2018 Toyota Camry SE Rental Review – Three Dressed Up as a Nine?

It has been one of automotive history’s great rivalries and, like many such contests throughout history, it’s always been a bit more one-sided than we would like to remember.

In 1982, the Toyota Camry arrived on these shores to do battle against the newly revised second-generation Honda Accord. Their rivals have come and gone, changing names and market positions, but the Camry and Accord have marched in neat lockstep through seven generations. During most of the past 35 model years the Toyota has managed to outsell the Honda, often through the black magic of fleet sales but sometimes just due to consumer preference. Yet this sales supremacy hasn’t been matched by critical acclaim. With just one exception — the stunning “XV10” Camry of 1992 — the autowriters, autocrossers, and auto-didact auto-enthusiasts have always preferred the Accord.

Did I say there was one exception? For me, there have been two. When I rented an XV50 (2012-2017) Camry SE for the first time, I expected to find yet another ho-hum family hauler with delusions of monochrome sporting grandeur. To my immense surprise and delight, I discovered that this light and lithe minimalist wedge was actually absolutely brilliant both on and off the racetrack. 2012 was the final year for the bloated and joyless eighth-gen Accord and I felt that the new Toyota easily surpassed it in virtually all respects. This was a short-lived victory, to say the least. The 2013 Accord might not have quite matched its crosstown competition in terms of chassis dynamics, but it offered a more boutique-feeling experience with the further enthusiast incentive of a clutch pedal.

Five years of playing second fiddle later, Toyota has a new Camry SE once more. This car boasts class-leading power, massively aggressive looks, and a price that re-emphasizes the company’s desire for sales leadership away from the fleets. On paper at least, it’s a significant improvement over the old car. The only problem is that Honda has a new Accord on the way. It’s the ninth round of this battle. Can Toyota win, either on points or through a clean 1992-style knockout?

After five hundred miles with a fresh-to-the-fleet Camry SE, I’m saddened to report that things don’t look good for the challenger from Kentucky. Far from being a pre-emptive strike against next year’s Accord, this new Toyota finds itself unable to even land a decisive punch on the half-decade-old Honda that’s slowly draining from showroom inventories as we speak.

The no-fuss, slab-sided look of the 2012 Camry underwent a significant corruption in the mid-cycle refresh, presumably to prepare us for this flame-surfaced, furious-faced lump of a sedan. The saggy nose and tail are surprisingly reminiscent of the 2007 model, which is not good news. In SE trim, the car fairly bristles with scattershot surface excitement. There are spoilers and quasi-splitters and pseudo-air-extractors aplenty.

The week prior to picking up my rental tester from the Oakland airport, I happened to see an all-black SE in a parking lot down the street from my house. Trust me, that’s the color to get, mostly because it disguises all the black-plastic accessorizing. As was the case with the Oakleys-and-ballcap-wearing middle-aged owner (whose scowl was perhaps designed to distract attention from the fact that he was just five-foot-eight and pear-shaped once he was out of the car), this Camry’s visual aggression writes checks that the powertrain can’t dream of cashing.

The SE’s “Dynamic Force” 2.5-liter inline-four puts up some respectable numbers: 203 hp at 6600 rpm and 184 lb-ft at 5000 rpm. There’s a lot of room under that curve, and when you floor the throttle in the direction of freeway traffic the eight-speed automatic snaps off brisk shifts in short order, accompanied by a commendable lack of torque steer. It’s frankly impressive and I wonder if this Camry is not perhaps the fastest non-turbo four-cylinder Japanese-brand family sedan of all time. Unfortunately, if you’re not pressing the pedal into the carpet the transmission’s eagerness to grab the highest possible gear robs the engine of any possible urgency. Adding throttle short of the kickdown gets you absolutely nothing. Engaging the kickdown results in a cacophonous dropping of gears followed by a thrash forward but little actual acceleration unless you are 100 percent flat on it.

Moving the Lexus-feeling shift lever over to “Sport” should fix the situation, but what you get instead is a frankly bizarre transmission program in which the driver is expected to make the shifts (via the small wheel-mounted paddles) sometimes and let the car do it other times. The gear display will flat out lie to you, as is shown in this image of the center screen that claims “S8” when the car is actually in sixth. It’s never completely obvious when the paddles will summon an immediate shift and when they will merely stir some sort of diffident desire in the belly of the beast.

