A middle model grade with a mid-tier engine within a medium car range seems about as exciting as, well, a Toyota Camry Ascent Sport badge might well indicate.
On paper the new-generation Camry – now built in Japan, not Australia – seems like nothing unexpected, with a four-cylinder petrol engine as its bread and some electric motor hybrid action smeared on as butter. It is about the same dimensions as before, with more equipment, similar pricing, plus cheap Toyota servicing and solid reliability.
Even the promise that this new-gen is now sexier and sportier than before seems like a cliché nowadays because seemingly every new Camry is launched that way, only to quickly gel into traffic as white-and-silver taxi, or nowadays Uber, appliances.
Perhaps now, though, as premium brands turn towards hybrid power, the joke could be on those who once scoffed at this three-box sedan and its maker. In true Toyota fashion, there’s the impression that its creators have quietly been going about making a better Camry, not a shouty one – so let’s see if that really is the case.
Vehicle Style: Medium sedan Price: $31,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 160kW 2.5 four-cylinder petrol + electric motor | automatic CVT
Fuel Economy Claimed: 4.2 l/100km | Tested: 5.7 l/100km
It is impossible to argue with the price and equipment featured in this hybrid-equipped Camry Ascent Sport, which asks $31,990 plus on-road costs.
Despite even this middle-grade model with an engine upgrade kicking off below the base price of a Ford Mondeo Ambiente, the new Holden Commodore LT, and the Mazda6 Sport, all of which are at least $500 pricier, this Toyota is jammed with kit.
Not only are 17-inch alloy wheels standard, but automatic up/down high-beam is too. Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) features, and so too do a lane-departure warning system and adaptive cruise control. There’s an 8.0-inch touchscreen with digital radio and navigation, dual-zone climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and even an electrically adjustable driver’s seat.
Plus, the 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol and electric motor combination produce 160kW of power, more than a Mondeo (149kW) and 6 (138kW) if not a Commodore (191kW). However, even the most frugal rival, the Mazda, claims to drink 6.6 litres per 100 kilometres. The Toyota? 4.2L/100km. Suddenly this all gets interesting.
Standard Equipment: Keyless auto-entry with push-button start, power windows and mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, multi-function trip computer, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, adaptive cruise control, cloth trim with electrically adjustable driver’s seat, automatic on/off headlights and high-beam, and vanity mirror lights Infotainment: 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, digital radio, satellite navigation with voice control, and ToyotaLink smartphone app connectivity. Options Fitted: None.
From 1987 until 2017 the Camry was made in Australia, and yet this new-gen model produced from 2018 in Japan comfortably sets a new standard for interior quality and fit-and-finish inside.
The way the soft-touch upper-dashboard plastics meld with harder lower trim is immaculate, where previously it could be patchy, and the press of every button and flick of every binnacle lid reveals a newfound tactility and consistency. The steering wheel is smaller and a delight to hold, and the driver’s seat is positioned lower.
An enhanced variation of Toyota’s typically sub-par modular infotainment system also proves to be a critical upgrade. The 8.0-inch touchscreen is a high-resolution unit that is simple to use, with the ‘home’ screen showing navigation flanked by fuel consumption and radio settings allowing a driver to easily flick between them.
Even better is a hugely improved voice control system that now permits ‘one shot’ entry of a navigation address that proved to work a treat. In most other Toyota (and Lexus) products that simply isn’t possible.
There are some downsides, but they are small ones. The font surrounding the screen and used for the trip computer display is different to the one on the touchscreen, so some odd mismatching applies there. And the door trims don’t even get cloth inserts, leaving particularly rear passengers surrounded by a grey, barren environment.
At least the rear seat is as comfortable as those up front. The grey velour trim – with an odd brown stripe – definitely pays its dues to Camrys past, but when there is this much stretching space ahead and above each occupant, it’s tough to complain.
And – joy of joys – the hybrid no longer cops a boot volume deficit compared with the petrol models, and the enormous 524-litre cavity is impressive. Again, it makes the dated gooseneck hinges a small detail worth noting, but it’s in the smaller picture.
