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2018 Toyota Camry Prototype Drive Review: Tectonic Shift

"Our biggest challenge was to forget"

"Our biggest challenge was to forget"

Amid the clatter of shoes on the polished terminal floor of Sendai Airport, north of Tokyo, our Toyota host turns to me and says, “This place”—he glances around at the airport—“was flooded by the 2011 tsunami.” You would hardly know it, though, because the reconstruction is so thorough. In an only-in-Japan moment, we encounter a small robot directing flyers to either connecting flights or baggage claim. Dutifully listening, I turn right.

Locally, they call that 9.1 Richter-scale rupture in the ocean floor the Great East Japan Earthquake. It was the fourth most powerful movement of the earth ever recorded. The Pacific Ocean is now quietly lapping three-quarters of a mile away; Fukushima is 55 miles (88 km) to the south, still burbling its radioactive brew. This is a country that united for several years to pick up the pieces of the devastation. Some parts of Japan remain shattered, but most citizens have seen a return to daily life. And for Toyota, that means staying on schedule for its most important car, the Camry.

Tomorrow, I’ll be driving prototypes of the next-generation Camry at the Sportsland Sugo raceway, located in the hills about an hour from the city. As we walk into the evening air, it’s face-flinching cold. There’s light rain in tomorrow’s forecast. I pull my jacket’s zipper up to its top tooth and lean into the wind. I was hoping for better weather to conduct an exclusive driving evaluation of the first entirely new Camry in more than a decade. This is no routine Camry update. This is the first version begot of the crucial Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform. The future of the world’s largest automaker hinges on its success.

More on the 2018 Toyota Camry:

2018 Toyota Camry XSE Camry Hybrid

A day earlier, 5,400 miles (8,690 km) to the east, I had been calibrating my Camry sensitivity by driving a current Camry V-6 in Newport Beach, California, land of palm trees and the still-slumbering San Andreas. My hands were lightly draping its steering wheel, searching for a pulse. Despite its reputation as the Muzak of Mobility, you have to concede that this is a well-composed sedan. More like listening to The Eagles than elevator music—comfortable and reassuring, with clever lyrics and enough metronome back beat to keep you nodding to the pulse. But squeeze the rim, and you’ll find comfortable leather over rubber and steel.

Back on the 35th floor of the Westin Hotel in Sendai, my jet-lagged internal wake-up call goes off at 3:30 a.m.—10:30 a.m. California time … yesterday, somehow or other. I look at my phone’s alarm set for three hours later and then stare at the ceiling totally awake. There’s a sizzle of rain against the window.

When we finally locate the Sportsland Sugo racetrack, it seems strangely familiar, but I’ve never been here. Like Suzuka, Twin Ring Motegi, and Fuji Speedway, which I’d recently driven, Yamaha-owned Sugo feels simultaneously contemporary and ancient. The mid-’70s structures have lost their sheen to the rainy winters, and the steamy summers have prematurely aged the rest of the place, with moss growing in the block-wall crevices and dark tropical foliage crowding from everywhere else.

Toyota personnel, puffing small breaths of steam, are buzzing up and down the staircase to meeting rooms overlooking the slick-wet pits. The garages below are open and set up with folding chairs, whiteboards, tables with bags of chips and Kit Kat bars, and questionable coffee. A space heater wastes its time in the corner.

2018 Toyota Camry prototype front end in motion
FIRST DRIVE Our Kim Reynolds was the only journalist allowed access to pilot a prototype of the completely redesigned Camry.

Occasionally I get a sideways glance. I’m not supposed to be here. This is an internal Toyota program to familiarize employees with an important new car. Three heavily camouflaged examples—a V-6, a four-cylinder, and a hybrid, are parked nose to tail in the pits, along with a current Camry and Accord as baselines. I try to blend in with the employees pairing up for an orientation ride with hired professional race drivers before taking the wheel themselves. I ask our red-jacketed instructor his background. “I race Ferraris,” he says. “In February I’m going to Daytona to coach a Lamborghini driver.” I sense his career frustration and my own with Lamborghini guys who hire driving coaches.

When it’s my turn to try the older Camry, the instructor speaks succinctly. And then I notice his right foot pressing the carpeting as we near the braking cones, which bugs me at first. But after riding with my Japanese co-driver, I get it: Driving ability is a bell curve, and you never know. The Toyota employee is treating the apex cones like Kryptonite stalagmites. We trace a Pluto orbit around a corner’s outer reaches, and I make a goofy face at the instructor, but he refuses to smile back. Nevertheless, it’s I, a few minutes later, who suddenly hydroplanes midcorner and nearly understeers off the road. I shrug my shoulders and exclaim, “What the heck, the place is flooding!” He just nods and keeps pressing his right foot down before the braking points.

The future of the world’s largest automaker hinges on this car’s success.