I did not have time during my California trip for a track test, so I had to do the next best thing. Old Creek Road runs between the 101 and the shore near Cayucos. It features more than five miles of off-camber, sharply-angled schizophrenia that should be covered by sane motorists at an average of about 15 to 20 miles per hour. I tripled that pace for a trio of runs up and down the road, keeping the transmission in Sport and issuing frequent paddle commands just to keep the Camry in either second or third gear. Under these conditions, the SE displayed commendable grip and adequate brakes.

That’s the good news.

Less good: The sense of tossable fun that characterized the 2013 Camry is long gone, drowned to death by the heavy-handed application of local Lidocaine to the steering. The rather generic-looking three-spoke wheel offers plenty of resistance but none of it seems to have any relation whatsoever to road conditions or available remaining traction. I know that Toyota can do better than this — the Lexus RC F burdens the driver with just as much faux-high-effort but you can at least feel some of the situation through your fingertips. This Camry, by contrast, is utterly inert. The old car had half the amount of required control effort and returned twice the fun.

Driving this Camry always feels like work. You argue with the powertrain, you crank the steering to no avail. The radar cruise control is absurdly conservative and in actual use will cause you to be the subject of constant dive-bombing out of the right lane. Every time this happens the car will brake hard to open up a “safe gap” that even in the shortest of the three available settings feels like half a football field, at which point the driver behind you will swerve around on the right. The lane-keep assist appears designed to create leisurely tankslappers via overcorrection. Turn it off or face the wrath of the local police who will no doubt blame E&J, rather than electronics and jerky control, for your blatant lane-weaving.

The “Eco” indicator in the center stack should come in for particular vitriol, as it makes zero sense. I’ll just show you a few images of the screen, and see if you can figure out how it works. If anybody gets it, I’ll respond in the comments.

The Camry’s lack of Android Auto or Apple Car Play has been discussed recently in these pages, but it also has to be said that the design of the center stack borders on the unforgivable. Take a look to the right side of the screen. Two of the four massive chrome buttons are for “seek left” and “seek right.” And although they are theoretically opposites, they are both shaped with a raised right edge. What’s the point to spending so much console real estate on a function that could just as easily be handled by the tuning knob on the far side? The volume knob is hidden behind the edge of the steering wheel. At least Toyota bothers to include a knob — recent Accords didn’t have one. On the other hand, the backup camera has no ability to predict your turning — a feature that was present in Accords four years ago.

Most of the interior materials choices, by contrast, are current and competitive. The center stack might be department-store Pioneer to the sleek Nakamichi of the Lexus IS350, but at least it’s made from sparkly plastic and trimmed on both sides by a high-quality chrome-ish dash applique. The seats are reasonably comfortable and look like they will wear well. I’m confused by the presence of a grey headliner in a black interior but it, too, looks to be a step above the old mouse fur.

All of these criticisms should be viewed in light of the fact that this car, as tested, would retail for just over $26,000 including destination. That’s a spectacular value, particularly when you consider the suite of electronic gimmicks. Even with a moonroof and blind-spot monitoring this is not quite a $30K automobile. So it seems uncharitable to gripe too much about a 200-plus-horsepower sedan that returns over 40 miles per gallon on the freeway and will likely last 200,000 miles with no trouble.

The only problem is that I liked the old car better. I also like the 2017 Accord better. In fact, I like my 2014 Accord better, even once I forget about the V6 and manual transmission.

Buyers hoping for the return of the 1992 Camry will be disappointed. This is the return of the 2007 Camry — big, round, and bland. What’s going to happen when the Accord debuts with a far more stylish interior, a sleek, fastback-like body style, and a manual transmission to go with an urgent turbo engine and a hundred-plus pounds in weight savings? At that point, Toyota will be back to courting the fleets.

Don’t get me wrong. This is far from the worst choice you could make in the segment. I’d say it’s a third-place car, behind the Accord and the Mazda6. Traditionally, the Camry has done very well by combining middle-of-the-road desirability with best-in-class durability. That formula returns here with a vengeance. I just wish they’d done more to capture the spirit of 1992. Heck, I’d have been satisfied with the spirit of 2012. Those were good cars, and made cheaper now with the arrival of a successor.

This rivalry between Camry and Accord is probably two rounds and some mandatory electrification away from being over. Right now, however, Honda appears to have a commanding lead.

[Images: © Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars]

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