We've driven every version of the current Camry model and we were impressed with all of them, though they differ in character, intent and appeal. We were seriously impressed with four-cylinder manual and V6 automatic models, not only with the overall packaging, but also with the clear distinctions among the different models, both inside and underneath.
The LE with the four-cylinder engine and automatic delivers decent performance and power, and will probably be enough for most daily driving. We did feel some torque steer, a light left-right tugging at the steering wheel under full throttle. It's a common phenomenon with front-wheel drive, but we expect it more with light, powerful cars. Fit and finish are very good, with zero buzzes, squeaks or rattles, and tight tolerances between panels and parts. Yet wind and road noise are audible.
The Camry LE V6 is another story, because there is no shortage of power here. The 268-hp V6 engine eagerly spins all the way up to its programmed limiter at 6500 rpm, and it's silky smooth throughout. It pulls without stumble from 1000 rpm in any gear, and the driver won't feel as if he or she is waiting for the transmission to find the right gear so the car can get going. The LE V6 will feel familiar to longtime Camry owners, just a little smoother, tighter and more powerful than older models.
The Camry SE is fun and entertaining to drive. Steering turn-in is more precise than we'd expect in a Camry, and cornering is solid and stable, with little body lean. Brake pedal feel and travel are soft and long by sports sedan standards.
The manual transmission in four-cylinder models shifts cleanly, if not with sports-car crispness. We really liked it in the Camry SE. Clutch engagement is smooth and easily managed. The brake and gas pedals are close enough to allow heel-and-toe shifting, which enthusiast drivers enjoy, though the process is not accomplished with ease. In all, we enjoyed the four-cylinder much more with the manual transmission, because it allows the driver to keep the engine working in the rpm range where it's most powerful. It makes for an engaging driving experience.
The Camry SE V6 is a car in which the driver might want to actually use the sequential manual shift feature on Toyota's six-speed automatic, and we liked it. In manual mode, the transmission will hold the chosen gear without shifting up, and it will downshift immediately with a click on the lever. The shifts are smooth, but quick and reassuringly certain.
The Camry XLE is more soft and floaty than firm and planted, though that doesn't mean it's wandering or imprecise. We were entirely comfortable and assured piloting it at a leisurely pace along gently curving two-lane byways and on lightly traveled or rush hour-packed, multi-lane highways. The XLE is a car you need not think about when driving. We found it very enjoyable, a good place to relax and enjoy the great sound system.
The Camry Hybrid tucked right in between the LE and the XLE in performance. Its hybrid powertrain combines a 147-hosepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a synchronous electric motor, yielding a net 187 horsepower. That's more than V6 Camrys offered just a few years ago. And the Hybrid can operate on just the electric motor at low speeds, a neat feature in stop-and-go traffic, crowded parking lots and around the neighborhood. The instantaneous torque from the electric motor augments acceleration. The Hybrid isn't as quick as the current V6 Camrys, which are among the strongest in the midsize class, but it's quicker than most people expect for a car with an environmentally friendly reputation.
For the most part, the Camry Hybrid is just as easy to operate as any other Camry, but there is a learning curve to mastering all of its idiosyncrasies. We occasionally struggled with trying to figure out whether the car was running. For example, when you press the push-button starter the car comes to life, ready to drive, but it isn't always obvious. The Hybrid is a very quiet car at a stop. When it's started, and sometimes even when you press the accelerator, the gas engine does not immediately fire, so you won't hear it or feel its slight hum of vibration. As a result, you may not realize that this Camry is ready for action. So you'll press the start button again, thinking it didn't fire the first time, and mistakenly turn the car off. The way to tell is to look for the Ready light next to the speedometer. If it's on, and if the shift lever will slide into gear, then the Hybrid is ready to go, even if the engine isn't running. Beyond that bit of familiarization, the Camry Hybrid is smooth, with solid acceleration.
In terms of ride, handling and interior comfort, the Camry Hybrid could easily fool us into thinking we were driving an XLE, except for the visual differences. The Hybrid's gauges include a graphic display of the powertrain's status (gas, electric or both), a welcome, real-time fuel economy gauge in place of the tachometer and a unique, abbreviated shift gate. The transitions from the electric motor powering the car to operating on gasoline only, and to both the motor and engine operating together, are quite smooth. Those transitions are noticeable, to be sure, but they're heard more than felt.
Active safety features are integrated into the Hybrid's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management package, or VDIM, which is a comprehensive anti-skid and stability program. The Hybrid also has electrically assisted power steering, which will provide steering assist when the car is operating on the electric motor alone. The anti-lock brakes include Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), which balances brake force front-to-rear, and Brake Assist, which recognizes a panic-stop situation and assists the driver in applying optimum braking force. The Hybrid also has regenerative braking, which charges the battery during stops. The VDIM manages a variety of sensors, including those for steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, and wheel speed, and reduces the likelihood of loss of control.