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Not your father's Camry

With the much-anticipated, radically redesigned eighth-generation version of its enduring mid-sized car, Toyota sets its sights on a new generation of vehicle owner

‘Nobody wants to be seen driving the vehicle their parents drove,’ Toyota Canada’s vice-president said in announcing the eighth-generation version of the popular mid-sized passenger car.

Somewhere along the winding country roads that cut across Prince Edward Island's trademark red soil, studded as it is with young potatoes and heavenly beaches, Toyota planted a new idiom for the car-crazed to ponder.

Is a "dad" car still a "dad" car if Dad is no longer the one buying it?

The silks had not even been peeled from the 2018 Toyota Camry, the much-anticipated, radically redesigned eighth-generation version of the popular mid-sized passenger car, when its makers stepped up to the podium to throw Dad (figuratively speaking) under the bus. (Side note: no dads were actually harmed in the testing of the new Camry, unless, of course, you count their feelings, which Toyota no longer cares about and, we acknowledge, just might hurt).

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"Nobody wants to be seen driving the vehicle their parents drove," said Stephen Beatty, vice-president of Toyota Canada, in announcing that he has cast his sights on a new stream of potential customers in his pursuit to make the Camry the "benchmark" in one of automotive's most cutthroat segments.

Thus he unveiled a leaner, meaner, lower, faster, snazzier Camry than has ever gone before, complete with an overhauled exterior, an enlivened interior and three new engines, including a hybrid. This Camry is also more expensive than previous generations, with the base-model price ringing up at more than $2,000 above last year's version. But wait, there is a theme here: reason and practicality be damned. This mid-sized sedan is more wild and fancy-free, designed to shed its reputation for being a colossal bore and to provoke some raw emotion, appealing to drivers.

The 2018 Camry has an overhauled exterior, an enlivened interior and three new engines, including a hybrid.

"I wanted to make the new Camry cool without reason," said Masato Katsumata, Toyota's chief engineer of mid-sized vehicles.

This is the polite way of saying that Dad, the stereotypically practical, reasonable, family-toting figure who helped make Toyota's Camry the top-selling car in the United States and, in fact, one of the most popular cars in the world, is no longer wanted on the voyage. In today's shrinking market for mid-sized family sedans – one that crossover and sport utility vehicles are chewing through at an alarming pace – even the United States' No. 1 car needs more than just Dad (and the family he's known to haul along with him) to keep it tops on the road.

The first step in making over the Camry's staid, solid reputation was to change its looks. The 2018 Camry has been nipped and tucked in all the right places. In fact, it has been tarted up in both the S (Sport) and L (Luxury) trim lines. This is a good thing and an indicator of more exciting changes inside.

The first step in making over the Camry’s staid, solid reputation was to change its looks.

Known for its historically boxy shape and a slightly bulbous hood, the revamped Camry shows off plenty of curves accented by athletic lines that give the sedan the appearance of having added some muscle, which it has under the hood in both the S and L iterations. While the vehicle's overall length has been extended and its wheelbase has been widened, the roof and hood have been noticeably lowered for a sleeker silhouette. This is enhanced by optional two-tone paint in S-line vehicles ($540), which adds a coat of black paint to the vehicle's roof, spoiler and side mirrors to enhance the sporty look. Up front, the new grille tips its hat to Lexus's controversial-but-distinctive spindle grille. The effect is particularly smart on the S-line edition, which has a teeth-bared look that appears hungry for road even at a standstill. The look is fierce alongside newly available 19-inch wheels.

Up front, the Camry’s new grille tips its hat to Lexus’s controversial-but-distinctive spindle grille. The effect is particularly smart on the S-line edition, top.

The exterior makeover is designed to draw the much-sought gaze not of Dad, but of double-income, career-building couples in their early 40s, Toyota says. They live in newer suburban homes, work white-collar jobs and spend their weekends immersed in arts, culture and sports. They are creative. They love nature. They "want to do the right thing, which has earned them a reputation amongst their peers as being well-grounded and authentic," Beatty said.

