2007 Toyota CamryClick to enlarge picture

Camry owners told researchers they felt their car is a bit too "ordinary." So the 2007 car, shown here, is restyled for an upscale, substantial look.

Toyota Camry

There's new styling, which is sleeker and more upscale than in earlier Camry cars, inside and out. There's also a new, sportier SE trim with the most powerful Camry engine ever—a 268-horsepower V6.

And there's a first-ever gasoline-electric hybrid Camry. It gets an estimated government fuel economy rating of 43 miles per gallon in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway.

This is up significantly from the best fuel economy rating for the 2006 Camry—24/34-mpg for a one with a four-cylinder engine.

Indeed, the five-passenger, 2007 Camry Hybrid becomes the second-best family sedan in fuel economy in the country, after the 2006 Toyota Prius, which is rated at 60/51 mpg.

Due in showrooms in March 2006, the new Camry—all four trim levels of CE, LE, SE and XLE as well as new Camry Hybrid—promises to "create a new benchmark for sedans in the United States," according to Jim Lentz, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Pricing hasn't been announced. The 2006 Camry has carried a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of $18,445.

(Read our article about what it takes to get a Hybrid Tax Credit.)

Camry: A Very Important Toyota
There's no other product in Toyota's fleet quite like the Camry, which helps explain why Toyota officials labor so diligently on this car—from development to marketing.

With annual sales of more than 400,000 in the U.S. alone, the Camry accounts for more than 20 percent of the sales of Toyota-branded vehicles here. The second-most-popular Toyota is the Corolla small car, with only about half the U.S. sales of the Camry.

Put another way, there are more Camry sedans sold in the U.S. every year than the entire lineup of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The Camry alone also outsells each of the following brands: Buick, BMW, Mazda and Volkswagen, to name a few.

And because the Camry is in the single largest car segment in the country—the nearly 3 million midsize sedan segment—it's responsible for bringing oodles of shoppers and strong traffic to Toyota showrooms, according to car dealers.

Auto analysts add that the Camry contributes healthy profits at Toyota.

Besides being sold in the U.S. and Canada, the Camry is sold in more than 100 other countries. Total cumulative worldwide Camry sales total more than 10 million.

No wonder, then, the new Camry's Chief Engineer Kenichiro Fuse, said "a greater proportion" of the budget for the Camry "was dedicated to ensuring significant improvements in quality than any project in the past."

Previous Camry cars already have received numerous quality and value awards, including "Best Buy" from Consumer's Digest and "Best Bet" from the AAA auto club. And the Camry's reputation as a reliable vehicle is among the best in the industry.

In addition, look for Camry cars to be used in the big leagues of stock car racing in NASCAR starting in 2007. For the first time since the 1950s, an overseas-based automaker of any kind will race in NASCAR's premiere Nextel Cup and Busch Series. Back in the 1950s, Jaguar of Britain raced in NASCAR's top series before NASCAR reverted back to all domestic cars.

Good-Bye to Timid Styling
Toyota officials admit that previous Camry cars have had mild, unprovocative styling that made the vehicles blend in, rather than stand out, on the roads.

But they hope consumers recognize a bolder look for this new, sixth-generation Camry. Even wheels are upsized to 16-inchers on the base Camry, up from 15-inch wheels on the previous base trim. And the sporty Camry SE comes standard with 17-inchers.

While the wheelbase of the '07 Camry is 2.2 inches longer than that of the 2006 Camry and the track is increased 1.2 inches, the new car's size, overall, looks about the same as its predecessor's.

Officials said research showed that current Camry owners weren't looking for an appreciably bigger car. They just felt their car was a bit too "ordinary."

New Interior Features
Toyota also makes strides in the Camry interior for 2007. Seats are improved, the rear floor is completely flat, all Camrys have tilt and telescoping steering wheels, the instrument panel in the LE trim has Lexus-like Optitron illumination, and rear seatbacks now fold down to allow additional cargo space in all but the SE trim and Camry Hybrid.

There are thoughtful touches, too. For example, cloth seats in the XLE are coated by a protein that comes from silkworm cocoons in order to reduce possible skin irritation. This same material is used on women's bras in Japan.

The Camry XLE and Hybrid versions come standard with a Plasmacluster ion generator that produces positive and negative ions designed to reduce odors and airborne germs, as well as mold growth, in the vehicle.

Beginning with the 2007 model year, all Camry audio systems come standard with MP3 playback capability and an input jack for portable audio devices.

Buyers can find upgraded audio systems with Bluetooth technology on some new Camry cars, too, and the Camry navigation system now includes voice recognition.

A remote engine starter, which allows the car to be cooled or heated before a driver climbs inside, also is available for the first time.

