Most driving enthusiasts have written off the entire Camry line as the poster child for dull driving appliances. But those who overcame their prejudices and took the 2007-2011 Camry SE for a spin discovered surprisingly firm suspension tuning and, with the V6, a smooth, powerful engine. The most courageous even tried to spread the word. Encountering an anti-Camry diatribe, they’d respond, “But what about the SE?” As covered in a review of the LE / XLE, for 2012 there’s a new Camry. And the SE?
The Camry SE once again receives a bespoke exterior. For 2012 the side skirts are less aggressive, but the front fascia is more so. Especially welcome: the regular Camry’s chrome grille is given the heave ho. The four-cylinder’s five-spoke alloys appear a little undersized. The V6’s racier 18s more completely fill the wheel openings and look better in person than in photos. Overall the tweaks make the SE a more attractive Camry (such things being relative—little lust is likely to be incited), but I continue prefer the more complex (if also more commonly criticized) curves of the 2011.
With most Camry interiors, there’s a choice between beige and gray. In contrast, the SE’s interior continues to be offered only in the coolest or hottest of colors (depending on whether we’re speaking figuratively or literally): black. With the 2007-2011 Camry, the dark shade helped obscure the poverty of the interior plastics. While this is less necessary with the 2012, the effect remains welcome. But the #1 reason to opt for the SE trim: the front seats. For 2012 the regular Camry’s buckets have been stripped of anything resembling lateral support. The SE’s seats have much larger, more closely-spaced side bolsters that comfortably and effectively cup one’s lower torso. A power-lumbar adjustment is standard, avoiding the lack of lower back support in the LE. Missed: rear air vents are available only in the XLE.
As noted in my review of the Camry LE and XLE, the 178-horsepower four-cylinder engine does a decent job of motivating the Camry. But the sounds it makes don’t encourage frequent exercise, so it’s a poor fit for the intended character of the SE. I was only able to spend a few minutes with the sweet 268-horsepower V6, and intend to more completely review it once I can get one for a week, but for enthusiasts it’s clearly the way to go. Though unchanged since 2007, the V6 continues to match competitors with its effortless power and surpass them (and especially the Hyundai turbocharged four) in terms of sound and feel. Compared to the 2011, the SE V6’s curb weight is down 63 pounds (to 3,420) but the final drive ratio is a little taller, so acceleration remains about the same.
Fuel economy is up, especially with the four, which now leads the segment with EPA ratings of 25 MPG city, 35 highway. The V6’s 21/30 can’t quite match the Sonata 2.0T’s 22/34.
A funny thing has happened with the suspension tuning. For 2012, the regular Camrys receive slightly firmer suspension tuning and improved suspension geometry, so they handle with considerably more precision and control than before. At the same time, the SE’s suspension has been softened relative to the 2007 SE’s (the last year I drove one). As a result, the sport model’s ride is no longer borderline harsh, but its handling, while marginally more taut than the regular Camry’s and similarly more precise than the previous generation SE’s, is a less dramatic step up. With both ride and handling, most of the difference comes from the tires. Compared to the regular Camry’s Michelin Energy rubber, the SE’s Michelin Primacy tires (17s with the four, 18s with the V6) clomp more loudly and firmly over tar strips while sticking much better and with less fuss in hard turns.
Engine choice makes a big difference. The V6 adds 180 pounds, all of them in the noise, and you feel every one of them in the heavier (if no more communicative) steering. This difference is a mixed blessing. The SE V6 feels more solid and jiggles less, but it also feels heavier and less agile. As with all 2012 Camrys, the silky low-speed feel that has distinguished the line for the last two decades is much less in evidence, apparently a victim of the pursuit of higher EPA numbers, better handling, or lower costs.
Overall, the 2012 Toyota Camry SE is a better car than the 2011. The interior is much improved, body motions are better controlled, and fuel economy (Toyota’s primary focus with the redesign) has improved. But, as with the regular Camry, some chassis refinement has been given up. The biggest problem, though, concerns the cars’ character. The four-cylinder SE goes about its work with admirable precision and control, but feels soulless. Add in the buzzy four, and the car just isn’t involving. The V6 adds a healthy dollop of thrills, but in my brief drive its additional mass seemed to dull the car’s handling. Though handling is generally my top priority, if I had to have a Camry (and no other car) the SE V6 would be an easy choice. I’d recommend the same choice to non-enthusiasts not interested in the hybrid for the SE’s more cosseting seats alone.
But no one has to have a Camry. Even with its more dramatic suspension tuning, the 2007-2011 SE failed to break through most enthusiasts’ prima facie rejection of the Camry. With its less overtly sporting character, the 2012 is unlikely to do better. Toyota should not be surprised by this rejection. We were told about their active participation in NASCAR, which this year includes the Daytona pace car (which was brought to the Camry launch event). But, as Volvo has also discovered, if you build a brand around practical concerns (in its case safety) it’s very difficult to then market performance-oriented variants. Toyota primarily pitches the Camry as a safe, dependable, economical, “worry-free” appliance. To then turn around and sponsor fuel-guzzling, maintenance-intensive, potentially deadly race cars will, at best, have little impact. At worst, car buyers could become confused and wonder what Toyota and its best-selling model are really about.