Review: 2009 Toyota Camry XLE

2009 Toyota Camry XLE – Click above for high-res image gallery

A recent night of excitement: driving the Camry XLE to the Super Wal-Mart. So lame, but that's not the car's fault. Like Wal-Mart, the Camry has been excoriated as a work of Satan, antithetical to all that is American, never mind where it's built. Despite the gleeful way everyone always lobs shots at Toyota's midsizer, there's a lot of virtue here. After all, there has to be some kind of hook to this car attaining such vaunted status, besides the bounce-lending automotive cult of personality. Since nobody actually reviews the Camry – we just complain about it as it outsells everything else – we rustled up an XLE powered by Toyota's 2.4-liter four cylinder and tried it out.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

So why does the Camry sell so well? Because it's a solid car that offers good value. The trunk is big, the four is thrifty, it comes well equipped. We thought there might be some personality hiding in there that would win us over during the Camry's stay. Nope. The best thing about the Camry's half-pretty styling is the anonymity afforded by the glut of them on the road, and the car itself tries very hard to avoid offending anyone.

It's exterior styling is more expressive than previous Camrys; one could even get away with saying the styling was a motivating factor in the purchase of a Camry. The front end has a suggestion of feline to its face, and the hood has some well developed surface detailing that plays light nicely. Out back, the trunklid rises up out of the rear quarter panels, giving the Camry a high poop deck. The Camry is not unattractive, and while it blends in due to the surfeit of Camrys on the road, this iteration has far more flair to the sheetmetal than its forebears.

Inside, the XLE is equipped with everything you'd ever want. For entertainment, a JBL audio system with multi-disc capacity, .wma and .mp3 capability and satellite readiness occupies a place of prominence on the center stack and provides plenty of NPR and angry-guy talk radio. When tuned to music, the sound of the system is annoying, despite the speakers' JBL pedigree. A severe high-frequency resonance from the tweeters that sounds like metal-on-metal made us feel like we'd been listening to a dog whistle.

The HVAC panel is lower down in the "Plasmacenter," and offers up dual-zone climate control. Every time we started the Camry, the HVAC would come on in recirculate mode. If you neglect to manually select fresh cabin air, the windows have a tendency to get foggy, especially if it's humid. The recirc default may be less of an issue if you rely on the automatic functions of the climate control, but for anyone who likes to be master of his or her machine, it's an annoyance that quickly gets old.

The power adjustable, leather trimmed seats are comfortable for most anyone, and the ergonomics are well-considered with everything easy to find. A couple of minor niggles; one of the center stack's lower pieces didn't line up, and its turquoise stripe pattern glows far too brightly at night. Back seat passengers find plenty of legroom, thanks to the Camry's large footprint, and the rear seatbacks even recline. We'd happily trade their reclining trick, however, for seats that fold offering more access to the trunk than just the large pass-through. The trunk itself is a veritable cavern: big, accessible, eminently useful.

While we found the Camry an innocuous place to while away the hours, it feels like the low end of its class in terms of materials and design. In a turnaround of monumental proportions, the Fusion and Malibu slay the Camry's interior. Even in the XLE with its leather upholstery, it's disappointing. The dash and door panels are styled in a spare fashion, and when swathed in gray like our tester, the feeling is drab. Fake wood inserts in the center console and on the doors is overly shiny and reminiscent of bad old sedans from dark days gone by.The XLE is not the base model, but it didn't feel as niced-up as a new Hyundai Sonata in comparable trim, and the Detroit brands are better still.

Inoffensive is the order of the day when you point the Camry into traffic. The 2.4 liter four cylinder is plenty powerful and revs smoothly all the way to its redline while generating 158 horsepower. An available V6 offering 100 more horsepower is entirely unnecessary, especially when the torquey four returns an EPA highway rating of 31 mpg, brag-worthy for a car this size. Part of the good mileage is an automatic transmission that aims for fifth gear and takes a search warrant to find a downshift. The autobox is recalcitrant, if efficient.

Sport is not the mission here, but some less flaccid chassis calibration would be fitting, like fitting the SE's "sport-tuned" shocks and extra bracing to the XLE. Feeling both underdamped and undersprung, the Camry doesn't impart the impression of buttoned down security like we desire in a family stormer. Light steering devoid of feel keeps mum about what's going on with the tires, and the Camry feels nervous on the road. The ride is soft, overly soft, possibly as an effort to please every rump. You can dance the Camry if you're up for a challenge, though, it is capable enough. VSC is part of the Option B package that includes power adjustable seats with leather upholstery and heaters and mats for the floor as well as the trunk, and Toyota's aggressive stability control calibration means it'd take a ton of nerve to get in trouble.

After spending a week with the Camry, we now understand why it's such a good seller; it's a good car with a great reputation. Unlike 15 years ago, the Camry's not just duking it out with the Accord anymore. Domestic brands are turning out cars that we find far more compelling in terms of styling, price and features, not to mention initial quality, and let's not forget Hyundai's juggernaut Sonata. The Camry XLE isn't a screaming bargain for the $28,000 our sample unit cost either, but Toyota has a track record of impressive reliability and longevity with the Camry, important for buyers looking for an automotive sure thing, and that's a huge check in this car's plus column for the average consumer.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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