Powertrain News
The three powertrains for the 2007 Camry are all new or newly revised.

The top engine—a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter high-output V6 that's in the Camry SE—also is used in Toyota's larger sedan, the Avalon. In the Camry, this V6 generates 248 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm. These figures compare with last year's highest-powered Camry, which had a 210-horse 3.3-liter V6 with 220 lb-ft at 3600 rpm. The 2006 Camry also had a smaller 3.0-liter V6. The new engine replaces both of last year's Camry V6s.

The new V6 is available with a choice of 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. This marks the first time that the Camry has had a 6-speed automatic. The automatic allows "sport shifting" without a clutch pedal.

Camry's base engine remains a 2.4-liter four cylinder, but it's revised for more power. Specifically, this powerplant generates 158 horses and 161 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. This is just a bit above last year's 154-horsepower four cylinder with 160 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.

Both a 5-speed manual and 5-speed automatic transmission are offered for the four-cylinder engine.

Interestingly, Toyota improved fuel economy in the V6 and maintained it in the four-cylinder engine, despite providing drivers with more power. For example, Toyota estimates a 22/31-mpg rating for a 2007 Camry with V6. The best fuel economy rating for a V6-powered, 2006 Camry was 21/29 mpg.

Hybrid Joins Camry Line
Mainstream car buyers, such as Camry shoppers, "are looking at hybrids for many different reasons," said Chief Engineer Fuse, who acknowledged that fuel savings is "the most obvious."

But Camry shoppers also want to show they care about the environment and are interested in technology, he said.

So, it wasn't too much of a stretch for Toyota—the world's leader in gasoline-hybrid vehicle sales—to decide to add a hybrid version of Camry for 2007.

The Camry Hybrid looks just a bit different on the outside than the gas-only sedan. The hybrid's grille has a metallic look, and headlight reflectors have a blue tint. There also are underbody fairing panels to direct airflow efficiently, and taillights are light-emitting diodes. The hybrid is the only Camry to get an acoustic-dampening windshield, which keeps passengers away from the high-frequency noises that can emanate from the electric power system.

The Camry has Toyota's newest, fourth-generation Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which uses an Atkinson cycle variant of the 2.4.-liter four-cylinder engine found in the base Camry. Atkinson cycle engines provide a more fuel-efficient operation than regular internal combustion engines.

Software to manage the mixing and matching of electric power to engine power in the Camry is upgraded for smoother transitions than that provided in other, earlier Toyota hybrids, said Paul Williamsen, product education manager for Toyota.

The four-cylinder engine produces 147 horsepower, while the two electric motors boost total horsepower in the Camry Hybrid to 192. Engine torque peaks at 137 lb-ft at 4000 rpm but the electric power can deliver 203 lb-ft of torque from startup to 1500 rpm.

Zero to 60-mile-per-hour time in the Camry Hybrid is 8.9 seconds, which is less than stellar acceleration. Note that the Camry Hybrid weighs about 350 pounds more than a comparable, gas-only Camry. This is because of the nickel-metal hydride battery pack, which adds 150 pounds, as well as the electric motor-generators and planetary gear set.

Toyota's gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles typically have been priced at a $3,000 to $5,000 premium over comparable, gas-only counterparts. All Toyota would say about pricing ahead of the Camry Hybrid arrival is it will be priced similar to the top-level 2007 Camry XLE, which had not been priced when this article was posted to the Web.

(Read more about why Hybrids Are Hot.)

Camry vs. Prius
It's logical to wonder what consumers will prefer: a midsize Prius five-passenger, five-door hatchback that looks like a cutting-edge hybrid, or a midsize Camry five-passenger, four-door sedan that looks like a regular Camry.

Lentz said he's not worried, because either way, buyers will find what suits them best. Toyota market research shows a Prius buyer tends to be "more of a trendsetter type," he said, adding that future Prius styling will continue to push the envelope.

Americans bought a record 107,897 Priuses in calendar 2005. Prius is the world's first mass-produced gas-electric hybrid and went on sale in the U.S. in August 2000.

Toyota expects about 45,000 Camry Hybrid sales in calendar 2006. Pricing is likely to be higher than the $21,725 starting MSRP of the 2006 Prius.

The Prius is built in Japan. Initially, the 2007 Camry Hybrid is, too.

But starting in late calendar 2006, Camry Hybrid production moves to the Georgetown, Ky., assembly plant where other, gas-only Camry cars are assembled. This marks the first time that an American factory will produce a Toyota hybrid vehicle.

Toyota's other hybrid vehicles—the Highlander Hybrid and Lexus hybrids—all come from Japan factories.

Ann Job is a freelance automotive writer.

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