Redesigned midsize car feels like the hit the company needs
by: Courtesy of Toyota Motor Company New crisp styling and improved handling are just a few of the improvements in the 2012 Toyota Camry.

The redesigned 2012 Toyota Camry is being released just when the Japanese automaker needs a hit. Sales of the company's cars are lagging because of previous news about safety defects and the tsunami that disrupted production. And more high-quality cars are now on the market than ever before, including many models from revived American and upstart South Korean manufacturers.

Toyota engineers could not have known about these challenges when they started designing the new Camry five years ago. They just wanted to keep their best-selling car at the head of the pack. Fortunately for them, they did just about everything right. Although the same basic size and shape as the last-generation Camry, the new model is best in every way, including more interior room, upgraded interior materials, and both more power and better mileage from all available engines.

For the 2012 Camry, the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. The exterior styling is crisper, with a lower, more angular air dam. The suspension is firmer but not too harsh to discourage the traditional buyers looking for a solid, reliable family car. The dash now has an attractive multi-layer look that is much more pleasing to the eye than slab of plastic in the previous generation. The seats are also better bolstered, improving the driving environment. And the fuel economy is as good or better than most other midsize cars, with the hybrid version seeing a better than 30 percent boost in mileage.

The redesigned Camry is hitting showrooms when competition among midsize family sedans has never been hotter. In recent years, Ford has introduced the excellent-handling Fusion, which includes an optional hybrid version that drives like a conventional car. Hyundai is winning awards for its Sonata while corporate partner Kia offers the sportier Optima sibling - both of which also offer hybrid options. The redesigned Volkswagen Passat is available with a high-mileage clean diesel engine. And Chevy is about to release a redesigned Malibu that is both larger and more economical than the current model.

In comparison to these models, the new Camry is not the most stylish, sportiest or technologically advanced midsize car on the market. But it does everything well and nothing badly, giving it broad appeal.

Out test car was the top-of-the-line XLE version with the 3.5-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. It was very easy to live with during a week of test driving. On the road, it felt light but stable. The suspension easily soaked up road imperfections but was relatively flat through corners. The V6 was flexible enough to loaf around town and hustle up to freeway speeds without straining. The optional heated leather seats were comfortable and supportive without being confining. And visibility was good all around thanks to the large front and rear windows.

Our test car was equipped with the optional navigation and entertainment package that included Toyota's new Entune multimedia system. It allows owners of mobile smartphones to access some apps through the system while on the road, including the most up-to-date road maps. Toyota is betting that many buyers are now comparing connectivity options when decided which cars to buy, so expect to see the company pushing its Entune system in coming years.

For the enthusiast with a family, Toyota offers the SE version of the Camry, complete with better-bolstered front seats and a unique three-spoke steering wheel with paddle shifters for the six-speed auto. Although these features might not seem as sporty as, say, the Optima with the turbocharged inline 4, they prove that Toyota is trying to broaden the appeal of the Camry for younger drivers.

Perhaps even more important, Toyota has cut the prices of all levels of Camry models, from the base LE to the hybrid version. This is the case, even though the company has improved the quality with more welds for increased rigidity, more insulation for a quieter ride and improved interior materials in every trim level.

Toyota has a lot riding on the new Camry. It has been the best selling family car in American for 13 of the last 14 years, including the last nine. Maintaining that lead is important to the company's goal of recovering from its recent spell of missteps and bad luck. All the improvements in the 2012 Camry at least gives Toyota fighting chance.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 Camry.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Midsize car.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door sedan.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline 4 (178 hp, 170 ft-lbs); 2.5-liter inline 4 PZEV (173 hp, 165 ft-lbs); 2.5-liter inline 4/electric motor hybrid (200 hp combined); 3.5-liter V6 (268 hp, 248 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 25/35; 21/30 (as tested); 43/39 hybrid.

• Prices: Starting around $22,955 ($33,372 as tested).

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