COAL: 2016 Toyota Camry 2.5 XSE – Of What Use is the Automotive Press?

From my view, the modern automotive reviewer has an increasingly irrelevant job. Faced with an exceptionally competent field of machinery from nearly every manufacturer, they have long been unable to warn consumers of mechanical hiccups, ridiculous build quality, or spooky handling on brand new vehicles. Remember those 1980s Consumer Reports where they took care to note if the engine started on the first try and ran smoothly?  We’re beyond that now and real journalists should be digging deeper for substantive differences relevant to consumers. But today’s reviewers are generally not real journalists, they are initial-impression product critics and entertainers who need press car access.

They need something to differentiate between models in the short term, so mountains are made of molehills and mainstream family vehicles are reviewed through the distorting lens of the automotive enthusiast.  Here the ghost of David E. Davis lurks, inspiring those of considerably less personality and talent to thinly emulate his elitism by panning workaday cars for no other reason than to signal their membership in the gentry. It’s not hard to find in the auto press. The too-slick erudite musings of Dan Neil.  The absurd hyperbole of Jeremy Clarkson. The subset of staff writers across the web who are looking to write with an edge. They’ve lost the plot, lost the raconteur storytelling, but have kept the snark. And always there must be a target upon which to focus the rhetoric. In the midsize sedan segment, that would be the Camry.  Which makes it rather interesting to admit that you walked away with one after cross-shopping it against enthusiast favorites like the Accord and Mazda6.

I’m risking charges of heresy now, because no one in the auto world likes the Camry.  Too boring, too useful, too popular and now too affordable and too similar in objective performance to the segment favorites.  The Accord, they will tell you, always did everything the Toyota did while also being special to sit in and drive.  They aren’t quite right on either point, but a strong case can be made that the Camry has not been a clear leader for a decade.  Better-looking and richer-feeling models have closed much of the reliability gap for the first buyer. But what of the second buyer who will be owning out of warranty? What of the Nissan refugee fleeing a transmission that began chewing itself apart before the odometer hit six digits?  Whose finances and time are leveraged by kids? Might there be something long-lived, lightly used and substantially depreciated that can compete with Honda’s competent but rather dull ninth generation CVT Accord?

I present to you our 2016 Camry XSE 2.5, purchased a year ago in impeccable condition with 24K on the clock for $17K.  The swan song of the K-platform’s sixteen year run. The current enthusiast reviewer on a press junket would never, ever approve. Mr. Davis probably wouldn’t either, but the iconoclast within him might enjoy the spectacle of a casual enthusiast defending the indefensible.

So let’s start.  This starch-suspendered XSE drives nothing like the classic marshmallow Camry and I’m surprised anyone who owned and enjoyed one of those pillowtop cruisers would be OK with this one.  The ride is a bit flinty, with no float or slop. Cornering is surprisingly flat and tenacious for a big FWD economy car on junk tires. You’re never going to successfully autocross this sedan, but passengers will holler and personal effects will tumble and crash across the cabin long before you run out of grip or confidence in the real world. You can easily outrun your sight lines on tighter mountain roads and string together turns quickly enough to freak out other motorists.  I’m guessing a skilled driver could keep one affixed to the rear bumper of a hot hatch piloted by an amateur enthusiast on a winding road where power is a moot point. It has more cornering ability than you’ll ever use.

It is just fine on the interstate too. It is planted and engaged with the road surface.  Quicker lane changes at 85 provoke less roll and yaw than some VWs I’ve driven and the car tracks well enough to prevent the minor within-lane wandering that becomes fatiguing over long slogs. The Fusion and 6 are a bit more precise and steady on-center, but we’ve logged 700 miles in a day in this car without any complaint about directional stability.

Those 700 miles also showed that Toyota finally paid attention to driver ergonomics. The steering wheel is contemporary and nice to hold.   The firm, well-shaped seats feel sturdy and are more comfortable to me than the Fusion’s and light years ahead of the unsupportive, flimsy-feeling things installed in the ninth-gen Accord.  Anyone much taller than 6 feet may notice remnants of the iconic too-tall Toyota driving position, though.

