The 2013 Toyota Camry and its predecessors may not be canyon carvers or autocross stars, but automotive enthusiasts should celebrate it. Here's why.
The argument against the Camry – a popular one amongst bloggers, car websites and recently The New York Times – is that it lacks soul. The design is bland, the performance is like Ambien and the features are menial. It's less driving machine, more transportation appliance. So then why is it that, since 1997, the Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S. every single year except one?
After all, the success of the Camry is not for lack of competition. The mid-sized sedan market is as competitive as they come. Compared to the Camry, the Mazda6 is a joy to drive, the Hyundai Sonata boasts a striking design and the Ford Fusion is the best overall package. Automakers have proven that reliability and excitement need not be mutually exclusive.
But customers vote with their checkbooks, and Camry haters are severely outnumbered. This only further infuriates the Camry Crusaders, accusing the success of the Camry of dumbing down the market – a race to the bottom as automakers stuff their sedans with cupholders and numb steering, instead of six-speed short shifters and Recaro bucket seats.
The Camry, however, is defined by what it does have. Buyers know exactly what they're getting from the mid-sized sedan: Reliability, comfort and value. The 2012 Camry has the best MPG in its class, and scored a five-star overall crash test rating.
Is it going to make your heart jump? No, but it looks good. Will it turn you into a traffic light drag racer? No, but it will likely run for hundreds of thousands of miles with minimal maintenance required and who drag races at intersections anyway? The 268hp Camry SE will do 0-60mph in less than six seconds, better than a BMW 528i. That enough for you, Schumacher?
In all its iterations, the Toyota Camry is a perfectly capable and reliable car. But that in itself is not why enthusiasts should celebrate it. They should applaud the Camry because it allows Toyota to pursue racing and passion projects that otherwise would simply not be possible.
The Lexus LFA is a $375,000, 552 horsepower V-10 supercar with perhaps the most glorious engine note this side of a Formula One car. It took ten years to design, test and build. It has competed, nearly stock, in the 24 Hours of Nurburgring since 2007. It is, by all accounts, exactly the kind of soulful and driver-centric performance car that we demand from automakers.
Toyota sold five Lexus LFAs in April 2012. They sold 36,820 Camrys.
The fact is that automakers need to make money before they can make performance cars. Purists blasted Porsche when they decided to produce the Cayenne SUV, but the Carrera GT would have never been possible without it. Without the Panamera, there would be no 918 Spyder. Behind massive sales of their "soft" California model, Ferrari posted record figures in 2011 and we've been rewarded with the F12 Berlinetta and forthcoming 900+hp Enzo successor. Porsche can take risks like the GT3R Hybrid and a Le Mans prototype under development. Ferrari invests hundreds of millions in F1 every year.
Enzo Ferrari famously believed that the only purpose of selling production cars was to finance his racing teams, and it's a formula that Toyota has adhered to for decades. After all, the LFA is hardly alone in the pantheon of Toyota performance.
Without the success of the Camry, we may never have seen racing legends like the fearsome Toyota GT-One. Toyota competed in WRC for 26 years and won three championships, and even ran in Formula One from 2002-09. Say what you want about NASCAR, but Toyota has invested heavily, and they're winning races – in a Camry, no less!
This year, they'll return to Le Mans to take on mighty Audi with the outrageous Toyota TS030 LMP1 hybrid. And you'd better believe there would be no Scion FR-S if it weren't for the Camry.
There will always be driving enthusiasts, and no amount of CVT transmissions and standard Traction Controls will ever change that. But not everyone shops based on performance, and for that vast majority of the market there should be something for them to fall back on.
The Toyota Camry may be, to some, the lowest common denominator, but that's only because it does everything well – and that's considered boring. For most people, doing everything well is all they need out of a car, and that's what makes them happy in a car. And in the end, whether it's a Camry or a Carrera, the most important thing about your car is that it makes you happy.