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Here's the clincher, though: "Many have decided not to have children," he said.

That's right, folks. The back seats belonging to these particular drivers that Toyota is in pursuit of shall not be laden with well-worn car seats or the cheesy-smelling fairy dust that ground-up Goldfish Crackers yield. This demographic's unblemished surfaces hold expensive, hand-stitched weekender bags packed with the contents needed for a relaxing weekend away.

Winning over these target drivers is key to reinvigorating not just the market for Camry, but the intermediate sedan segment, Beatty said. He noted that many of them seek out "transformational moments."

If they even so much as sit in a new Camry, particularly if they've ridden any of the yawn-inducing versions of generations past, they're likely to have one.

The interior of the 2018 Camry looks nothing like one might expect of the brand. Gone are the oversized knobs and dials and the blah-boring centre-stack, which was about as visually inspiring as watching paint dry. In its place is a dynamic, Y-shaped, three-dimensional dash anchored by a glossy black seven- or eight-inch touchscreen, depending on the model. The look is tidy, modern and functions as yet another panoramic-roofed reminder that dad's old Camry is fast becoming a relic.

The interior of the 2018 Camry looks nothing like one might expect of the brand.

Instead of leaning on Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, Toyota opted to integrate its proprietary Entune 3.0, an infotainment suite that combines connectivity, navigation and entertainment all managed through a smartphone app. This is a bold move that will irritate some drivers right off the bat.

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Their full rage, though, is unlikely to unfold until they actually try to use the Scout GPS on, say, an unfamiliar island with plenty of unpaved, red-dirt side roads. Scout uses cell service to bring up moving maps on a smartphone; Bluetooth transmits the map to the vehicle's display screen. In theory, drivers get directions and traffic updates in real time. In practice, our tester delivered them inconsistently and often with delays. In areas where cell service was spotty, cues to make turns were late or didn't come at all. We were occasionally encouraged to whip down a cottage side road that, potholed with just one "lane," seemed to flaunt reason. Scout was buggy to say the least, including for Toyota's on-site experts who spent much time trying to force the app to co-operate in the fleet of demo cars. For our part, we executed many an unplanned U-turn (the nimble Camry's turning radius is excellent, by the way).

Gone are the oversized knobs and dials and the blah-boring centre-stack. In its place is a dynamic, Y-shaped, three-dimensional dash anchored by a glossy black touchscreen.

Those U-turns were really no hardship as we got acquainted with the Camry's suite of new engines, which offer the most surprising changes. The two new gas powertrains include a 2.5-litre four-cylinder that puts out 203 horsepower (25 more than the previous generation) and a 3.5-litre V-6, which adds 33 more horsepower than before, for a total of 301. The V-6 option is increasingly rare in the segment, as many rivals, including Honda's Accord, have opted to drop it. Both gas models come mated to a new, eight-speed automatic transmission and boast gains in fuel efficiency. There is also a hybrid option, which Toyota promises is one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road, period. Its power output and drive feel are good; if you test it, stick to eco or normal mode. In sport mode, its attempt to growl comes off as a whine that grates after a few kilometres.

All three Camry variants are built atop the Toyota New Global Architecture, a highly rigid platform that boosts vehicle performance and ride quality. It also allows the driver to sit lower and closer to the centre of the vehicle, a surprisingly comfortable shift that gives a more surprising connection to the road, given previous generations' ambivalence to connecting driving with, well, fun.

The big surprise here is the pleasure that flows from driving this Camry – in each iteration, without exception. It is equally at home cruising the highway as it is deftly ducking pylons on an off-road course. This Toyota is game for anything. Those are not characteristics one would expect from dad's ole Camry.

TECH SPECS

  • Base price: $26,390
  • Engines: 2.5-litre inline four-cylinder; 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V-6
  • Transmission/drive: eight-speed automatic
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.1 city, 5.7 highway
  • Alternatives: Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu, Mazda 6

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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