The Toyota Camry is the best-selling passenger car in the land, and it has been for quite some time. Last year, the Camry racked up well north of 400,000 sales, and despite a strong push from the all-new Honda Civic, the Camry is on pace to get close to 400,000 sales this year too.
But despite this ubiquity, I’ve never driven one. So I was very excited when a 2016 Toyota Camry SE with the Special Edition package was dropped off at my door.
Styling is always a subjective thing, but to me, the current generation Camry is a pretty good looking sedan. I actually like the looks a lot better than its most obvious competitor, the Honda Accord. I always thought the last few generations of Accords were rather lumpy and frumpy. The Camry’s smoother lines and subtle use of black accents work to make this by far the best-looking Camry in its long history. Of course, neither one could hold a candle to the Mazda6, which to me is one of the best-looking sedans in the world, regardless of market segment or price.
The Special Edition package adds to the already attractive lines with a striking color of blue that Toyota calls Blue Streak Metallic. Outside, the package also adds stunning black-and-silver alloy wheels, a tasteful rear spoiler, and a sunroof. Inside, the package adds blue inserts on the seats, blue stitching everywhere, blue accents on the dash, blue numbers and pointers on the gauge cluster – well, it’s all very blue, but not in an overwhelming way. The accents tie the whole theme together. The package can be had with other exterior colors besides blue, but blue is the best. They should’ve just called it the blue package and been done with it.
Under the hood is the same 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine as in the Toyota RAV4 tested earlier. It makes 178 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 170 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 rpm. It’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.
Whereas that engine felt sluggish and pokey in the RAV4, it feels lively and quick in the Camry. Of course it’s not going to embarrass a Hellcat at the drag strip, but it never feels wanting for acceleration. The transmission shifts quickly and decisively and it responds well to the paddle shifters. It can also be shifted with the stubby, leather-clad shifter, but Toyota should take a cue from their business parters at Mazda and change around the shift pattern to the proper racing style of forward for downshifts and back for upshifts.
The Camry Special Edition has the same sport-tuned suspension as the regular SE trim level. I don’t know quite what that means or how it’s tuned, but whatever Toyota did works. The steering has the typical numbness found in most electric systems, but at least it’s direct and accurate with decent weighting. The suspension keeps the car planted in hard corners with minimal body roll and good control. There’s a slight trade-off in ride quality, but not enough to be too harsh. What’s also refreshing is that there’s no sport mode to turn on – it’s always in sport mode, and that is much appreciated.
Despite the added sportiness, the Camry doesn’t forget that it’s an economical sedan. It’s rated at 25 mpg city and 35 mpg highway with 28 mpg combined, but for the week I had it, the Camry got a little over 30 mpg. That’s with at least 85 percent in-town driving, and I wasn’t exactly light on the throttle.
The Camry surprised the hell out of me with its road manners. It’s a genuinely fun car to drive, but that leads to the elephant in the room. That stubby shifter is the perfect size and shape and is in the perfect location to be attached to a manual transmission. It needs to be on a manual; it’s begging for it. It’s the shifter’s reason for being. For those looking for a sporty, affordable, mid-size sedan with a stick, the only real options are the Honda Accord Sport and the Mazda6 Touring. If Toyota added a manual to the SE, it would put it in a segment with few choices, which could add sales, or at least add to its cachet as a sporty sedan. Plus, it would really make the car come alive. It’s a great car with an automatic; it would be a fantastic car with a stick.
Interior space is cavernous for four people. The front seats are very comfortable, and with the eight-way power driver’s seat it’s easy to find a perfect driving position. The steering wheel is wide, but it has the right amount of thickness and leather trim. The dash is simple and attractive, with a huge center console and a cell phone cubby with Qi charging. The cubby didn’t fit my huge iPhone (I have the big one) in a way that would allow me to use the charger, but since I couldn’t use the Qi charger anyway, it didn’t matter. Regular-sized cell phones should fit just fine.
The infotainment system is typical Toyota and is identical to the RAV4’s. Curiously, while the RAV4 had the optional JBL sound system, the Camry didn’t, but it sounded much better. In fact, it’s one of the best-sounding factory stereos I’ve heard, at least to my ears.
The Camry SE has the usual options for a car in its price range – cruise control, power locks and windows, satellite radio, Bluetooth, navigation, etc. – but one curious omission is the lack of automatic climate control. The manual controls are easy to use, and in a way it’s nice to have more control over the HVAC, but it’s something that is usually included in a $27,000 car.
The Camry has a large trunk with 60/40 split folding seats, but the passthrough is narrow and the seats don’t fold very flat. There’s also no ski passthrough in the seats, which would allow four people to take their skis to the slopes without the need of a roof rack. This is such a narrow use case, though, that it doesn’t detract much from the Camry’s utility, and the trunk is so large most people will rarely fold the seats down anyway.
Base price for the Camry SE with the Special Edition package is $25,715, but with the updated stereo and destination, the out-the-door price is $27,075.
When the Camry SE is compared with its competition, though, it starts to feel a little lacking. Compared to the other sporty, four-cylinder, midsize cars, the Camry is a little on the expensive side. The Mazda6 and Accord Sport can both be had for less money with a manual transmission, but comparing apples to apples, the automatic versions of both are about the same price but with more content and more power.
At least the apples-to-apples comparison puts the Camry slightly ahead of the Accord (and the Nissan Altima SR, too), largely because it has an actual automatic transmission, not a CVT. A good CVT is better than a bad automatic, but a good automatic will win out every time. The Mazda6 is still a better option for those looking for a sporty sedan, although the Ford Fusion SE is around the same price and can be had with much more powerful, turbocharged engines.
- Buy It,
- Lease It,
- Rent It,
- or Forget It,
The 2016 Toyota Camry SE Special Edition gets a Buy It!
With the SE Special Edition, Toyota finally has a car that competes on more than just the company’s reputation for quality. This car is genuinely fun to drive, it looks good, it gets good fuel economy and it’s reasonably priced.
My only fear is that the Special Edition package is the only thing making this Camry special. I look forward to driving more Camrys in the future, plus there’s a new one on the horizon for 2018 based on the new TNGA platform that made the new Prius a better car to drive, so hopefully the new-found sportiness will only get better.
Check out this related TFLcar video where the V-6 Camry was mashed up against the hybrid: