Nathan Ponchard reviews the restyled and refreshed Toyota Camry, in entry-level hybrid form.
If you thought the medium-sedan class was approaching death, then the 2021 Toyota Camry is here to prove there’s still useful life left in the conventional four-door – especially when you’re such a great all-rounder powered by a super-efficient drivetrain.
The most obvious change is a comprehensive rethink of the engine line-up. Gone is Toyota’s evergreen 3.5-litre V6 seeing it accounted for less than four percent of Australian sales – meaning that for the first time since 1988, you can’t buy a Camry V6.
The other big change is a new engine at base level, the 152kW/243Nm ‘Dynamic Force’ 2.5-litre four-cylinder from the top-spec RAV4 Edge, tied to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. This is only available in the $30,990 Camry Ascent. Every other model (Ascent Sport, SX and SL) features a hybrid drivetrain – a 2.5-litre ‘Atkinson Cycle’ four-cylinder with lithium-ion battery, CVT transmission and 160kW of total system power.
Outside, all models score revised lighting (with LEDs and auto high beam even on the base Ascent), restyled bumpers and grilles, and new alloy-wheel designs, though it takes a trained eye to spot the changes at a glance.
Inside, all the attention is centred on a new multimedia screen proudly sprouting from the centre stack. Measuring 7.0-inches in Ascent and 9.0-inches in all other models (as well as Ascent if you pay $1,000 for optional sat-nav), it’s a sign of the times that Toyota had to relocate the air vents and site the formerly flush screen separately to fit today’s in-vogue ‘bigger is better’ screen game.
Packing six speakers in everything bar the top-spec SL (which gets a nine-speaker JBL stereo), you also get digital radio, wired Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and enough sound quality and clarity to satisfy most tastes. But having only one USB port (at the base of the centre console) isn’t really up to scratch in 2021.
The rest of the Camry’s interior receives detail refinements, meaning there’s still admirable quality, pretty decent space for five people, and a huge boot (524 litres in Hybrid models with a space-saver spare), as well as auto up/down power windows on each door, plus windows that wind all the way down.
The Ascent Hybrid model uniquely scores keyless entry and start, and dual-zone climate control over the base Ascent petrol, though its slippery plastic steering wheel and non-folding mirrors (you need to kink them in manually) immediately expose its base-shitter origins. And hard-plastic door bins with pathetically small bottle or drink holders seem as if they’re designed to force someone into buying a Kluger instead.
Thankfully, on the road the Camry Ascent Hybrid immediately proves that its engineering is anything but cut-price. There’s a silkiness to the way the Camry rides – especially on the Ascent’s modest 215/55R17 Michelin rubber – as well as a respectable level of refinement, yet there’s also lovely handling poise and beautifully progressive response to steering inputs.
Thanks to its latest-generation GA-K platform, the eighth-generation Camry really knows how to handle any road surface. And while there’s some body roll when you punt it hard through corners, and perhaps not quite enough steering weighting when driven in ‘Normal’ drive mode (there’s a superior ‘Sport’ alternative), the Ascent Hybrid is highly satisfying to drive.
The Hybrid drivetrain isn’t quite as slick, though, with a dramatic change in noise level between when the engine is operating and when the battery is doing the work, however it’s generally pretty smooth and responsive. At least fuel economy is exceptional – averaging 4.9L/100km over 450km of mixed driving, much of it 80km/h-plus.
Unfortunately, Toyota’s ultra-conservative safety electronics do tend to undermine the Ascent Hybrid’s dynamic ability. The adaptive cruise is way too cautious, dropping speed when the Camry is miles behind the car in front (even when the distance is reduced to a minimum), and the collision alert will sometimes go off when you’re just driving around suburban back streets.
The lane-assist is also frustratingly jerky. You can turn it off easily (the button is on the steering wheel) but unlike, say, a Mazda 6, it switches itself back on every time you start the car. You do learn to drive around these irritations but the excellence of the Camry’s mechanical engineering deserves a similar level of competence when calibrating its safety electronics.
You also don’t quite get the full safety suite in the base Ascent – it misses out on front and rear parking sensors (it only gets a rear camera), rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring featured in the $2800-dearer Ascent Sport Hybrid – which makes the next model up seem like a smarter choice.
While the $36,290 Ascent Sport wears a slightly out-of-place bodykit (in conjunction with same-size 17-inch alloys), its leather steering wheel, electrically folding mirrors, larger touchscreen and increased safety features make it a better buy than the $33,490 Ascent Hybrid.
Yet either way, you’ll end up with a smooth, spacious, robust, incredibly cheap-to-service (just $220 a pop) family sedan that drives better than anyone could ever expect it to. And we love a dark horse.
Variant tested ASCENT HYBRID
Key specs (as tested)
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