CLE ELUM, WA – Toyota unleashes a new version of the reigning midsize-car champion when the ’12 Camry launches U.S. sales in October, but brand loyalists should not hold their breath.

The Camry has dominated its segment for most of the last decade. But in the five-and-a-half years since the current model debuted in early 2006, rivals have been on the move.

The seventh-generation Camry is a good effort, but not a great one. It likely will see Ford and Hyundai/Kia closing in, along with other popular brands looking to grab a piece of Toyota’s D-segment market share.

The ’12 Camry has 100% new sheet metal, although a side view reveals little difference between the current and new generation. Inside, however, the interior is completely reworked. And the hybrid version gets the latest-generation of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive Technology, introduced in the ’10 Prius.

Other than a more spacious interior, much of the Camry is carryover, including its dimensions; suspension; and non-hybrid engines and transmissions.

Like the new Honda Civic and Nissan Versa, both of which are No.1 in their segments, the Camry is another next-generation model that goes largely unchanged. That’s disappointing, but at least the Camry’s few tweaks are for the better.

The ’11 Camry Hybrid’s 31/35 mpg (7.6-6.7 L/100 km) rating, which falls far behind the ’12 Ford Fusion Hybrid’s 41/36 mpg (5.7-6.5 L/100 km). So it’s no surprise the ’12 fuel sipper receives the most modifications. These include:

  • Swapping out the 147-hp 2.4L 4-cyl. for a 156-hp 2.5L 4-cyl.
  • Upping the compression ratio from 10.4:1 to 12.5:1.
  • Eliminating exhaust-port variable valve timing.
  • Adding cooled exhaust-gas recirculation technology.
  • Slicing vehicle weight by using more high-tensile-strength steel.
  • Improving aerodynamics by incorporating underbody covers, fins and aerodynamic corners.

All this leads to an estimated 43/39 mpg (5.5-6.0 L/100 km) in the ’12 Camry Hybrid’s LE grade. The XLE, trimmed out and slightly heavier, is estimated at 41/38 mpg (5.7-6.2 L/100 km), Toyota says.

Also requiring attention were the noise, vibration and harshness issues plaguing the current hybrid model. Mission accomplished.

The brakes are less touchy in the ’12 model, requiring more than just a tap of the pedal to slow the car. And obscure electronic noises, a hallmark of many early hybrids, are gone.

But there is vibration in the accelerator pedal during mid-speed driving, although rough pavement likely plays a role. The electric power steering is direct and heavy. And while loosening up at higher speeds, the steering wheel has a boomerang-like return to center that takes some getting used to.

Covering 44 miles (71 km) at an average speed of 39 mph (63 km/h), the new Hybrid XLE returns a respectable 40.6 mpg (5.8 L/100 km). Our best fuel-economy gain in the car is 47.8 mpg (4.9 L/100 km).

Driving the 268-hp non-hybrid V-6 SE tester, or “sport” grade, proves little different from the 178-hp, 4-cyl. Camry LE. Both have taut yet supple suspensions; respond fast to steering inputs; exhibit linear, rapid acceleration; and produce minimal body roll in cornering quickly.

The new Camry retains its MacPherson strut-type front and independent dual-link strut-type rear suspensions. Inversely wound front coil springs, the addition of electric power steering and arevised rear-suspension geometry improve straight-line performance, a main Toyota engineering goal for the ’12 model.

’12 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 156 hp @ 5,700 rpm (200 hp net)
Torque 156 lb.-ft. (212 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 90 x 98
Compression ratio 12.5:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 189.2 ins. (480 cm)
Overall width 71.7 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height 57.9 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,441 lbs. (1,561 kg)
Base price To be announced
Fuel economy 41/38 mpg (5.7-6.2 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Volkswagen Passat, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy
Pros Cons
Class-leading fuel economy Same old gas engines
Soft interior surfaces Hard plastic knobs, pillar trim
Redone front, rear Exterior body sides not very different

The SE’s front suspension boasts weight-reducing and rigidity-boosting steering knuckles and lower arms; rebound springs; and a bigger, solid stabilizer bar for sportier handling. Rebound springs are added to the rear suspension, as is an agility-improving No.1 control arm with a pillow-ball joint.

Optimized front and rear shock absorbers, plus retuned rear bushings, improve the ride comfort of all Camry grades, Toyota says.

The LE is the clear fuel-economy winner, with a hybrid-like 38.8 mpg (6.1 L/100 km), well above the SE’s 22.6 mpg (10.4 L/100 km) average traveling the same route. The sole transmission for ’the 4-cyl. and V-6 models is a 6-speed automatic.

However, both the LE and SE grades see an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 2 mpg (0.9 km/L) average fuel-economy bump compared with the ’11 models. Toyota accomplishes this by cutting curb weight 150-200 lbs. (68-91 kg); extending torque-converter lockup range to low and high throttle openings; and adding low-rolling resistance tires.

The 4-cyl. achieves an estimated 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km), on par with the direct-injected, 4-cyl., 6-speed automatic Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima, while the V-6 models average 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km).

With all of Toyota’s hype about a more-emotional Camry, it was easy to envision the’12 model sporting new technologies such as gasoline direct injection or turbocharging, a la the Sonata and Optima. But it was not to be.

Toyota’s engineering team says DI proved too expensive and unnecessary given the car’s class-leading average fuel economy.

As muted as the new Camry’s exterior changes are, the thinner, wider grille that integrates the previously separated headlamp is an improvement from the schnoz-centric current model.

Taking its advertising tagline to heart, the car’s raised rear cabin and more aerodynamic wedge-shape creates the illusion of a Camry “moving forward,” Toyota says. The car’s character line, which flows out of the shoulder area, repeats the wedge theme.

Toyota wisely called for a thorough redo of the interior, an important counter to industry consensus that puts the Japanese brands at the back of the pack for cabin quality.

A slew of seat fabrics that includes faux leather and suede, with colors and textures sometimes mixed in, are a definite improvement.

The layered instrument panel, with the surface area swathed in stitched, soft-touch faux-leather material, is a considerable upgrade from the outgoing Camry, whose interior served as a poster child for hard plastic.

The center stack’s design resembles an iPad. Its square edges and overall clean button and knob layout make it a winner. However, the plastic, hollow-feeling climate-control knobs, fabric-less pillars and plain interior door panels still could use some work.

The Camry is roomy inside, especially in the rear compartment where the back of the center console is carved out for increased foot-room in the middle seat. An illusion of more space also is provided by thinner B-pillars.

To summarize: The ’12 Camry’s driving dynamics are up to snuff; the interior has generous soft surfaces, enough to obscure the hard plastic elements; and fuel economy is class-leading.

But there should be more innovation. With the exception of the hybrid, the new Camry basically is a refresh of a nearly 6-year-old car.

Either Toyota wasn’t able to react in time to the Boom!! Pow!! of the Hyundai/Kia twins, or it’s counting on its legions of Camry owners to be unmoved by sexier, more tech-savvy entrants.

Camry owners’ average age has been climbing, and younger buyers typically want something a bit more stylish than what Toyota continues to serve up.

Whether the Camry is a missed opportunity may depend on how the next-gen Ford Fusion and ’13 Chevy Malibu stack up. But it does appear the midsize-sedan playing field may be tilting back toward the rest of the pack.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com