The 2018 Toyota Camry Wants You to Forget Everything You Know About Camrys

With a shouty grille and a 301-horsepower V6, this isn't the beige conveyance you remember.

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Toyota

Everyone has had a Toyota Camry in their life. You’ve passed one; you’ve sat in one; you’ve owned one; you’ve opened your door into one. Statistically, it was silver.

Ten million Camrys have coasted onto American highways. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but the truth is that these mid-size Japanese sedans are too ubiquitous even for that. They’re invisible. I had a Camry in my youth. It wasn’t silver. It was beige. I think.

However, the Camry went away for the summer and came back with a sweet tan. There’s a new, stiffer architecture and three new engines. (Baby Bear: 203-to 206-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Mama Bear: 208-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder/electric hybrid. Papa Bear: 301-hp, 3.5-liter V-6.) It’s longer. One inch lower. You can order a panoramic glass roof. The sport grades include a spoiler, which is how you know things are getting serious.

The day the 301-hp XSE arrived on my doorstep was a fine, sunny driving day, ripe for revving engines and rabbiting pulses. I wasn’t particularly expecting a Camry to rouse my limbic system—one does not squeeze an orange and hope for apple juice.

Then I noticed the leather. The seats were Tarantino red, so bright, I can’t stop remembering their redness. As far as shortcuts to emotion go, it’s not bad. You might not feel good about that color, but you’re gonna feel something.

"I couldn’t help but notice," my postman observed, "that the seats of your new car are very red." Later, my brother commented, "this is the ugliest interior I’ve seen in a long time."

I liked the red. It was like a scream in a dentist’s office.

Everyone should be able to appreciate how substantial the new interior is. Unlike the previous Camry, which came off like the anonymous rental car it often was, this cabin looked like it was actually designed. Attention to detail, like stitching on the dash, suggested luxury. "Someone," the Camry murmured, "gave a damn about me."

I took to Virginia back roads to see if its performance mettle matched those audacious seats. Okay, look—it was surprisingly fun. Whereas much of the segment has ditched the six-cylinder in favor of turbo fours, Toyota has reengineered it, making it more powerful than ever: 301 hp at 6600 rpm. There’s also a new eight-speed automatic. Use the steering-wheel paddle to drop a gear, and there’s an audible grumble.

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Toyota

The chassis has been beefed up along with the engine. The body is 30 percent stiffer, Toyota says, and the rear suspension has traded struts for a more sophisticated double-wishbone setup. The Camry clung to back roads with startling athleticism, staying reasonably flat even under duress.

However, this is still a big, front-wheel-drive sedan. Under hard acceleration, the wheel jerked in my hands as traction control cut power unpredictably. When the needle crept up rounding Blue Ride hairpins, the 19-inch tires gave up sticking and took up wailing and rending garments. Those 301 rumbly horses were marvelous, but it was easy to outrun the brakes with them. Both the pedal feel and steering were too pillowy to encourage any dreams of track days. Woman, thy name is understeer. Sportier than its parents? Yes. But the XSE lands at $35,845 (nearly $40,00 fully loaded), which makes its closest true competitor not the Nissan Altima, but the Audi A4 or the BMW 320i. Both offer more assured driving experiences.

But let’s be real: The Camry doesn’t have to perform better than a BMW. It has to perform better than the old Camry and, just as important, the crossovers that have been devouring its market share of late. And it does that. Easily.

Moreover, flawless performance isn’t what generates emotion. Specificity of experience does. Creating an object that serves as a mirror for its owner: the cultish Beetle, Out- back, or Jeep. These cars say something about their owners. A Jeep waves at another Jeep. “Such a Miata person,” one says, and we nod with understanding.

What does it mean to be a Camry person? The car still stands for practicality, safety, and value: a head-up display and a suite of semiautonomous safety features (like automatic braking) come standard on the XSE, as does a trunk large enough for whatever wild animal you hit when you outstrip the brakes. But now Toyota has also given it a little something else.

At the end of the week, I took the Camry out again. When I returned to the parking lot, I found the XSE surrounded, as ever, by older Camrys. With its black roof and yawning mouth, the XSE was outlandish by comparison—leaner, hungrier, younger, riskier. It was nothing like the beige Camry of my youth. Some people will despise this car.

That’s a step in the right direction.

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