| 3:43 PM EST

The 2018 Toyota Camry: Goodbye Vanilla

The advertising tagline that Toyota’s been using is “Let’s Go Places.” The eighth-generation Camry is going places where the mass-market midsize sedan has rarely traveled.
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Fact one: the Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in America for the past 15 years. And it has been the best-selling midsize sedan by a non-trivial number. According to Autodata (motorintelligence.com), last year Toyota delivered 388,616 Camrys in the U.S. The Honda Accord came in second at 345,225. The Nissan Altima was third at 307,380. And the others are lower by 100,000 or more.

Fact two: U.S. consumers are buying light trucks—which includes everything from pickups to crossovers—at an ever-increasing rate. Consider the case of Toyota. The aforementioned number of Camrys in 2016 was off by 9.5 percent compared to 2015 sales. By way of comparison, the Toyota RAV4, which had 2016 sales of 353,154 units, was up by 11.6 percent.

So, given those two facts, one could presume that when it came to the eighth-generation, 2018 Camry, there would be two likelihoods. One is that the car would look sufficiently new, but not the sort of thing that would be in the least bit surprising. You know: the old saw about “why mess with success?” Clearly, Camry buyers over the last 15 years were more interested in quality, durability and reliability (QDR) than in style or fashion. And given that those numbers were trending downward, wouldn’t it make good managerial sense to take a “steady as she goes” approach to the new model instead of rocking the proverbial boat?

The other is that given the popularity of things like cross-overs, wouldn’t it be likely that when it came time to engineer the underlying structure for the sedan there would be a tendency to increase the ground clearance and seating H-point? This wouldn’t exactly be a Venza, but it would be something that was biased toward something physically elevated.

Guess what?

Masato Katsumata, chief engineer for the eighth-generation Camry, would have none of it. While he has respect for the Camrys that came before—and it is worth knowing that the Camry has been on sale in the U.S. since 1983 (Japan, 1982) and that is sold in more than 100 countries—he wanted to make his mark on the car in an unprecedented way.

He didn’t want the car to be thought of as an appliance or as a piece of furniture. He wanted to create a midsize sedan that would turn heads both in terms of the styling and the driving dynamics.

So scratch the notion of the 2018 Camry being styled like its predecessors.

And for the other idea, of creating something more crossover-like, that didn’t make the cut, either. Take ground clearance. For a 2017 Camry it is 6.1 inches. The 2018 is closer to the ground: 5.7 inches. And the new car is lower, 56.9 inches high versus 57.9, longer, 192.1 inches (for three out of five trims) versus 190.9 inches, wider, 72.4 inches versus 71.7 inches, and it has a longer wheelbase, 111.2 inches versus 109.3 inches for the 2017 model.
In fact, the 2018, with the exterior styling and the overall dimensions, is more of a sport sedan than a crossover, something that’s difficult not to discern. There is clearly a low center of gravity, and this is even manifest in the seating positions: the hip points have been lowered by 0.8 inches in the front and 1.2 inches in the back.

Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager, Toyota Div., Toyota North America, understands the incredible popularity and undeniable growth of the compact crossover (of which the aforementioned RAV4 is a beneficiary of, and he has great hopes for the C-HR). But Hollis points out that last year the midsize sedan segment is still non-trivial in size and that in his estimation, other automakers have seemingly pulled back on the segment in terms of providing compelling products. (It is interesting to note that in addition to the all-new Camry there will be an all-new Honda Accord coming later this year, and if you go back to the numbers in the first paragraph, you can get an understanding of why Toyota and Honda are putting design, engineering and manufacturing resources behind midsize sedans.)

Hollis talks about the 2018 Camry using words like “fun to drive” and “sporty.” But what about the aforementioned QDR that has been part and parcel of Camrys through the years? Hollis states that this is in no way diminished for the new model—remember, kaizen is continuous improvement, so his claim that “This is the single best Camry ever made” does have some substance in the context of the Toyota Production System—yet what they are trying to achieve, through the styling, higher performance powertrains and a new double wishbone rear suspension (versus the previous independent dual link setup), is something that will appeal to people who otherwise might not consider a Camry. Hollis, who acknowledges that the RAV4 may likely outsell the Camry in 2017, says that Toyota is looking to expand its portion of the market. Even if that segment is shrinking, there is no reason why not to try to reach out for more of it, and that’s what they’re doing with this new sedan.

If you look at the exterior styling—which Calty’s Studio Chief Designer Ian Cartabiano played a major role in (as he did with the Concept-i introduced at the 2017 CES and the Toyota FT-4X revealed at the 2017 New York Auto Show, which goes to say that Cartabiano, who moved to Japan for a period to work on the Camry, has been quite busy of late)—you can see a variety of creases, cuts and lines that are atypical for a midsize sedan of any pedigree or price point. (The styling theme is “Keen Look.”) Cartabiano wanted to make sure that the Camry would stand out. What’s more, he suggests that by having the most-sporty SE and XSE trims and the more mainstream L, LE and XLE trims, with the first two and the last three having two distinctive front end treatments, they’ve created nearly two different cars. And one of his goals was to create something that would be distinctive from 200 yards.

While it is certainly engaging to see the artistry in sheet metal, let’s face it: that material has to be stamped, and in terms of U.S. production, that stamping is occurring at the Georgetown, Kentucky complex, from which, Hollis notes, there are exports to 13 countries.

According to Katsumata, when the die and stamping engineers in Japan were presented with the design of the Camry—especially the piece that includes the C-pillar down through the rear quarter, which is an incredibly deep draw—he was delighted to discover that although they were certainly surprised, they exhibited something of a “sure-this-looks-impossible-but-let’s-do-it-anyway” approach. And did it.

The 2018 is based on the company’s TNGA architecture—Toyota New Global Architecture. In this specific case, the code for the platform is GA-K. The first time we learned of the platform was for the 2016 Prius. Then it was the 2018 CH-R. But Katsumata stresses that in the case of the Camry, it is the full implementation of TNGA because not only the platform is used, but also there are changes to the engines and transmission.

As regards the engines, there are two, including an all-new 206-hp four cylinder engine (called the “Dynamic Force Engine”) that features D-4S fuel injection (two injectors per cylinder, both direct and port). The engine features variable valve timing for both the intake and the exhaust. Then there is a 301-hp 3.5-liter V6. While the last generation Camry features engines with the same displacements, the horsepower for the new engines is significantly higher: 206 vs. 178, 301 vs. 268. This is in keeping with Katsumata’s desire to have a more exhilarating driving experience.

Both engines are mated to a direct-shift, eight-speed automatic with sequential shift mode.

It is important to note that there is another version of the 2018 Camry: a hybrid. It is equipped with a 176-hp four cylinder engine that is supplemented by an 88-kW permanent magnet synchronous motor. For the LE trim there is a lithium-ion battery pack. For the SE and XLE trims a nickel-metal-hydride battery is used. Given that the LE is the base model, it seems somewhat strange that it would be using the more advanced battery technology. But again, it gets back to the driving dynamic that Katsumata is looking for. He notes that the people who are likely to get the LE trim are more interested in fuel efficiency, so they’re getting the lighter battery. The system in the LE gets an EPA estimated 51 city, 53 highway, 52 combined miles per gallon. The drivers of the SE and XLE aren’t quite as interested in that; those trims have an estimated 44/47/46 mpg.

Without question, this eighth-generation Camry is unlike its many predecessors. If midsize sedans are diminishing in importance in the market, Toyota has certainly worked at creating something that will more than maintain its position in that space.