Bread was invented in Egypt somewhere around 2,500 years ago. Butter was developed even earlier, perhaps in 7,500 BC. An exact date is cause for hotly contested debate, but the automobile was thought up somewhere in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As for the bread-and-butter car, that arrived in January of 1980. We called it the Toyota Camry.
Now in its eighth generation, the Camry is the best-selling passenger car in the US. In Canada, where we like our coffees large but our cars small, the Camry is still a top-10 proposition, edging out its perennial rival, the Honda Accord.
“Wow,” you say, managing to stifle a yawn. “Sales results. Pretty exciting stuff.”
Well, if you’re Toyota, the figures are certainly pretty interesting. However, it must be admitted that the Camry’s success does come with a reputation for never rocking the boat. Even little brother Corolla threw out the odd high-revving sporting version from time to time, but who ever got thrilled by a Camry? No garlic toast, no BLT, no Monte Cristo; just bread and butter, right?
Perhaps we’re being unfair to the Camry by only viewing it as automotive oatmeal, kept bland to appease the masses. After all, the V6-powered versions have been posting up some legitimately quick numbers for a while, more than enough to embarrass some sports cars of decades past. The latest Camry doesn’t just come one way: there’s a hybrid version, a sporty-looking XSE variant, and enough tweaks to the interior to make the high-end versions look like a luxury option. Maybe there’s more than just mainstream appeal to Toyota’s mid-size crowd-pleaser.
The word “Camry” is a variation on the Japanese word kanmuri, which means “crown.” That’s a regal aspiration for a volume-selling machine, but shouldn’t be much of a surprise to any student of Toyota history. The company has named almost all of their four-door sedans after some variant of royal headgear, from the obvious Toyota Crown to the Corona and the Corolla.
Before the Camry was officially a car, it was a sort of four-door variant. Introduced in Japan only, the Celica Camry was launched at the beginning of 1980 as a partner for the sporty Celica, with which it actually shared few parts. Underneath the skin, it was actually a Toyota Carina with a nose made up to look like a bit like a Celica offshoot.
The best model you could get was the wonderfully named Celica Camry XT Super Edition, which came with a zesty 2.0L four-cylinder engine making 133 hp and putting it to the rear wheels. That’s not huge power by modern standards, but in an era still recovering from the energy crisis, the Celica Camry was actually a fairly enthusiastic choice.
The first official Camry model was dubbed the V10, but no, it didn’t have ten cylinders. Wouldn’t that have been an exciting debut, though? A Viper for the whole family.
The V10 was pretty relentlessly boring. The engine was mounted transversely, front-wheel drive was the only motivation on offer, and engine power declined. The introductory model offered 92 hp and a five-speed manual gearbox, which later editions slightly improved on. If you really weren’t in a hurry, there was also a 79 hp diesel version..
Even so, the Camry was longer and roomier than the Accord, and if the styling wasn’t sporty it was at least functionally aerodynamic. What’s the old Red Green line? “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” The Camry was especially handy if you went for the flexible hatchback variant, and it was as reliable as taxes.
In its second generation, the Camry matured a bit and started offering a greater amount of choice. First, replacing the diesel was a new V6 offering for those wanting greater power and smoothness. If you needed to haul more cargo, the Camry was now available as a wagon. And, if you needed to battle the elements a little, the Camry was now available with all-wheel drive.
However, the glut of choices was short-lived. While the second-generation Camry attracted lots of new Toyota fans, word came down from the head office that the new car would be both larger in size and streamlined in concept. Instead of multiple four-cylinder engines of varying formats, the new third-gen Camry would come with either a four- or a six-cylinder, and most of them with an automatic transmission. All-wheel drive was also off the table.
However, the third-gen Camry was also the first of the mid-sized vehicles, commonly called “wide-body”. No longer would Japanese and North American Camrys differ only in engine options and which side the steering wheel was on, the US and Canadian Camry was now a totally different vehicle.
