On Autos: Redesigned Camry dials down the dullness

The redesigned 2018 Toyota Camry is more adventurous than its predecessor, particularly in this sporty XSE version. (Brady Holt/The Current)

While pitching the redesigned 2018 Toyota Camry to a group of automotive journalists, the automaker’s marketing team conceded that the country’s best-selling midsize sedan was widely considered to be a little boring. That’s all changed, Toyota assured the crowd at a recent media event.

Such a claim is nothing new for the automotive industry — and not even new for the Camry. Marketing folks say all the time that they’ve made their new car so much more exciting than its predecessor.

But at least based on a quick drive on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Toyota wasn’t just talking this time: The redesigned 2018 Camry indeed demonstrated greatly improved power and handling, all without compromising its traditional virtues of comfort, spaciousness, safety and fuel economy.

The 2018 Toyota Camry XSE features exterior styling details that include revised bumper trims and a two-tone roof. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Despite the Camry’s image as a dull family sedan, its sport-focused SE and XSE versions have proved highly successful. In recent years, the SE has actually been the lineup’s best-seller. The 2018 redesign adds further to the appeal of the two sport models, with an extra dose of exterior styling tweaks and, on the pricier XSE, available two-tone paint and a red leather interior.

Further enhancing these sporty Camry models’ appeal is the improvement to the whole lineup’s driving dynamics, which adds substance to back up the aesthetic enhancements. The 2018 Camry boasts a more solid, planted feel than before. The outgoing Camry was comfortable and even decently agile, but it felt lighter and less substantial than many of its competitors. At least based on the short preview drives, even the sportiest XSE — with big wheels and a stiffer suspension — still delivers a comfortable ride along with superior handling composure. The steering now has a reassuring firmness and responsiveness, helping the 2018 Camry corner with greater precision.

The 2018 Toyota Camry XSE is now offered with red leather upholstery. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Camry also features two new engines, which improve both power and fuel economy over their 2017 counterparts. Toyota bucked the modern trend toward small turbocharged four-cylinder engines, instead continuing to offer a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and — now a rarity in the midsize sedan class — a 3.5-liter V6. These two engines offer 203 and 301 horsepower, respectively, both outstanding numbers for the class. And despite their power, they achieve exceptional EPA fuel economy estimates of 32 and 26 mpg, respectively, in mixed driving. Toyota also continues to offer a gas-electric Camry Hybrid, whose EPA ratings soar to 52 mpg on the 2018 base model and 46 mpg on other versions.

Inside, the 2018 Camry boasts a more luxurious experience than the basic-feeling 2017 model. Materials are richer, and the curvier dashboard is more modern. At least based on a few minutes of driving time, Toyota also managed to keep the dashboard user-friendly. And while there still isn’t Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration, Toyota’s own Entune infotainment system has been upgraded with crisper displays and additional features.

The 2018 Toyota Camry could pass for an older model in this understated XLE trim, at least based on the exterior styling. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Toyota hasn’t neglected the loyal Camry buyers who are just looking for a spacious, comfortable family car. On the non-sport models — the base L and LE trims and the more premium XLE — the new exterior styling is inoffensive and almost interchangeable with any Camry from the last decade. And importantly, Toyota has also resisted the popular temptation to lower the car’s roofline — a decision that pays off in terms of rear-seat headroom and rear visibility.

The 2018 Camry is priced from $24,380, which is a little on the high side for the midsize sedan class. However, even the base model is a clear cut above many competitors. The upgraded driving experience and interior quality — plus Toyota’s continued dedication to offering high-end safety features as standard equipment — make it worth the money.

Note, though, that the Camry isn’t the only 2018 redesign in its class. The Toyota’s top rival, the Honda Accord, will also be all-new this year. Both will face the upgraded 2018 Hyundai Sonata and other compelling midsize sedans that include the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Mazda6 and Subaru Legacy.