Toyota's perennial Camry has been the best selling medium sized car for 18 straight years in Australia.
But like other Toyotas it has come under increasing pressure from other car makers, particularly the Koreans who have delivered some outstanding competition in the past year or so.
Lampooned in some quarters as the proverbial white-goods on wheels, Toyota has tried to get back to basics with the new, seventh generation Camry. The emphasis is on quality, reliability and durability, not to mention an effort to make the car more fun to drive.
We've got to say is better than ever, with more power, better economy and a roomier interior. But fun? We'll let you decide . . . The new Camry goes on sale this month but you'll have to wait until early next year for a new hybrid, petrol/electric version.
The switch to a larger engine flies in the face of the current trend to smaller, force-fed units to achieve the same result. The 2.4 has been replaced by a larger, more powerful 2.5-litre four cylinder petrol engine with 0-100km/h taking a claimed 9.3 seconds.
It's technically more advanced with dual VVTi and an acoustic control induction system (ACIS), but still misses out on the benefits of direct injection. Power is up 13 per cent to 133kW and torque has increased by six per cent to 231Nm in the Altise, with slightly more output in Atara models which feature a free-flowing dual exhaust system.
Despite the power increase new Camry uses less fuel, down 11 per cent to from 8.9 to 7.8 litres/100km. In real life however the car is bound to use more fuel than this. We saw between 9.1 and 10.8 litres/100km during the launch program. Engine emissions meanwhile have been reduced 25g to 183g/km.
It's the same physical size but weighs 35kg less than the car it replaces. The line up consists of four models starting with the Altise followed by the Atara S, Atara SX and Atara SL. The Altise looks different from the other three, with a different front radiator grille and apron and is targeted at the price conscious fleet market.
The more expensive, twin-exhaust Atara models feature a three piece grille and twin exhausts and are aimed at the private buyer. S replaces the Ateva, SX replaces the Sportivo and SL replaces top of the line Grande. There's no manual and the five-speed auto has been replaced by a six-speed with steering wheel mounted gear shift paddles in the higher grade models. You can use the paddles at any time and in sport mode it blips the throttle on downshifts.
The hydraulic steering has been surplanted by an all electric system, with a firmer, heavier feel (but not too heavy) that stays centred without the need for constant driver input. It also adds some weight in corners to help prevent over correction. The traditional handbrake has been replaced with a foot operated brake. Not a biggy but some people don't seem to like them and as one card suggested it means no handbrake turns. Really though it's just a matter of getting used to it.
The top of the line model comes with auto high beam that dips the lights automatically when its senses on-coming traffic. It is also equipped with a blind spot warning system that flashes a warning in the mirrors when there is car beside you that you can't see with your exterior mirrors. It also adds a DAB+ digital radio system, complete with traffic updates.
It has a solid, big car feel. Nice and smooth and quiet. Sits nicely on the road and corners flat with plenty of grip. Local suspension tuning and the recalibrated steering have been designed to produce a more engaging drive. Drop a wheel in the dirt and the stability system quickly sorts it out. Conversation is easy even on coarse bitumen and the car we drove had adjustable lumbar support.
Both the i45/Optima and Accord Euro however still deliver more power, but 135kW is more than adequate for the job, especially in combo with the smooth-changing six-speed tranny. There's a 15mm bigger gap between seats and rear passengers benefit from 46mm more legroom.
Hasn't been crashed tested yet but has been designed and is expected to receive five stars. Comes with seven airbags including a driver knee bag and full complement of safety aids. A reversing camera remains a $500 option on the entry level Altise. It's standard with the rest.
Altise is with 16-inch alloys, trip computer and an upgraded sound system with six speakers and controls on the steering wheel. Atara S also features foglamps, 17-inch alloys, smart entry and smart start, reversing camera, dual-zone air-conditioning, 6.1-inch touch-screen display audio, premium steering wheel and gearshift knob and an electric drivers seat with lumbar support.
Atara SX is distinguished by unique rear bumper, rear lip spoiler, sports pedals, sports suspension, black-tinted headlamps and sports leather-accented interior. Top of the range Atara SL features JBL premium audio with 10 speakers, a 7-inch touch-screen display with satellite navigation, digital radio, RDS live traffic updates, reversing camera with back-guide monitor, blind-spot monitor, automatic high beam, electric front seats and rain-sensing wipers.
You get all this for the same starting price of $30,490, with a four year-warranty that includes fixed price servicing at $130 a pop for five services. Atara S is $33,490, Atara SX is $35,990 and Atara SL is $39,990.