanese giant pocketed US$18 billion last financial year, but for a three-year-old car, and especially for a Toyota mid-cycle update, the 2015 Camry’s visual changes are massive.

Besides carrying over the glass, the only panel shared

THE SX TURNS IN KEENLY, AIDED BY AN INVOLVING REAR END

with its predecessor is the roof. Every other panel is new, including the door skins, making the 2015 Camry “more sculptural, emotional [and] sexy”, according to Kevin Hunter, the head of Toyota’s Californian design studio responsible for the look.

Given Camry’s importance to the US market, this is the first time the Yanks have taken the lead in its design. But Toyota Australia was integrated into its development from the outset and invested $108 million to ensure local production ends with a bang.

Boasting more than 800 new parts, our 2015 Camry is quite different to the US version. For starters, the old interior carries over into the Altona-built Camry, garnished with fresh trims and a new, smaller steering wheel, whereas the US car gets more sophisticated centre-stack switchgear and classier detailing for a more expensive look. The Aussies had to spend wisely and sheetmetal took priority.

Australia’s Camry wears different grille and front bumper designs in order to meet the high-temperature cooling requirements of the Middle East, Toyota Australia’s main export market. And even though the outline of the headlights is the same, ours are locally supplied and completely different to the US model’s.

Front lighting is now a Camry signature. Even the base $26,490 Altise gets projector headlamps and LED daytime running lights, but that touch of bling aside, it’s very much situation normal at entry level. While there’s a degree of Lexus ES in new Camry’s more fluid lines, the slat-grilled Altise struggles to carry off its new threads. All the fresh metal does is make its 16-inch alloys look even smaller, and the previous-model Altise more youthful and cohesive.

If customers want a sexier Camry, they need to skip the fleet favourite and head straight for the $31,990 Atara SX. Along with its lavishly equipped Atara SL sibling ($37,440-$40,440), which offers the same 18-inch alloys (in silver) and sports suspension package as the SX, in conjunction with an electric sunroof, for $2950 extra, this is the new Camry in sportswear.

Toyota Oz pushed for 18-inch wheels – a first for Camry – and selected the TMC-approved boots fitted to the European Toyota Avensis. The forged alloys, made by ROH in South Australia, save 1.5kg per wheel and wear Polish-made 225/45R18 Bridgestone Turanzas.

Atara chassis improvements extend far beyond a broader footprint, however. New Hitachi dampers with a two-piece valve are designed to mix ride comfort with body control, while roll stiffness has been improved by retuning the front rebound rate by 11 percent and fitting a firmer rebound stopper and thicker front anti-roll bar. There are also stiffer, Teflon-lined front anti-roll bar bushes, forged aluminium links and stiffer upper supports, plus a completely new steering rack.

With a 15.9:1 ratio (compared with 16.9:1 standard), the sports tune quickens Camry’s steering markedly, reducing the number of turns lock-to-lock from 3.12 to 2.85. It also provides a meatier and more connected feel, as does a new ‘pre-load’ differential (fitted to all 2015 Camrys) that achieves smoother take-off, turning and straight-line stability, particularly on rough roads.

Load it, slash it

“FOR the metal, it’s the best-value car you can buy today.” That’s the message Toyota Australia is keen to get across, with the $26,490 Altise petrol six-speed automatic the cheapest base Camry auto since 1997.

And it’s far from a poverty pack, with seven airbags, touchscreen audio, a reversing camera, LED running lights and 16-inch alloys.

The $30,490 Hybrid version adds hillstart assist, ‘Optitron’ instruments, keyless entry/start and dualzone climate control.

Toyota is also quoting drive-away prices of $28,990 for Altise petrol and $32,990 for Altise Hybrid.

Maintenance is capped at $140 per service for up to five scheduled visits spanning four years or 75,000km.

But is the new Atara SX the “breakthrough” Toyota thinks it is? Not quite. While there’s much to commend the local team’s persistence in pushing for greater agility and driver reward, the real breakthrough was changing Toyota Japan’s thinking about a conservative model like Camry.

The SX’s suspension improvements make it a much more appealing steer. It turns in keenly, aided by an involving rear end that enhances the car’s balance, and its faster steering ratio, smaller wheel and more appropriate weighting make the whole dynamic experience much more tactile. Finally, a Camry with a cohesive, genuinely rewarding chassis.

Even wet, debris-strewn roads failed to shake the Camry SX’s composure, or expose chinks in its impressively subtle stability-control calibration.

Low-speed ride is an issue, though, to the point where its firmness can be tiring, and may be a deal-breaker for some. And there’s a fair chunk of tyre noise on coarser road surfaces. But it’s the Camry’s uninspiring petrol engine that ultimately fails to give substance to the Atara SX’s sinister gloss-black rims and surprisingly rewarding handling.

Against the clock, 8.8sec to 100km/h and a 16.4sec quarter aren’t terrible, but the six-speed auto upshifts at just 5800rpm, even in Sport mode, and is poorly suited to spirited driving in hilly country. A manual mode and flappy paddles partly make amends, but if you want your new Camry to handle and perform, you’ll be heading aftermarket. Or opting for a 2015 Aurion Sportivo V6, which skips Camry’s visual overhaul but scores the SX’s gloss-black 18s and suspension tune.

Carryover or not, Toyota’s hybrid drivetrain is excellent. Tied to an effective CVT transmission, it’s a

sweet and strong combination, spoiled only by the lag between a floored throttle and the delivery of all that grunt out of tight corners. Indeed, it’s hard to believe our ‘blue rinse’ Altise Hybrid clocked 15.7sec to 400m and a spritely 4.9sec from 80-120km/h (versus 6.0 for the petrol) while using a shedload less fuel (7.9L/100km versus 9.9 on test).

Dynamically, the Altise Hybrid packs a few other surprises. The gluggy steering weighting and remoteness it suffers at straight ahead dissolves when being punted through corners, where it displays quite good balance. Wearing 215/60R16 Michelins, it grips pretty well, with much less tyre noise than the Atara SX, and has a reasonable freeway ride. But again, low-speed compliance is not the Altise’s friend as it patters over bumps at urban speeds.

Describing the last-ever Aussie-built Toyota as the “boldest Camry ever” is a big call, but bread-andbutter family motoring has rarely been so attainable, and the Hybrid’s USP remains a genuine coup. In base trim, Camry’s style makeover is a dubious one, but the Atara line is decent enough, and priced sharply enough, to steer conservative private buyers away from its stiff competition.

Toyota Australia promises “further updates in around a year’s time”. For the sake of the Atara SX’s newfound agility and sporting focus, here’s hoping that involves an engine transplant or at least the availability of a Hybrid version at SX level. @PonchDeluxe

SWEET AND STRONG HYBRID DRIVETRAIN IS EXCELLENT