This was no bad thing. While light and nimble are attributes to set any enthusiast driver’s heart aflutter, most people just want reliable, dependable comfort. The Camry’s steadfast nature made up for its slightly stodgy personality, and no one was surprised when a coupe version didn’t sell well. You could still get a wagon variant, but the ubiquitous four-door Camry had arrived.
Third-generation cars were constructed in Toyota’s new plant in Kentucky, but in the fourth generation, the Camry Solara began production in Canada. The Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) plant changed over its original Corolla line to start making this new coupe version of the Camry. With styling more differentiated from the four-door versions, the Solara was more successful than the original Camry Coupe.
Further spicing things up a little, V6 versions of the Camry had even more power available on tap. Adding on an optional factory-supported TRD (Toyota Racing Development) supercharger boosted horsepower to 247 hp. Strap one into a beige four-door Camry with gold emblems and go embarrass BMWs.
Bolt-on go-fast kits notwithstanding, the Camry’s raison d’être was slow, steady, constant sales increases. There wasn’t much room for variants that couldn’t pull their weight sales-wise, and the rise of the minivan and crossover meant death for the wagon variant. Now in its fifth generation, Camry was wider and more comfortable, with an efficient and durable 154 hp four-cylinder, and a pair of V6 offerings. The sportiest SE models got a 3.3L making 210 hp.
However, this was the early 2000s, and the rise of the family hot rod was about to happen. Spurred on by the appearance of the 240 hp Nissan Altima, which could produce quarter-mile trap times that wouldn’t be out of place from a Mustang, Toyota’s next Camry mounted a two-pronged attack.
If the people wanted power, then it was power to the people. The sixth-generation Camry showed up bigger and softer (as expected), but Toyota had also stuffed a monster in its nose. The 3.5L V6 made 268 hp, and came attached to a flexible six-speed automatic transmission. Line it up at the dragstrip next to your rally-loving neighbour’s brand new WRX, and the four-door family sedan would go door-to-door down the quarter-mile, ending up with the same elapsed time but a greater trap speed.
And, because it was a Camry, this new V6-powered unassuming rocket ship was again quiet at highway speeds and smooth at idle. Furthermore, it wasn’t the only unique powertrain on offer.
Toyota, perhaps sensing that a love of straight-line speed was only for a small fraction of Camry owners, also launched the hybrid version of their mainstream four-door in the sixth-generation car. While it took a while for the car to get the same traction as the more recognizable Prius, the Camry Hybrid was soon enough a household name. Nearly all companies offer a hybrid version of their mid-size sedans these days, but the Camry’s the obvious choice.
For the seventh-generation Camry, Toyota left well enough alone with the V6 models, but stepped up their game on the volume four-cylinder versions, and the green-friendly hybrid version. The latter saw power come up to 200 hp, making it about as quick as the V6 Camry was before it got its Altima-crushing 268 hp engine.
Still, even the most-sporty XSE-trim Camrys continue to be fairly relaxed in the chassis department. A reasonable amount of grip is on offer, but the steering and suspension are tuned more for the interstate slog than the backroad waltz.
Having said that, the Camry has plenty of steam to get past the semi-trailer that’s blocking your view, and will get you to your destination without tiring you out.
Whether the eight-generation Camry manages to get more liveliness baked in remains to be seen. Certainly the new Global Architecture has been promising in other vehicles, even adding a little more zip to the ordinarily very tame Prius. A new eight-speed automatic should mean improved performance for both four- and six-cylinder models, and the hybrid looks to get a mild power bump too.
Better still is the improved interior quality and greater amount of technology on offer for Camry intenders. Standard pedestrian detection and pre-collision warning will make all new Camrys just that little bit safer.
Safety and comfort will likely still be present in abundance, but now there’s a bit more technology and performance on offer. The Camry is still a bread-and-butter car, but with this new one, Toyota looks to be giving us a few more toppings.