Toyota’s new Camry still the champ

Sandy Beach Metallic. There, I’ve said it. Three words that aren’t supposed to be part of an auto review.

Why? Because the color doesn’t matter. Car reviewing is supposed to be a colorblind endeavor.

The reviewers’ checklist includes all sorts of items that are fair game for commentary, encompassing, but hardly limited to: fit and finish, styling, drivetrain efficiency, fuel economy, performance, interior space, visibility, technology, connectivity, headlight quality, and legroom. Most any feature you can name is in play.

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But not color. The feeling is that the reviewer should be colorblind because the customer can pick his or her own color.

No one told that to Mrs. G.

“Yuckkkkkky! What a lousy color,” she is saying as we head out for a Wednesday night foray to Exeter (N.H.) Bowling Lanes and our weekly league competition.

The car in question is today’s test car, a perfectly ordinary 2012 Toyota Camry LE. Mrs. G’s problem is the color: Sandy Beach Metallic. It’s something I’d call “gold,” and maybe comment that it could use a pinstripe to break up the color on the car’s slab-sided design.

Toyota’s color palette generally tends to run in the silver, gray, charcoal, beige, tan, and sage area with a subdued red, green, and blue choice rounding out a lineup that also includes the obligatory black and white.

To make matters worse, our neighbor, Ms. Helen, wasn’t impressed with the interior, dissing the overall dashboard look, the stitching, and the two-tone fabric seats.

Maybe it’s because I’m the kind of guy who would choose the runt of the litter if I were picking a puppy, but I’m not giving up on this Camry. So, even though I’m down, 2-0, in votes before I get out of the driveway, I’m confident in saying this new Camry still has the goods.

Recently, I’ve had the choice to comparison-drive the four-cylinder versions of the Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, and Volkswagen Passat.

All similar in size and power, all slightly different in feel, handling, and overall refinement.

The good news: You, the consumer, can’t make a wrong choice from this group.

My pick: The Camry, in a close race. Maybe it’s a holdover from my life in the sports realm where a boxing champion could only be dethroned if the bout ended in a clear decision. But the reigning champ continues in place.

In this race, the Altima has a sportier feel with a tauter suspension, and the Sonata offers interior space and stand-apart styling. The Passat is a key player in VW’s plan to become the world’s No. 1 automaker. But the Camry takes it on quietness and refinement.

Mrs. G finally did ride in the Camry and was quite comfortable on the inside. (Side note: She bowled really well that night, too.)

Our test vehicle is the version I’d likely own, a basic vehicle without a chorus of bells and whistles.

It was the LE sedan, one grade up from the find-one-if-you-can base L model. The LE was powered by the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 178 horsepower and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It is a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

Our big trip over the weekend was to visit friends in Laconia, N.H., a questionable destination during Bike Week. We did some interstate driving before taking to the back roads (Rte. 4 and Rte. 107), going over hill and dale and hitting precious little traffic en route.

The Camry is rated at 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 on the highway. Our mix returned 32.4 and we were hardly trying to maximize the economy. Power was more than adequate and the transmission gets an A-plus, downshifting only when necessary on the mountainous route.

Base price of the LE is $23,360 (including destination). The only options on our test car were an eight-way power seat ($440) and preferred accessory group ($303) that includes carpeted mats, a trunk mat, first-aid kit, and cargo net. Bottom line: $24,103.

Rear seat legroom is good and the rear seats fold for added cargo space with the push of a button (one for each side) in the spacious trunk.

It’s still a tad pricey, but it’s what we think the Camry should be. If you want luxury, you move up to the Lexus ES series. We say that knowing we’ve got a scheduled drive of that vehicle later this month.

The Camry, introduced to the US market in 1983, is now in its seventh generation with more than 15 million units sold. It’s been America’s bestselling car for nine straight years (and 13 of the past 14).

Staying on top will be a challenge because every automaker has a strong product in the mid-sized market. Meanwhile, Toyota is coming back strongly from a brutal threeyear stretch of economic recession and parts shortages (call it production stoppages) from the earthquake-tsunami.

This latest Camry is redesigned, has a more spacious interior, returns great fuel economy, and is loaded with user-friendly technology. O

ur base model didn’t have navigation or the advanced connectivity, but it was easy to mate an iPhone with the included Bluetooth, play Pandora through the audio system, and work the audio system thanks to easy-to-use knobs.

And about that color? Even Mrs. G admits she liked the other eight choices.