During a Kit Kat and coffee break, I sit in on a whiteboard roundup of key highlights and start jotting notes with frozen fingers. The roof and driver’s seat height have descended about an inch, the hood by about 1.5 inches. (TNGA has sunk the center of gravity by 6 percent; the hoodline dropped for improved outward vision.) The wheelbase is 2.0 inches longer, though both the overall length and width expand by only 0.5 inch. The chassis is 30 percent stiffer. The wheels—ranging from 16-inchers on the base LE to 19 inches on the pull-no-punches XSE—have been lured out of their usual hiding in the wheelwells. The rear suspension is totally recomposed—proper double A-arms substituting for the old struts.

Its trio of powerplants are spanking-new, too, including a 3.5-liter D-4S (dual port and direct injection) V-6 and a long-stroke 2.5-liter Dynamic Force I-4, which has a thermal efficiency that can touch 40 percent. The latter also serves as the gasoline partner of the revamped hybrid power unit. Both the V-6 and the I-4 are coupled to eight-speed automatics (replacing the previous six-speed boxes), and the Hybrid SE adds a paddle-shift six-speed simulation. We’re told to expect roughly 10 percent more power and 20 percent better efficiency.

2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE front three quarters
FAMILY FACE The 2018 Toyota Camry LE trim receives a noticeably different lower grille. A 2018 Camry Hybrid in XLE trim is shown here.

I finally close myself in one of the prototype camo cars—thunk—then click the belt buckle home, adjust the mirrors, and head out onto the track, starkly aware I’m in an incredibly rare prototype on a slippery track that includes a fog bank on the front straight. Even angling out of the pits, though, something’s noticeably right here. Without that whiteboard walkthrough, I might have thought it’s an illusion. But now I know better. The presenter penned a picture of how the steering wheel angle can be aimed more directly at you, its tilt range noticeably widened, so it feels natural in your hands. He drew the revised pedal stroke, showing how it better aligns with your actual foot motion. You’re never conscious of these things when you drive a car, but when they’re wrong, they quickly become unconscious partitions between you and the experience.

Shedding speed approaching the first real corner feels automatic. And arcing into the curve, the seat’s lateral bolsters quickly cup my ribcage. Exiting the bend, the upshifts are not only finger snaps but are the subtle, cool jazz ones where your fingers barely brush each other. The car feels vastly more sophisticated. But if there’s one thing that most symbolizes its transformation from seven tedious generations of Tofu Camry driving dynamics, it’s the brake pedal’s crispness. No more mush—even the hybrid is better, although you still detect its inevitable transition to friction-brake stopping. Through a double lane change, the previous Camry and Accord lolled with noticeable roll and weight transfer; this car deftly snakes right through it. Right, straight, left. Bam, bam, bam. The steering responds with sensible loads. Its balance and coordination are so improved it feels like an Audi sensibility might have snuck into the Toyota R & D center. I’m too soft-spoken for the part, but if Colin Clive were sitting here, he might indeed have yelled “It’s Alive! It’s ALIVE!” Pulling into the pits, I hop out with a smile and now an appetite, so I go hunting for more Kit Kats.

Suddenly, there’s an air of tension. Although vehicle chief engineers in Detroit can seem indistinguishable from the dude behind the counter at a NAPA Auto Parts store, Toyota’s are treated like throwbacks to Imperial feudalism. They are informally called Princes of the Company. I hear that the Camry’s CE, Masato Katsumata, has arrived and is nearby. A serious-looking guy comes down the balcony toward me. He moves aside to reveal a jacketed, portly man with a balding head and a genuinely happy smile. Katsumata-san speaks a firm, careful English (his baritone reminding me of Toshiro Mifune in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix). Yet it’s punctuated by frequent laughs, and as we stroll over to one of the camoed Camrys, he keeps trying to hold his umbrella over me—making me feel like the prince.
2018 Toyota Camry XSE V 6 front three quarter

And then we talk. “Previous Camrys have been white bread,” he says. “If a person wants a car that doesn’t break down, and they don’t have experience with European cars, then you might say to them ‘Buy a Camry; don’t worry.’ We could probably have stayed in that world.” Vehicle performance leader Yoichi Mizuno adds, “After seven generations of Camry, our biggest challenge was to forget. This one isn’t a Camry. It’s a new car.” How new? Katsumata-san says, “I’ve been in charge since the about the fifth or sixth generation, which at the time we thought was a big change. With that one, the front engine cradle was new along with the upper body, but the rear of the undercarriage was unaltered. So overall, it was like 65 percent new. This one is 100 percent.” As we walk around the car, he can’t stop talking about it.

In the morning, we’re heading back to California. I pack my suitcase and scan my itinerary for the coming weeks. Suddenly, my 35th-floor hotel room begins swaying back and forth. As a Californian, I’m used to this, but I’m not sure how to interpret a foreign earthquake. It turned out to be a 6.2, from the same area as the Great East quake. It was followed by a stronger 7.1 a week later, sending a small, rippling tsunami up small canal inlets.

Apparently, more than Camrys are alive around here.