A real TRD or just a tarted-up Camry?
Toyota Racing Development has come a long way over the past 40 years. Although it started off as an in-house tuner and performance parts supplier for Toyota, it’s now responsible for the development of some of Toyota’s hottest trucks and SUVs: the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, Tundra TRD Pro, and 4Runner TRD Pro. With those trucks flying off dealer lots, and cars such as the venerable Camry sitting there far longer, the TRD team was tasked by product planners to sprinkle a little of its magic onto the company’s midsize family sedan. The result is the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD, and after driving it, it seems like TRD hasn’t been allowed to go far enough.
It would be easy to look at the Camry TRD as a badge-and-trim job with its racy rear spoiler, front splitter, side skirts, and red brake calipers poking out of its new black DTM-inspired wheels, but that would be underselling the significant suspension and chassis changes the TRD team made. Using the sporty-ish Camry XSE as a baseline, TRD engineers started with the suspension. The car was lowered about a half-inch and fitted with stiffer shocks with TRD-specific valving, rebound springs, new bumpstops, and stiffer front and rear stabilizer bars.
Not satisfied with the suspension changes, the folks at TRD also turned their attention to the Camry’s chassis. Eliminating a sunroof from the Camry TRD’s option sheet bought them some extra rigidity, but adding three additional body braces underneath the car got them far more. Still unsatisfied, they then did away with the folding rear seat and installed a V-shaped brace to stiffen the chassis more. They finished off their work with a retuned steering rack, louder cat-back exhaust, upsized front brakes with two-piston calipers, wider but lighter wheels (lighter than the XSE’s wheels by 2 pounds) that supposedly help cool the brakes, and most important, Bridgestone Potenza summer tires.
Although Toyota’s product planners were gung-ho to have the TRD team work on the Camry, they were less willing to finance any engine or transmission changes. So the Camry TRD makes do with a 301-hp and 267-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 and an eight-speed automatic. At $31,991, Toyota is quick to point out this is the cheapest way to get a V-6-powered Camry.
So, how does it all work in the real world, or whatever you consider the roads surrounding Dallas, Texas, to be? In a word: fine. The Camry’s red-stitched vegan leather seats, red seat belts, and red trim certainly make a good first impression, but if you’re expecting anything more than a slightly sportier Camry—or a true Honda Accord Sport competitor—you’re headed for disappointed.
The issue isn’t so much what the TRD team did to the Camry but more what it wasn’t allowed to do. It’s not the engine’s fault. The V-6 makes 301 hp in a car that weighs around 3,600 pounds, so it has a decent power-to-weight ratio. Rather, it’s the transmission tuning that sucks any fun and all of the potential out of this Camry.
Like many Toyotas (and all Camrys), the TRD’s eight-speed auto is geared way too tall for its engine, and it lacks any semblance of shift logic. On the former front, the Camry’s first, second, and third gears top out at 30, 60, and 90 mph, respectively, leaving fourth through eighth gears to cover the 22-mph spread between the top of third gear and the Camry TRD’s 112-mph top speed. On the latter, the transmission upshifts and downshifts seemingly at random, even with the car in Sport mode, hunting for whatever gear it thinks is the right one. Sport mode on the transmission, or the shift paddles, should help in theory, but instead they function more as a gear limiter as the transmission still continues to upshift and downshift as it pleases.
The Camry’s ride and handling balance is thankfully much more successful than its transmission tuning. On the street, the TRD’s ride is noticeably stiffer than a standard Camry’s, but it’s only punishing over the worst-quality pavement, like farm-country railroad crossings. There were painfully few curves on our drive route, but both the suspension and chassis felt composed and well dialed in through bends. Steering is still vague and lacks the delicacy you get from Toyota models like the new Supra or 86, but the summer tires help make the most of the situation by offering copious amounts of grip.
The one area where the TRD improvements make the biggest difference is on an autocross course. When driven back to back with the baseline Camry XSE, the Camry TRD’s superior body control shines. The TRD is more planted, stable, and agile. There’s a big difference in braking, too; the TRD’s brakes have better bite and feel, allowing you the ability to brake later into turns. I’m not sure who exactly is autocrossing a Camry, but the TRD is certainly the one to do it with.
In a lot of ways, the Camry TRD is the oddball of the TRD lineup. Whereas the 4Runner, Tacoma, and Tundra TRD models are singularly focused on exceptional off-road performance, the Camry TRD isn’t the on-road performer it could and should be. It’s at best a stiffer, sportier Camry, but that shouldn’t be enough to talk someone out of a base Accord, let alone a truly sporty Accord Sport. Although I’m certain that won’t stop the Toyota faithful from snapping up the 6,000 examples Toyota plans to build for the 2020 model year, the Camry TRD is nevertheless a textbook example of an engineering team working with a hand tied behind its back. TRD has proven it knows how to tune a good car. Next time I hope big Toyota lets ’em do it.