Toss out “Toyota Camry” during a word-association game, and most automotive enthusiasts would respond with some allegory for anonymity, appliance, or a similarly unflattering description for automotive wallpaper. The latest Camry, with its all-new platform, fresh powertrains, and expressive styling, attempts to shake off that image. The range-topping Camry XSE V-6 is the most effective implementation of that retooling, blending the lineup’s most powerful engine with the sportiest trim level.
More Power, More Styling
This XSE is part of the sporty S pillar of the Camry family, which also includes the lower-spec SE; Toyota has an entirely different L vertical with L, LE, and XLE Camrys that wear toned-down front and rear bumpers and ride on more comfort-oriented suspension setups in order to attract traditional Camry buyers.
Even those softer-edged L models are notably more satisfying to drive than past Camrys. But the S trims build on that solid foundation with firmer damping, bigger wheels with wider tires, and distinctive front and rear bumpers with gaping intakes and lots of blacked-out trim. That you can order the XSE with a contrasting black-colored roof (a $500 option) and a blood-red interior speaks volumes about Toyota’s lowered inhibitions.
The XSE—as well as its L counterpart, the XLE—unlocks the option of grabbing the Camry’s new 301-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine. With port and direct fuel injection, the six is 33-hp stronger than last year’s port-injected 3.5-liter V-6. Torque is up 19 lb-ft to 267, peaking at the same 4700 rpm as before. Other 2018 Camrys are propelled by a 2.5-liter inline-four or a gas/electric hybrid powertrain.
The V-6 Camry is intriguing not only for its substantial horsepower, but also for having six cylinders. Nearly every competitor has turned to smaller, turbocharged four-cylinders for their uplevel engine options, including the Camry’s nemesis, the Honda Accord. This V-6 is a stonker, though, sending the Camry from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds—2.1 seconds quicker than a four-cylinder Camry SE we tested. And it spits an edgy snort out of the XSE’s quad exhaust outlets, one that’s more distinguished than four-cylinder competitors’ vacuum/blender soundtracks. Still, the 252-hp turbocharged inline-four in Honda’s top-dog Accord 2.0T scoots that model to 60 mph 0.3 second quicker. Although the two sedans have nearly equal peak torque, the 2.0T Accord has barely any torque steer whereas the Toyota has plenty.
Honda also has Toyota beat in the transmission race, where the Accord 2.0T boasts a quick-witted automatic with 10 forward speeds to the Camry’s eight. The Accord also offers a manual transmission with both of its engine options. A stick shift would be a much welcome alternative for the Camry, as decisions come slowly to the eight-speed automatic. There is a slight delay between the driver stomping the gas pedal and the receipt of a downshift, a sin aggravated by the transmission’s stubborn preference for its higher gears. A Sport button on the center console adds some eagerness to the engine’s responses, and an S slot for the gear lever does the same for the transmission, but neither fully erases the powertrain’s slight hesitation in reaction to aggressive throttle applications. Reaction to manual gear selections from both the steering-wheel-mounted paddles and the shift lever’s plus/minus gate are similarly unexceptional .
Can You Handle a Camry that Handles?
If the engine and transmission could use a little extra seasoning to match the XSE’s sporty image, the chassis is pretty much spot-on. This Camry turns with an enthusiasm that nearly matches the benchmark Honda Accord and Mazda 6, with no appreciable impact on overall comfort. While the Accord 2.0T rides on fancier adaptive dampers with two driver-selectable firmness levels, the Camry XSE uses traditional fixed-rate dampers that cover nearly the same spectrum of control and ride quality. Body roll in the XSE is kept well in check, and this test car circled our skidpad with 0.87 g of grip—right on the heels of the Accord 2.0T’s 0.88 g.
Opting for the V-6 adds about 200 pounds to the Camry’s curb weight (according to Toyota), most of that concentrated in the nose, shifting the weight distribution slightly forward. The mass’s effects on handling are detectable only by our instruments and by those who’ve driven a four-cylinder Camry and paid extra-close attention to its turn-in characteristics. The 2018 SE bettered this XSE’s skidpad grip by 0.01 g and nudged into corners with a bit more fluidity. The weight will be more noticeable at the pump. We averaged 24 mpg during our test, compared with 32 mpg in the four-cylinder SE and 40 mpg in the 2018 Camry hybrid. Honda’s Accord 2.0T averaged the same 24 mpg as this XSE but ran away from the Toyota on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy loop, scoring a stellar 35 mpg to the Camry’s 29. The four-cylinder Camry has both sedans beat on the open road, notching an astounding 45 mpg on our highway test (1 mpg greater than the Camry hybrid!).
The rest of the XSE experience is similar to that in other Camrys—although with the glaring exception of its vastly superior interior quality. Stepping down even one level to the SE—or, if coming from an XLE, an LE—is a descent into interiors filled with more hard plastics and uneven panel gaps than you’ll find in top-rung Camrys. It may be that Toyota is using this as a way to entice buyers up the price ladder, given that active-safety features such as lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and automated emergency braking are now standard across the lineup. At least the infotainment system shared with lesser Camrys is just as easy to use here, thanks in part to the attractive chrome-tipped hard-button shortcuts to key menus that flank the screen, as well as the volume and tuning knobs located close to the steering wheel.
So where does this leave the Camry’s renaissance? Blending the sedan’s most dramatic styling changes with its strongest engine and its nicest innards punts the Camry XSE V-6 near the head of a class led by the Accord 2.0T. The privilege is expensive, though. The four-cylinder XSE starts at $29,895 and includes LED headlights and taillights, quad exhaust outlets, inductive phone charging, a panoramic sunroof, a 10-inch color head-up display, dual-zone automatic climate control, and leather seat covers, features that are either optional or unavailable on the SE. The V-6 is another $5950, and our test car added the $940 enhanced navigation system, $1050 360-degree parking camera and sensors, and a few dealer-installed options, bringing the total to $38,059. So make a mental note for future word-association games: Now “Camry” can be interchangeable with dynamic, stylish, and (at least occasionally) pricey.