ON THE ROAD
Engine: 160kW 2.5 4cyl petrol + electric motor Transmission: Automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT), FWD Suspension: MacPherson strut front and independent rear Brake: Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering Cargo Volume: 524 litres
Built on a new platform that prioritises a lower centre of gravity, greater torsional rigidity and more sophisticated suspension geometry, it takes mere metres down the road to realise that this Camry is miles ahead of the previous-generation model.
The Ascent Sport may share the aggressive ‘sport’ grille of the SX model grade above it, but it doesn’t feature its sports suspension. Buyers will be thankful for that, too, because especially around town this Camry delivers superbly supple ride quality.
Its ability to feel plush and a touch pillowy, but without ever feeling soggy, is more reminiscent of a properly developed luxury car than a $30,000 medium sedan, and the feeling of refinement is further enhanced by stunning road noise isolation. This is a staggeringly quiet family car – there is no need to pull out a sound-o-meter to make the call that it is more silken than any vehicle at this price, and several above it.
A BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe tested weeks earlier? The Toyota Camry is quieter.
Once beyond an obviously vacant steering centre patch the response through the wheel also becomes wonderfully consistent, even sharp and direct, allowing a driver to really enjoy the Camry around town or on the open road.
Ah, the open road. Yes, on the freeway is where the Toyota’s suspension starts to reveal itself as a touch underdamped. It ‘bobs’ over expansion joints at speed and can sometimes produce more than a touch of head-toss on ostensibly smooth roads.
Thankfully, the handling is faithful and well-balanced with a surprisingly lenient electronic stability control (ESC) system. This is no corner carver, like a Mazda6 is, but there’s more than subtle enjoyment to be had because the Camry feels light on its feet, even dainty, and is keen to change direction.
Meanwhile the hybrid drivetrain is outstanding. There’s instant torque thanks to the electric motor, which proves to be more responsive off the line than virtually any four-cylinder engine with a turbo, and it just keeps pulling. Sure, the sound is average, but even the continuously-variable transmission (CVT) is sweetly disciplined.
The major downsides concern a lack of wet weather grip from the Michelin tyres, which can be overwhelmed by the 160kW of power, and an electric vehicle mode (EV Mode) that regularly fires up the engine if even a fraction of throttle is used.
The major upside, however, is economy. Although 4.2L/100km was unable to be achieved on test, both 7.0L/100km around town and 5.7L/100km overall is outstanding considering this is a 1580kg medium-to-large four-door sedan.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars – the Toyota Camry range scored 36.16 out of 37 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2017.
Safety Features: Dual front, front-side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee airbags, ABS and ESC, front and rear parking sensors, rear-view camera, lane-departure warning and autonomous emergency braking (AEB).
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Servicing: Toyota Service Advantage delivers annual or 15,000km intervals with an extremely affordable capped price of $195 for each of the first five services.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Mondeo is roomier and Mazda6 more driver-focused, but each entry-level diesel – to match this hybrid for economy – is $37K and $40K respectively.
The Sonata Active delivers the lush suspension of the Camry but with added freeway control, however it’s only $1000 cheaper and packs a slower, thirstier non-turbo petrol engine.
Which leaves the Commodore LT and Passat 132TSI as the closest rivals, both of which promise to pack in added panache, but minus the efficiency and for $2000 to $3000 more…
Ford Mondeo Ambiente Holden Commodore LT Hyundai Sonata Active Mazda6 Sport Volkswagen Passat 132TSI
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
On paper it is difficult to think of a more pragmatic family car than the hybrid-powered Camry Ascent Sport. With this latest model, however, it is also tough to find one that better blends performance with economy, ride smoothness and quietness with subtle enjoyment, and outright space with equipment.
Some buyers have long written this Toyota off for being bland and basic, and they’ve always been correct. Except this time, that is. While imperfect in some of its cabin fit-out, engine sound and suspension discipline, even these irks are incredibly minor.
In some ways the Toyota Camry has come good at exactly the right time, as well, as a shining light to buyers to avoid an equivalent medium SUV – and at this price it’s a below average 2.0-litre RAV4 front-drive with steel wheels – at all costs.
A Camry Ascent Sport hybrid is better than any of those SUV offerings at this price, and better than most medium cars as well. To us, at least, that’s pretty exciting.
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