Test Drives

2019 Toyota Camry review: The less staid, the better

A radical rethink of the Toyota Camry sees it trade sedateness for sportiness. But is it still a Camry?

SINGAPORE — Basically there are two kinds of people in the world: the sort who want to have the biggest wedding they can possibly afford, and the type who would rather have the smallest wedding they can get away with.

No prizes for guessing which one the Camry is for — its eminently sensible nature suits the most level-headed people in the country.

That applies not just to the new, eighth-generation Camry, mind you, but to the models before it as well. More than most cars, it’s defined by its target market.

Speak to a Toyota salesman at Borneo Motors and he’ll likely sing the Camry buyer’s praises. They’re loyal and often trade one Camry for another. They’re also fuss-free in the sense that they know what they want and seldom quibble about pricing; they’re simply not the kind to try and squeeze blood from a stone.

That raises a question with this sporty-looking new Camry: is it for traditional fans of the car? 

One glance at generation-eight suggests that you’re dealing with a different beast altogether, after all. It’s lower-slung than before, thanks to a switch to the Toyota New Global Architecture platform, and it’s more cigar-shaped, with an epic 50mm stretch to the wheelbase.

The 2.5-litre model we drove has its wheelarches nicely filled by 18-inch wheels, and it’s more feminine in its curves, with a flowing silhouette instead of a boxy one.

What’s significant is that it looks tasty in red, whereas previous models might have looked strange in such a bold colour.

Will traditional buyers like it? Well, a muscular shape hasn’t hurt the new Lexus ES, put it that way, and that car has usually been associated with people who have understated tastes.

Why bring up the ES? You’ll never find anyone from Toyota or Lexus to say it, but the two are sister cars. That’s not to say they’re just the same machine with different badges, especially since they do feel distinct behind the wheel, but there are overlapping features.

The Camry 2.5 pretty much has the same naturally-aspirated (that is, non-turbo) 2.5-litre engine and eight-speed auto as the ES 250, for one thing. The 2.0, meanwhile, gets by with a carryover drivetrain with the six-speeder.

That aside, both cars don’t really feel the same. The more expensive car has the edge on refinement, but the Camry is a surprisingly nice car to drive in its own right. Push it hard around corners and it feels very well-planted and balanced, with the sort of body behaviour that sees it stave off body roll well.

The Camry rides on touring tyres so there isn’t an enormous amount of cornering grip, and the steering is geared gently, but compared to a Sport Utility Vehicle or crossover (like, say, Toyota’s own Harrier) it handles like a sportscar.

That non-turbo engine means it isn’t a quick car, though it isn’t slow. You just need to rev the engine hard before it feels properly awake, but given the well-sorted handling you do wish for more firepower under the bonnet.

That said, the engine is tuned for economy and refinement, and the Camry’s nature is such that you’ll drive it gently most of the time to savour the plushness of the experience. If the idea of plushness makes it sound a bit like the last Camry, it’s worth pointing out that it feels completely new, almost alien.

While undeniably comfortable, the new Camry departs from its predecessor in some obvious ways. You sit lower in the car, for starters, because it sits lower to the ground itself. The ride is firm without being crashy, and the seats feel altogether more meatily padded. Before they were soft and plush, but these feel more supportive, as if designed for terrific long-distance use.

But of course, it’s still a Camry, so certain things are to be expected, such as an emphasis on rear passenger comfort, especially on the passenger side. In seconds you can flip the front seat’s headrest out of the way, and there are buttons that let you move the chair out of the way to create more room.

In the 2.5 there are pull-up window shades, and an electric rear blind — all handy if you intend to use your Camry with a chauffeur, naturally. Not that it’s done much here, but you it’s nice to know you could if you wanted. Especially since the five-centimetres of extra metal between the axles has created plenty of legroom in the back.

In essence, the Camry has managed to gain sharpness without losing its plush, big car feel.

But not every update is a success. The entertainment system is easy enough to use, but pairing it with an Android phone is dreadfully complicated (and using it with an Apple one is simple, because you can’t).

The equipment level is a mixed bag, as well. There are important active safety items such as lane-keep assistance and a forward collision warning system (something that verifiably prevents accidents), but a blind spot monitor would have been useful, too.

Surprising omissions in this segment in this day and age include a wireless charging pad and ventilated front seats.

But at least the 2.5 is priced well. It only costs S$8,000 more than the 2.0. That’s not a lot more to pay for a newer, more powerful engine and better gearbox, but the extra money buys worthwhile kit, too.

Apart from the active safety features mentioned above, the 2.5 has a powered driver’s seat whose memory can be paired with the key, and an electrically-adjustable steering column. It also has an active cruise control system, which uses radar to lock on to a target car and follow its speed.

Both versions have seven airbags, a reverse camera and satellite navigation, so Camrys are basically equipped with the stuff that counts, but we do think the 2.5 represents better value.

How does that relate to all that earlier talk about a Camry buyer being too sensible to splurge on a giant wedding? That’s precisely the point we were trying to make about the typical Camry customer being savvy enough to focus on what’s important.

There’s every chance the sharp new looks and tidy handling of the latest Camry will draw new buyers to its flock, but all the same, the usual fans of the car will probably recognise its trademark attributes — even if they come wrapped in bold lines that look good in red.

Toyota Camry 2.5

Engine 2,487cc, inline 4 
Power 206hp at 6600rpm
Torque 250Nm at 5000rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic 
0-100km/h 210km/h (estimated) 
Top Speed 9.1 seconds
Fuel Efficiency 6.5L/100km
VES Band / CO2 C1 / 152g/km
Agent Borneo Motors
Price S$149,988 with COE
Availability Now

about the author

Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.