Toyota says bye bye boring

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Sporty and sharp were the driving words. For starters, only the bravest design sketches would do. Photo: supplied

The story goes that Toyota's big boss was particularly forceful when the brand began work on the new Camry that has just arrived here.

Akio Toyoda, the man who calls the shots for the family firm and has made it his mission to banish boring, reputedly advised the design and engineering team to gulp some brave pills. Regardless that the six previous generations of Camry had sold well, times and global customer tastes were changing.

So, here was the deal: no more staid or boring. Sporty and sharp were the driving words. For starters, only the bravest design sketches would do. And, when the car was readied for the road, his mechanical and dynamics engineers were to work harder than ever to inject some real driving character and agility into the mix.

And the result is? Well, it probably says so much that, while the national media event included some road driving, it was really only for the purpose of taking the car from a start point near Auckland Airport to Hampton Downs race circuit. Where we did laps; not just in the new V6 flagship but also the petrol-electric hybrid.

To be sure, you need to keep the Camry in context. It's still family first, with functionality necessarily remaining a fundamental. Yet Akio Toyoda's enforcement has clearly registered. There's genuinely some extra flair coming through.

Undoubtedly, this is a positive step for a car that already enjoyed the lion's share of sector sales on the strength of its fleet penetration. There's a lot about its new persona that suggests it is also well-positioned to pick up its pace with private buyers and perhaps divert attention away from the Mazda6, which until now has very much been the most characterful Japanese category contender.

At the same time, everyone identifies that traditional cars of almost all sizes aren't winning the support they used to get. Camry has been taking the biggest slice for some years _ to the point where it now outsells its nearest competitor three-to-one _ yet it's a slice of a cake that keeps getting smaller.

Back in 2014, Camry achieved 1043 national registrations, which though double the count for the next highest-placed car (Ford Mondeo), was still 309 units down on 2013 and 459 short of the 2012 tally. It barely reached the four-digit zone in 2015 and 2016, then finally fell short last year, with just 908 Camrys finding homes.

The top selling edition these past few years has been the hybrid, mainly because it has become the country's taxi cab of choice.

It therefore makes sense that the new range should be built around battery-assisted models in GX, SX and ZR form, and also include an entry GL, with a 2.5-litre petrol four from the old line. Toyota New Zealand believes what it now prefers to describe as ``self-charging'' models (to differentiate from its just-arrived plug-in rechargeable Prius Prime) will cumulatively account for 70% of all that volume.

Yet TNZ is also intent on trying something more playful. It's been years since Camry has carried a petrol V6. Developed mainly for America, it represents in singular range-topping form here, partly as a replacement for the now-defunct Aurion but also to return some extra fizz.

The new six was the model I got to spend most time in during the media launch and, from the look and limited feel, it's far from servile. A drivetrain also seen locally in the Highlander has more power and less weight to haul and while outright smashing sizzle is not this mill's style, it is no slug. It asks for high engine speeds and massaging of the transmission to nail its sweet spot, but the reward is a surge of smooth stoking shove that makes you smile.

This engine alone aligns with an eight-speed automatic, which is understandably better than the hybrid's CVT, though not perfect for quick driving because even in its sports setting it doesn't kick down that quickly. Still, it is certainly true to its billing as the most powerful Camry yet.

While too soft to figure in Government's EV strategy, because it allows for an electric motor to assist the petrol engine rather than take over from it for prolonged driving, the hybrid is less punishing, but opens the door to more pleasing fuel efficiency.

This latest edition Hybrid Synergy Drive continues with nickel-metal hydride batteries that, while less efficient as those in-vogue lithium-ion units demanded by more enhanced electric drivetrains, are a lot cheaper. It marries the electric motor set to a different, new 2.5-litre engine running Otto/Atkinson cycles. Outputs are higher yet economy improves by 19 percent, to the point where this edition is thriftier than a second-generation Prius. CO2 emissions are equal to those from the smaller Corolla hybrid.

What's said to be best about this revised system is the reduced noise and vibration intrusion under heavy throttle. Slipping out of the pits showed it to be almost silent at low speeds. Toyota also talks about a less intrusive brake-regeneration system.

The switch back to being built in Japan comes with transference to the brand's new-age scalable Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) architecture.

The new Camry platform is far more rigid that the previous underpinning, and assuredly this delivers dynamic benefits; it feels like a safe, balanced drive. The centre of gravity is lower, the wheels push closer to each corner and it's allowed the fitment of a double-wishbone rear suspension. It's physically grown, too, and looks better proportioned, not so much because the wheelbase is 50mm longer as because the tracks are wider (10mm wider front, up to 30mm rear) and the roofline is 25mm lower.

Styling-wise, the latest Camry has a sharp dress sense and all the latest family styling cues fit comfortably. SX, V6 and ZR variants come with a sports body kit, and there's a boot-lip spoiler on the V6 and ZR, which all add to the visual impact without seeming overdone. The interior is also less dowdy, more ergonomically-sound and more comfortable than before. Again, the more you spend, the more affluent it seems. The enhanced cabin dimensions, more beneficial longitudinally than laterally, are also appreciated.

Bravo Toyota NZ for fitting a pre-crash safety system with autonomous emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control which can slow the car to a standstill if necessary, and automatic high beam.

It is also the first of its kind with LED headlights, various driving modes to choose from, a head-up display, wireless phone charging plus all-speed radar cruise control. No Apple CarPlay/Android Auto though; Toyota simply won't buy into it.

On first taste, this Camry is now a decent alternate to the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima and might also be considered a genuine alternate to the new ZB Commodore in its 2.0-litre front-drive formats.

Toyota says bye bye boring
At a Glance

TOYOTA CAMRY
SPECIFICATIONS
Prices: $35,990 to $47,990
Engines: 2494cc four-cylinder VVTi petrol, maximum power 133kW@6000rpm, maximum torque 231Nm@4100rpm; 2487cc four-cylinder petrol-electric, maximum combined power 160kW@5700rpm, maximum torque n/a (petrol engine 131kW/221Nm, electric motor 88kW/202Nm); 3456cc quad cam six-cylinder, maximum power 224kW@6600rpm, maximum torque 362Nm@4700rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic (GL), eight-speed automatic (V6), stepped constantly variable (hybrids)
Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, BA, EBD, TRC, HAC, VSC
Safety: ANCAP five-star
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 215/55 R17 to 235/40 R19
Fuel and economy: 7.8 (GL)/4.2 (hybrids)/ 8.9 (V6) litres per 100km, fuel tank capacity 60 (petrol)/50 (hybrids) litres
Emissions: 181 (GL)/96-103 (hybrids)/ 202 (V6) grams of CO2 per km
Dimensions (mm): Length 4885/4905 (V6), width 1840, height 1445