HOUSTON, Tex. -- Automotive designers from Toyota in the United States and Japan have conspired to reinvent the Camry, perennial best-selling passenger car in America.
Meddling with the design of a car which has become the brand's icon -- the nameplate dresses one in five Toyotas in North America and accounts for millions of units worldwide since Camry's 1983 debut -- could be risky business.
After all, the current Camry has been a decided hit, topping all sales charts for the past four years.
But the re-do of Camry, which has been re-sheathed for model-year 2012 with concerns for passenger comfort and personal safety foremost in mind, results in a generously scaled mid-size sedan that's keen in style, invigorated with more powerful yet more efficient engines and laced with luxurious cabin features to position this car close to the realm of Lexus, Toyota's elite upscale line.
Camry's new exterior package appears sleek and shapely with a broader and lower stance, yet it reflects subtle lines and subdued paint colors in the manner of a sophisticated -- and expensive -- vehicle.
The slinky design looks strong and athletic with contemporary forms and a long cabin perched above the horizontal underbody. It features crisp and precise character lines on flanks with strongly curved doors and defined rocker panel moldings.
Up front the new Camry wears an aggressive grille planted between narrow headlamp clusters which wrap around the corners. A broad intake valence yawns below the grille with top trim versions adding corner foglamps.
The aerodynamic body features a long and low-sloping hood and a windshield severely raked leading to an arching canopy over the cabin with deep windows on doors and side pillars muted to create the impression of a sleek coupe.
Swoopy back pillars of the roofline slide down to the blunted tail, which looks clean with a wrap-around fascia and restyled corner taillamps.
The overall length of Camry's structure remains unchanged at 189.2 inches, as does the wheelbase length of 109.3 inches. And the wheel track width is wide -- 62.5 inches in front and 62.0 inches in the rear.
Camry's expansive structure becomes most apparent inside the five-seat passenger compartment, which feels quite spacious with generous room for shoulders and legs.
Camry's cabin is a more efficient design and shows improvements in styling and the tone of materials, with more comfortable seats in place and more useful instruments and controls plus more standard equipment aboard.
The conventional layout includes a pair of buckets up front flanking a center console which holds the transmission shift lever, with the rear bench built for three but scooped for two.
A flat floor also improves legroom for backseat riders.
All trim grades now provide a standard 60/40 split folding rear seatback to expand cargo capacity. Seatback sections may be lowered by a remote release in the trunk.
Elaborate safety systems, either passive or active, show up in the 2012 Camry.
The cabin is surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and two more to shield the knees of driver and passanger, then new standard seat-mounted side air bags on rear seats and curtain-style air bags tucked in headliners above side windows front and back.
On tap to help stop the vehicle are four disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD).
Additional electronic vehicle controls include vehicle stability control (VSC), which corrects lateral skidding, plus traction control (TRAC) to check wheel spin and a brake assist (BA) system to add maximum braking pressure during an emergency stop.
Powertrain choices apply to the 2012 Camry, which trims out in L, LE, SE and XLE editions.
The standard powertrain is a 2.5-liter in-line-four engine with dual overhead cams (DOHC), Toyota direct ignition (TDI) and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i).
It produces 178 hp at 6000 rpm plus 170 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm. The four-pack plant qualifies for Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV-II) status and delivers fuel economy numbers as high as 35 mpg.
The transmission is a six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting -- pull the console-mounted shift lever to the left, then tip it forward to move up the gear ladder one step at a time, or click it backward to shift down that ladder.
A 3.5-liter V6 -- Toyota's 2GR-FE engine -- becomes the optional power upgrade for Camry's two top trim tiers. The V6 employs chain-driven dual camshafts with dual VVT-i controls. As a result, it romps with 268 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque pushing to 248 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
Entry issue Camry L stocks plenty of gear, but top trims load up the luxe like a dual-zone automatic climate system, leather-trimmed seats and heated front seats.
Price points for the 2012 Camry undercut 2011 models, beginning at $21,995 for entry L edition and reaching to $29,845 for the XLE V6.