Camry V6 Altise

Australian-built family cars are now in a period of flux - the Magna is in its last year in its current form, the BA Falcon - complete with cutting edge engines - has just been released, and Holden has the updated VY Commodore. (And Holden is also working feverishly on a new Commodore that not only will have a brilliant new V6, but also a whole new low-drag body and new suspension.)

Oh yes, and Toyota has a new Camry out.

That 'afterthought' public image of the Camry was responsible for Toyota going to extraordinarily lengths to manage the media at the time of its launch - from pledging money so the car made the cover of a national magazine, to spending on a web site so that opposition cars wouldn't be mentioned for a period. The paranoia was perhaps well deserved: no-one seems to be talking much about the Camry, whereas VY and BA discussion abounds.

But what exactly is the Camry like? After all, the smoke and mirrors of promotion and public perception often has little to do with the worth of the car itself. To find out we decided to drive the base model V6 - as with the Magna and Commodore and Falcon, it's the lowest trim model which is often the best value because you get all of the mechanicals without paying for the mostly-profit added trinkets.

The Camry has an all-new body, Japanese-styled but (in Australia) underpinned by the Toyota Modular Platform which is shared with the Avalon. The model has the highest ever level of Australian manufacturing input for a Camry, with the brakes, seats, headlamps, electronics, security system and suspension calibration all locally developed. More than half of the Camrys built at Altona will be exported.

Larger than the previous model, the Camry also boasts increased interior room - front shoulder room is up by 38mm, boot capacity has been increased by 9 per cent to 567 litres, and headroom is also greater. The body shape - complete with the noticeable rear airflow separation points - looks very aerodynamic, and the claimed Cd of 0.29 supports this. Importantly given its V6 engine's relatively low power, in tested Altise auto trans form the body is commendably light at 1485kg.

The V6 engine is a carryover from the previous model - a 3-litre, 60-degree quad cam design which is superbly smooth and sweet. Peak power of 141kW occurs at 5200 rpm, while 279Nm is developed at what appears to be a high 4400 rpm. The latter figure is quite deceptive though, with 230Nm available from 1200 - 5800 rpm. A variable intake manifold is used but the cam timing is fixed - after years of being the most sophisticated engine built in Australia, it's now been overtaken in technology by the Falcon.

The over-square engine (bore is 87.5mm and stroke 83mm) is willing worker which matches well with the (four speed only) auto transmission. The throttle - mechanical and not electronic - uses a variable ratio system that causes it to open quickly with small foot movements. This makes the car feel responsive and swift - it's only when performing highway overtaking moves that you realise that the part-throttle performance is a little deceptive - go to full throttle and not a lot more actually happens... With a 0-100 time of around 9.5 seconds, the performance is adequate but not class-leading. Perhaps because of the alacrity with which the throttle responds, fuel economy on test was poorer than expected, with low 12's (in litres/100 km) the best that was seen in five days that included a high proportion of highway cruising. The government test AS2877 figures are 10.5 and 6.8 litres/100km (highway and city respectively).

The auto trans is controlled conventionally - there's no tiptronic style lever, just an overdrive button - but it kicks down swiftly at part throttle and works well with the broad spread of torque developed by the engine.

The ride and handling is a mixed bag. Despite having the 'comfort' suspension tune (the Sportivo has different settings) and using tall and narrow 205/65 tyres on steel rims, the ride in some conditions is quite poor. At urban speeds over sharply potholed roads it can be harsh: bad enough in fact to suggest that the engineers have made a major misjudgement. Within a few kilometres of picking up the car we were in a petrol station checking the tyre pressures - but despite feeling as if they were at 40 psi, all four were within spec. At speed the ride smooths out, but around town it's simply too harsh for a family car, with the bump damping feeling much too firm.

The corollary of that ride you'd expect to be fantastic handling, but while it seemed largely fine in a slightly understeery way, when pushed the thin tyres started to squeal quite early. Again, at highway speeds the Altise felt composed and stable - it's almost as if most of the suspension testing occurred at high speed! The steering is well-weighted and has excellent straight-ahead precision and feel.

The seats are initially soft and comfortable, but a longer residence reveals major problems. The lumbar support - which is not adjustable - is poor, the seats lack side support, and some of our drivers found the cushion uncomfortable over longer drives. The instruments and controls are clear and easy to use - an exception being that the air con on/off switch status LED is hard to see in direct sunlight. The controls - and the stalks especially - feel to be of high quality, although the recirc knob in the test car didn't seem to want to reach either end of its travel and could wander in its position as you drove along. The handbrake lever is located on the far side of the console, making its use - especially for small people - awkward.

For its $32,490 asking price the Altise is well-equipped: there's a single CD radio of adequate quality, trip computer, ABS, cruise control (which unfortunately surges badly), excellent air-conditioning, and electrics on the windows and mirrors. Twin airbags and seatbelt pretensioners are also provided. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) is adequate, but again not class-leading. The engine noise is well suppressed, but gusty side-winds can create loud wind whistles and tyre noise suppression is only average. At times the suspension can also be clearly heard.

The V6 Camry's previous highlight has been its sophisticated and effective engine. But the goal posts have now shifted - with the least power in its class and still with only the four-speed auto, the 3-litre V6 is starting to struggle. And the whole new body? Well, there's really nothing that's a breakthrough about it - this model Camry represents a sideways move in a family car class that's rapidly changing.

A bad car? Certainly not. A breakthrough car to frighten the competition and make conquest sales from rival makes? Equally, that's not the case...

Why you would:

  • Sweet and smooth engine
  • Competent vehicle at a good price
  • Good interior space utilisation

Why you wouldn't:

  • Not class-leading in any aspect
  • Hard low-speed ride
  • Some question marks on build quality

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