Rental Review–2018 Camry SE: Behind the Kabuki Mask

Simply resplendent in its Seasonal Affective Disorder camouflage paint

The new-for-2018 Camry is the sales leader in a quickly declining segment that once was a massive presence in the American automotive market. If the midsize sedan does implode, the Camry may well be the last holdout.  Between this model with its lunatic origami exterior and the hunchbacked Accord with Frida Kahlo’s unibrow, desperate attempts are being made for attention by formerly unassailable brands. Perhaps one day this Camry will be featured on Curbside, contorted plastic mask faded and misaligned from too many curb hits, remembered as the final stand of a segment murdered by crossovers.  I recently rented one, and as the largely satisfied owner of a 2016 a review seemed natural.

The profile is much better.  Image credit: Car and Driver

Note: Road grime and limited time killed my photography, you get my rhyme?  But Car and Driver reviewed a clone of my rental, down to the color in and out, so some of the photos are theirs and are noted.

First, to understand the dire situation the midsize sedan is currently in, realize that my local Toyota dealership will rent you this roomy and powerful car for 20% less than the disgusting little fecal lump known as the C-HR.  That toad-eyed ode to feckless, fickle consumer tastes is cramped, slow, and impossible to see out of, but it’s a “crossover” so cha-ching!  No wonder Accord sales are in the toilet and the Camry is losing ground despite bolstering numbers with fleet sales.  You can’t sell good products to clueless people.

C’est la vie.  This mid-level 4-cylinder SE lists for about $27K just as our 2016 did for its first owner.  That’s less than a comparable RAV4 and not much more than a well-equipped C-HR.  They are also advertised with $3K in discounts before you even start hemming and hawing and frowning at the salesman, mumbling that you might go test drive the Accord as well.  You could probably get down to the low-20s if you took your time, and that would be a lot of very good car for the money.

Get the LE/XLE, and in a dark color

I’m not going to beat a dead styling horse as I’m sure will be done in the comments, but I find this one ugly from any angle except dead-even profile. White is a hard color to pull off because there is no way to hide awkward design language, so every bit of styling excess is laid bare on this Camry.  Darker colors look better, as do the non-sport LE/XLE models which keep the attractive basic shape and leave off the clown makeup.  The front fascia, though…no matter what you do, you either get Kabuki or baleen whale.


Image credit: Car and Driver

Settling into the interior is a generally positive experience.  You sit low in comfortable and highly adjustable front seats, ensconced by a tall center console and uniquely sculpted dashboard made of some very nice materials.  Gone is any remaining fuddy-duddiness in the design–if the traditional Camry demographic still buys this car it is due to the longstanding reputation of the nameplate rather than any aesthetic or tactile semblance to domestic comfy cruisers of yore.  Put a Mazda or Honda logo on the steering wheel and the car magazine commenters would be swooning.

I particularly like the metallic trim strip in front of the passenger; it has texture, contours, and doesn’t look like plastic. The dash pad is a single piece and thickly padded. Nearly everything above the equator is far nicer than my 2016. The steering wheel and shift lever feel expensive.  The analog gauges are clear and the muted white and ice blue control lighting at night is slick and unintrusive. The big storage bin forward of the shifter is covered with a spring-loaded tray that fits a large phone and glides smoothly out of the way. Nicely done.

The attention to detail on the dashboard should have been continued onto the front doors

Yet, they cheaped out on the front doors.  They don’t close with a nice sound and the soft dashboard material that you will never actually contact should have been used here.  The window sill is a perfectly good material. The armrest, though, is stiff and rubberized and the panel above it is hard plastic. I don’t get it. They knock it out of the park with the dashboard and then flub the doors that you will contact every time you drive.

Yes, the rear doors are entirely hard plastic except for the armrest, just like the Accord.  But who cares?  My kids back there don’t and yours probably won’t either.  Their interaction with those panels will be to scuff it, scratch it, and make concerted efforts to embed crayon wax so deep into the graining that you’ll give up efforts to remove it and just be happy you bought a cheap car.  Since we all insist on expensive touchscreens and tech glitz as standard equipment, this is a sensible place to recover some costs in a vehicle destined for family and commuter use.  Go for an XLE if you’re a real estate agent, it buys your clients nicer door panels.  Cost-cutting that does bother me are the fixed headrests that make high-back booster and convertible car seats more difficult to install tightly despite the excellent LATCH anchor access.


Image credit: Car and Driver

The 2018 Camry was built upon their new midsize modular TNGA platform after 16 years on the K platform.  New rear suspension as well.  It immediately shows, the car feels quite different from our 2016.  The ride/handling balance is difficult to fault, and it feels thoroughly developed and expensive.  There is good body control and similar roll stiffness to our 2016 but with far less of the impact harshness–and this car has the same 45-series tire, overfilled to 37 psi cold.   Rough pavement is smoothed out with far more sophistication and less noise, yet it turns in nearly as sharply and has more ultimate lateral grip in instrumented tests. The 2016 is prone to some uncouth sharp rear suspension motions on rougher pavement, particularly when there’s cornering forces, and I felt none of that in the 2018.  It’s also very quiet on the freeway.  This car goes down the road very well in any condition I encountered. The Fusion was my segment standard for suspension tuning and I think this matches it. The 2018 chassis beats our 2016 hands-down.

No bloody digital speedometer and tach.

