Perceptions can be a funny thing. Approach the 2018 Toyota Camry SX and it is difficult not to sneer at its largest-ever wheels, aggressive grille and quad exhausts.
Four decades of a badge that built a reputation for reliability and with only the flakiest veneer sportiness – via tacked-on side skirts rather than dynamics – will ensure that new models continue to be seen as appliances to be used rather than enjoyed.
Toyota has, however, claimed that the brand new platform of this eighth-generation Camry is stronger and lower than before, with a sportier driving position all delivered in an attempt to create a truly dynamic medium sedan rather than an imitation of one.
With this sportiest SX complete with sports suspension in this test, however, perception is about to collide with reality.
Vehicle Style: Medium sedan Price: $33,290 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 135kW/231Nm 2.5 four-cylinder petrol | six-speed automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 8.3 l/100km | Tested: 10.7 l/100km
Forget perceptions, because a sense of perspective is first required with the Camry SX. Priced from $33,290 plus on-road costs, it is still a medium car with a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. A Volkswagen Golf GTI hot hatchback – or even Skoda Octavia RS – it isn’t.
What it is, though, is great value. Above the $31,990 (plus orc) Camry Ascent Sport hybrid, for example, it inside adds leather trim, paddleshifters behind the steering wheel, wireless phone charging and twin rear USB inputs all for $1300 extra.
The 160kW hybrid with claimed economy of 4.2 litres per 100 kilometres is, of course, swapped out for a 135kW petrol-only engine with a hefty 8.3L/100km claim. But sports suspension and larger 19-inch alloy wheels (versus 17s) also arrive.
From the outset it looks as though Toyota provides two very different options for the Camry buyer wanting to spend under $35,000 but who doesn’t want to buy the bland, plastic steering wheel-equipped and taxi-specification Ascent entry model. There’s another question, though: is the cushier and efficient Ascent Sport hybrid a smarter choice than this thirstier but better-equipped and allegedly sportier SX?
- 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, leather 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, front and twin rear USB inputs, digital radio, satellite navigation with voice control, wireless phone charging and ToyotaLink app connectivity.
- Options Fitted: None.
What sort of Camry buyer would choose the red leather available at no extra cost in the SX? It certainly is retina-searing given that it covers both the front and rear seat bolsters as well as the inserts, while even the lower door plastics are colour coded.
Thankfully black is also available, although either way the leather trim quality of this Camry SX feels more vinyl-like than is ideal, making the cloth/velour combination of the Camry Ascent Sport hybrid arguably more appealing. That said, only this model is available with a $1950 panoramic sunroof, so a Toyota buyer can genuinely collect a medium sedan with 19-inch wheels, leather and a sunroof for $35,240 (plus orc).
And already standard is an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, satellite navigation with excellent (for the first time in a Toyota) voice control, a digital radio, and even adaptive cruise control.
Just when other rivals, such as the Ford Mondeo and Mazda6, are kicking off with base models, Toyota is kicking more kit into its middle-tier Camry than ever before.
The new dashboard is also beautifully built, with excellent ergonomics and a lower driving position melding with a smaller steering wheel that feels great in the hands. Even automatic up/down power windows is a new touch inside, while the addition of – albeit thin – leather trim on the doors both looks and feels less downmarket than the hybrid model’s all-plastic austerity.
Ultimately it isn’t a premium-feeling interior, though, with too many hard plastics and basic navigation graphics to elevate it much beyond its station in terms of price – but it has caught up from the previous generation’s bland and sub-par interior fit out.
Where, of course, the Camry remains quintessentially a Camry is in terms of comfort and space. The seats all-round are supportive, rear legroom and headroom are particularly impressive, and although the continual use of luggage-crushing gooseneck boot hinges is extremely disappointing, the 524-litre boot is huge.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 135kW/231Nm 2.5 4cyl petrol
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic, 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
After swapping out of an Ascent Sport hybrid and into this Camry SX petrol, the first impression is one of increased engine noise and vibration, followed by firmer ride quality. In the context of what should be a smooth family car, it feels like a step back.
Where the hybrid switches its petrol engine off at a halt, and smoothly and distantly fires it up when greater acceleration is required, the SX’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder is a constant companion. Add throttle quickly and it revs keenly, but ultimately delivers slower performance than what the hybrid – with an electric motor that can feed in instant extra torque – can offer.
While first impressions seem clear-cut between the two Camrys, however, more time with the petrol-only model levels the playing field. With a kerb weight of 1530kg, the SX weighs 50kg less than the hybrid, which lugs heavy batteries under its rear seat.
Despite the addition of 19s and sports suspension, this Camry actually offers sophisticated damping. There is none of the slight wallow of the hybrid after thrumming over expansion joints at speed, for example, and less head-toss overall.
It could even be seen as more comfortable for some depending on whether a level ride (SX) or lush ride (hybrid) is the pick.
Either way, this is no crude or harsh suspension setup. The 235mm-wide Dunlop SportMaxx tyres also provide far greater grip, particularly in the wet, than the 215mm Michelin Primacy HP low rolling resistance rubber of the Ascent Sport.
Even the steering feels tighter particularly on the centre, and indeed Toyota does claim the turns from lock-to-lock to be marginally quicker here. The torque converter automatic also feels better connected to the driver’s throttle input than the hybrid’s elastic-rubber-band-like continuously-variable transmission (CVT) does.
The upshot of all this is that the Camry SX presents a unique, subtly sporting and more disciplined character than its softer, if not stodgier, similarly priced sibling.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of all is that this latest Toyota medium sedan actually handles very well. It feels light on its feet and is surprisingly agile when turning into a hairpin, while suddenly asking for more steering lock sees the front-end become responsive and tighten faithfully. Is this really a Camry we’re talking about?
Ultimately a Mazda6 is more engaging, but, with a broad wheelbase and good grip levels, the SX feels utterly unfazed by quick changes of direction. The electronic stability control (ESC) tune is also one of the smartest Toyota systems ever.
That hardly brisk four-cylinder, and a sometimes obtuse auto, means the chassis outruns the growling engine, while the disappointing outcome is fuel consumption of 10.7L/100km overall – almost double what the hybrid returned in similar conditions.
And just when an SX hybrid might seem to be the sweet spot, Toyota doesn’t provide that option. The only other version available with 19s and sports suspension is the SX with a 3.5-litre V6 option for $4000 extra.
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
Sporty-ish competitors are few and far between at this price.
A Commodore RS provides turbocharged torque absent from this Camry SX, but it costs the same as a Camry SX with its potent V6 engine option. Meanwhile a smaller Octavia RS is the driver’s – if not passenger’s – pick at sub-$40K.
For price versus performance, a Mazda6 Sport is the closest match, with a same-size 2.5-litre engine, superb dynamics and $32,490 (plus orc) starting price – although it lacks equipment at this entry level.
- Holden Commodore RS
- Mazda6 Sport
- Skoda Octavia RS
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Best leave those perceptions outside, because this is the fittest and finest Camry yet – and with the SX, the first to make good on a sporting promise.
That’s sporting, or subtly sporty, as a distinction from a proper sports model, but even with a basic four-cylinder engine there is driver enjoyment to be had here. Tellingly, this tester even considered travelling the twisty back way home from testing after already having an enjoyable drive in this … Toyota Camry. Yes, a Camry.
Ultimately the Ascent Sport hybrid is the smarter, smoother option, but the much thirstier SX delivers a more holistic ride and greater enjoyment all with more kit.
Each deliver a strikingly different character for roughly the same money, but either way both are excellent sub-$35,000 family car options.
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