Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: August 10, 2020
Well here’s an embarrassing story with our new 2020 Toyota Camry test vehicle. After clicking the keyfob to unlock the doors, and settling into the soft fabric seats, I couldn’t find the darn start button. Considering I haven’t driven this generation of Camry before, I became flustered and thought it had mystically been relocated to somewhere obscure. I did own a Saab once. Left, right, up, down, nothing. In my defence, I had no idea what kind of Camry I was actually driving. The badge on the trunk lid said SE, but who knows what that means nowadays with convoluted naming schemes made to confuse the consumer rather than educate. Turns out, SE is just one rung above base, and yes we are spoiled by reviewing six-figure supercars but we test everything, budget economy cars as well. Lo and behold, I found the culprit, a little slot on the right side of the steering column. This is new technology apparently. There’s a shiny round button on the keyfob that ejects a rectangular piece of metal, kind of like a door key. You slot it into the hole, turn it, and the engine magically fires up. Got to say, it’s been a while.
SE may trick buyers into thinking it’s some sort of ‘Special Edition’ but ironically enough, ours actually was, a Camry Nightshade Edition to be more specific, commanding a $2,000 premium over the SE’s standard $28,550 price tag. Nightshade is an aesthetics-only package that blacks out every exterior panel, including the window trim, side mirrors, door handles, rear spoiler, badging, and even the 18-inch wheels. If you were planning on spec’ing your Camry this way aftermarket, why not just have it come straight from the factory? One catch is that it’s only available with the Camry SE front-wheel drive variant. So no AWD here. It’s also only available in two colours, white and black, but in my eyes, black is the only way to have the Camry, because it hides those wonky black strips hanging off the taillights that make it look like it’s crying.
Special edition aside, the Camry delivers exactly what you’d expect from its famous nameplate and storied history: a standout ride with soft riding mannerisms and a wholesome powertrain that delivers stout, naturally aspirated power without any fuel consumption penalties. Under the hood of our front-driving Camry is a free-breathing 2.5-litre four-cylinder that produces 202 hp and 184 lb-ft. These are not stellar figures on paper but hammer down the throttle and the petite engine will get this Camry up in a jiffy, even without turbochargers or all-wheel drive. The power delivery is smooth and gentle as well, lending a hand to its calm demeanor when cruising around town. Frugal fuel consumption comes with that claim, as we averaged an impressive 9.4 L/100km in city driving alone. Look for the Hybrid if you desire an even lower number.
We have always believed that 300 horsepower is all that a mid-size sedan or coupe would ever need - anything more is pure excess. In this case, 200 hp feels just right for the Camry, but Toyota does offer a more potent 301 hp V6 in the more expensive XSE, TRD, and XLE trims. If you want a speedy family hauler that successfully flies under the radar, this is it. Not even the RAV4 can be spec’d with this engine. Granted, the entrance fee does reach into the $40,000 mark, but it’s the venerable 3.5-litre V6 that has been around for ages, is also found in Lexus -350 models, and is a bulletproof powerplant rumoured to outlast even Twinkies after the apocalypse.
The Camry SE routes those horsemen, I mean horses, through a soft-shifting and well-polished 8-speed automatic transmission. None of that buzzing and whining Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) sorcery here. As a result, the Camry glides about with nary a hint of engine drone. There’s a certain appeal to its quiet attitude and relaxed ride. It’s nowhere near as supple or as absorbent as the Lexus ES 300, but it’s damn good for its price point. It happily tackles pockmarked roads and bumps, dismissing them with a blasé and almost aloof manner, keeping occupants as isolated as possible. This ain’t no TRD trim afterall but if sporty is on the menu, the TRD offers a spicier body kit, rear spoiler, new exhaust tips, a re-tuned and lower suspension, larger brakes, and unique wheels. Clearly, the Camry is targeting a more youthful buyer. To be frank, we don’t love driving the Camry, but we don’t hate it either. It’s easier to view it as an effective automotive appliance rather than an emotionally stimulating piece of engineering.
Which brings us to the rivaling Honda Accord, because in the grand picture and especially where driving fun is concerned, the Accord is miles ahead with a peppier turbo engine and a wonderfully balanced chassis. The Camry clearly takes a more leisurely focus towards driving and comfort and in that light, it overwhelmingly shines over the Subaru Legacy, Nissan Altima, and Hyundai Sonata. If quick, spirited, and engaging driving takes any priority on your checklist, I’d recommend the Accord instead. Just stay away from the CVT, and opt for the rarified manual if three pedals is up your alley.
It’s also the most visually striking Camry in Toyota’s lengthy history, maturing from an anonymous beige block into a more youthful shape with a sleeker silhouette. No longer blending into the concrete jungle, it now boasts distinctive lines, giving it more character than ever before. Inside takes a more subtle and conventional approach, though. Key ignition aside and despite its low trim level (SE is above LE but below XSE and XLE), the Camry impresses with a host of standard features and creature comforts to please the masses. That includes a rear view camera, Bluetooth connectivity, and heated driver and passenger seats. Of course, you can spend more to get features like a power moonroof, but we don’t expect many Camrys leaving the showroom fully loaded, considering its intended buyer and price point. The cabin remains well-built with excellent material quality and nary a gap or squeaky panel in sight. It’s spacious too, more so than a Mercedes C-Class and I’d say it’s even better than a BMW 5 Series, especially in the back. Headroom is excellent no matter where you sit, and my six-foot figure found comfort in any one of the five available seats.
The new 2020 Toyota Camry does nothing wrong but it does little to advance or excite the segment either. Blame that on its inherent formula and intended clientele. It’s a little more of the same, year after year. Slightly more tech, slightly more power, and a tempting price tag to lure in customers from all fronts. This is the same formula that Subaru follows, and with much success. The higher riding, equally as comfortable, and slightly better looking RAV4 would still be our chariot of choice, but those wishing for a family companion that takes a more casual approach to everyday driving, and checks all the boxes without breaking the bank, the Camry remains the gold standard.
Model: 2020 Toyota Camry SE Nightshade
Paint Type: Midnight Black
Base Price: $30,400
Price as Tested: $30,400
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower: 202 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 9.4 (mostly city)
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.3 / 6.8