So does the steering, which feels more natural at all speeds and far more so around town.  I don’t feel like the electric assist is messing around with ratios and resistance in the background.   Resistance builds up linearly as the wheel is turned and the natural self-centering action gets stronger with speed. Some road surface texture is transmitted.  Brake pedal feel is also more linear and natural. Overall, this Camry feels more cohesive, fluid, and expensive than before, and more than I’d personally expect for the price considering what was on offer in this segment several years ago.

The powertrain is where things begin to get murky.  It is a new 2.5L four cylinder engine, naturally aspirated and with dual port and direct injection, paired to a new 8 speed automatic transmission.  The engine is great. The transmission (or its programming) is not. The engine now provides 203 horsepower (25 additional over our 2016). Fuel economy is now rated at 28/39 mpg and even Car and Driver managed 32 combined and 45 mpg at a 75 mph cruise. That’s seriously impressive.   The additional power isn’t apparent in some instrumented tests, but this engine is strong in the real world.  I’m well calibrated to our current car and this one pulls harder all throughout the rev range, and acceleration within gear raised my eyebrows a bit.

Rework the low-speed response of the transmission and this would be a fantastic base powertrain

However, they’ve programmed in some dead throttle response and leisurely kick-down action. In many situations the calibration is fine.  Cruising at speed and want another 5-10 mph? Roll into the gas and it will quickly give you a few hundred additional rpm and some refined acceleration.  Same with maintaining pace on a grade. But there are instances in both assertive and leisurely driving where the powertrain calibration is off.

Some days I feel this way too.

Let’s say you drive this thing like an angry monkey.  Your kids fought all morning and the dog peed on the rug so you’re late for work and now this car and everyone on the road is going to pay.  You’ll notice the odd powertrain behavior in a couple of ways. When you pull out of the driveway and floor it, the fuel-saving throttle calibration gives you less power than you’re expecting until about 5-10 mph when it finally decides you mean business and then it pulls strongly to 6500 rpm.  The engine note will suit your mood. This initial delay probably costs a few tenths in the instrumented 0-60 runs. As you repeatedly stomp the gas while weaving left and right through traffic, you may notice that the downshift initiation is quick, but the shift itself takes longer than expected to complete so you’re gonna want to give your tantrums a half-second lead here.  The long rev hang as you transition from floored throttle to panic braking may also annoy you, because if you apply more gas during this moment, you may catch the transmission off guard as it is working its way back up the ratios.  On the upside, this car will fly pretty well when the engine is kept on boil, and as you run every left turn light on red while flipping off anyone who honks in protest you’ll also notice some unexpected cornering composure.

Lots of glass space. When driving angry, the low beltline is helpful.

The dead throttle response also can be an issue when your cortisol levels aren’t spiked through the roof. When taking off normally from a light, response is soft and the transmission tries to upshift rapidly.  You must learn to continue rolling into the gas after first gear to counter this, which is also the case with the old 2.5 & 6 speed.  Gone are the days of the old 4 speeds in which you could more naturally and smoothly allow the revolutions to build at fixed throttle.  It’s not bad and it didn’t take long to get used to it.

Rear visibility, however, has declined.  Cut people off with due caution. Safety first!

However, this part is bad: picking up speed from a rolling 5-15 mph.  You will encounter this with every turn into a parking lot, every right turn on a green.  You complete the turn, gently apply the throttle to speed up, and you get nothing from the engine room.  Nothing! No one’s home! The engine remains at 1200 rpm. Push harder and it might get it right or it might suddenly give you too much.  No matter which way it goes there will always be that initial second of nothing, and after nearly 200 miles I wasn’t able to learn my way out of that one.

It’s roomy back there but the fixed headrests are a mistake.

We shouldn’t be surprised.  For some reason, Toyota refuses to deliver a home run with any vehicle.  They always leave something inexplicable on the table. They nailed the hard stuff but left the throttle/transmission calibration unfinished and refused to spend another 50 bucks on the door panels. That is all it would have taken to make this rental car a formidable emissary for Toyota, but they held back.  Reviewers don’t like the infotainment software and lack of Apple Carplay either, and that is going to be a big problem for some people.  My multiple shorter trips around town with NPR on the radio didn’t necessitate pairing my phone for music, apps, or calls so I cannot offer any feedback there.

Would I buy one?  Sure, if our car was needing a direct replacement.  I think this is a clear step up from the prior generation of midsizer from any automaker.  You should give the new Mazda6 and Accord a thorough look as well, but I don’t see how you could go truly wrong or miss out on much with this car.  It does nearly everything well…except Brougham; it doesn’t do that.  Which is OK by me, I’ve driven every generation of Camry since 1984 and never actually enjoyed the experience until they became serious about removing the float in the 2012 & later SE models.  This Camry preserves those advances while addressing the deficiencies in ride refinement and tire noise.  I’ve liked Volkswagen’s take on the mainstream family car because they’ve tended to blend some of Honda’s driving character with Toyota’s refinement and noise control. The current Fusion is excellent at this balance as well.  This Camry finally negates the case for a Passat, Jetta, and Fusion in this market.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to buying one is fielding the inevitable criticism from several unfortunate strains of internet dweller, but if you are an adult with actual purpose in life, this is not going to be an issue.

Between the 4-cylinder, hybrid, and V6 engines spread across several suspension tunes, multiple trim levels, and two insane front grills, you have a lot of choice before you even consider the various permutations of Accord and Mazda6.  If the Camry isn’t quite the best in class, it fully demonstrates that it is a good time to be a midsize sedan buyer even if it’s a terrible time to be the midsize sedan segment.