None of this is too remarkable.  Most midsizers now behave well on the interstate and don’t fall apart in corners, so it is the plain jane port-injected 2.5L 4 cylinder and 6 speed automatic where the Camry puts some real distance between itself and rivals.  There is no direct injection, no turbochargers, no ratio-overload transmissions, and that’s good. All of the competition uses some combination of these to boost power and efficiency ratings despite only a few delivering on both promises and some delivering on neither.   In turn, you risk problems. Carbon buildup. Cylinder deactivation issues and gasoline in the oil. The hated ZF 9-speed. Nissan’s complete disaster of a CVT. None of this is worth a half second to 60 or 4mpg to me, and analyzing these tradeoffs is where automotive reviewers could now be providing an actual service to their readers.  But they aren’t. And probably won’t.

So I was left to conclude for myself that this Camry’s powertrain was best-in-class because it actually does what it is supposed to do: provide performance and durability appropriate to the car’s mission. It’s quick enough, efficient enough, more than refined enough, responsive, runs fine on regular, and is about as proven as it gets.

The Camry does have some real faults.  Toyota’s ambition to make this platform a “sporty” car leads to several of them.  The suspension tune provides ride harshness in greater proportion than handling prowess.  This is GTI stiffness without GTI tactility and limits. I think the best balance in this segment is struck by the Fusion that feels similarly nimble while avoiding some of the Camry’s impact harshness.  The Fusion is also quieter than the Camry. It also has more natural and consistent steering. The Camry’s is well-weighted and precise on the move but slides toward heavy and numb at low speeds before going strangely slack at a crawl as if the column detached from the rack.

The interior is about what you can expect in this segment–surficial richness beset by hidden cost-cutting. It is very roomy everywhere and the low cowl and beltline provide excellent outward visibility.  I like the synthetic suede, crisp gauges, effective seat heaters, dual-zone climate control, and refined nighttime aesthetic from the clean ice blue of the switchgear. The dashboard stitching, piano black and metallic accents provide further variety and interest absent from that benchmark 1992 Camry.  It all looks suitably modern but the underlying build quality just isn’t quite there. Half the dashboard is hard plastic and temperature-dependent rattles ensure every season has a sound. It doesn’t feel as expensive as that 92, which makes sense because it isn’t.

So how does all this stack up against its 2015/2016 competition? I wish I could say I tracked down all nine competitors on the used car market and gave each a thorough shakedown, but I only managed five that were most appealing on paper.  The Mazda was my personal favorite for the typical reasons, but the cabin’s a bit of a bunker, the rear roofline isn’t great for loading kids into car seats, and nearly all were ex-rentals. The Fusion earned third with delightfully Germanic motions and refinement, but the powertrains are a real weakness and I don’t quite trust it long term.   The Accord was disappointing; I expected to be wowed after the press reviews but found poor seats, a cheapish interior, a weird bifurcated infotainment setup, and a so-so driving experience that didn’t make up for this. Fourth place. The 2015 Optima was pre-redesign and I didn’t like the seats or the reports of self-lunching Theta IIs, and it didn’t stand out otherwise.   The Passat had a nice interior and engine, but the Fusion felt far more German and if I don’t trust the Ford I certainly don’t trust this.

The rest? Nissan’s garbage CVT started this car hunt, so it was never a consideration.  I attempted to test a nice-looking Malibu but the local Chevy dealer’s wife was running around in it for the day so that was that.  The Sonata doesn’t bring anything remarkable to the table and people are so bananas for Subaru that even a pokey CVT Legacy carries a price premium.

One year in and I’m still fine with the choice. This Camry was not a return to the competition-killing XV10 (above), but it remains nearly faultless as a family sedan and doesn’t wallow around anymore.  You really don’t need to apologize or explain yourself for picking it over the competition. Any self-described enthusiast has committed the greater sin by looking at FWD automatic midsizers, haven’t they?   I gave up pretending I was a serious car guy or Clarkson wannabe the moment I failed this litmus test. I should have been scouring for similarly priced E60s or Hemi Chargers or 40-year old W108s on auction. For 17 grand wouldn’t you rather roll up in one of those old regal Mercs? Of course you would. So would I, but I’ve got enough other expenses and demands on my time. Unlike reviewers I have real money in the game and no access to a press fleet.  But hey, even the witty and endearing John Phillips owned a RAV4. So perhaps not all of the automotive press is off in outer space.