With so many buyers switching from sedans to SUVs, automakers can’t afford to offer cars that don’t make a good first impression.
The 2021 Toyota Camry AWD does exactly that and then continues to impress in almost every way. The sedan’s lineup gets some updates for 2021, including more standard safety-assist features, a new centre touchscreen, and an available heated steering wheel. My Camry XSE AWD tester started at $37,190 and added a $255 coat of Supersonic Red paint, bringing it to $37,445 before freight and taxes.
The Camry’s looks have morphed from the blandness of old to a new fascia with curved lower bumper bar. I’m not sure how well that busy face is going to age with time; and I really don’t get the black strips below the taillights. It looks like a worn rubber gasket broke off the light and is hanging down off it.
I’ve always liked the interior styling, with its asymmetrical lines from centre stack to console. The new floating screen not only looks good, but keeps your eyes up when you’re looking at it.
The Camry earns a top five-star rating from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), along with the highest Top Safety Pick+ from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Standard safety assist features on all trim levels include adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, automatic emergency front braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, and automatic high-beam headlights, along with the back-up camera that’s mandatory on all new vehicles.
The 2021 Camry is the brand’s first with the automaker’s latest safety suite, which builds on those features with intersection support, helping stop you if you’re making a left-hand turn in front of an oncoming vehicle; and steering assist in emergency manoeuvres. Blind-spot monitoring is standard on all but the very-base LE trim.
The Camry comes with a decent equipment list in all trims, and in my XSE, you get dual-zone climate control, eight-way power-adjustable heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel, auto-dimming rearview mirror, panoramic sunroof, LED exterior lighting, nine-inch touchscreen, and remote starter, along with 19-inch wheels, a rear spoiler, and unique suspension tuning for its sportier place in the lineup.
There’s also a wireless charger, and it’s impressive for the thought that went into it. There’s a storage cubby at the front of the centre console, and the charger is on the cubby’s slide-out lid. Most of these are in the cubby, so you either charge or store items. Here, you can simultaneously do both with no wasted space.
User Friendliness: 8.5/10
The Camry is simple, and simple is good. Housed in their asymmetrical centre stack frame, the climate and infotainment systems are intuitive, with hard buttons to bring up the menus on the screen, and large icons to tap once they’re up. Temperature on the dual-zone climate control is handled with knobs, although I’d prefer a dial for the fan speed too, instead of a toggle. The steering-wheel controls are simple as well.
It’s easy to get in and out of the Camry; the doors open wide, and the sill isn’t so deep that it’s a long step. The trunk lift-over is fairly low as well, so you don’t have to lift your groceries or other cargo as high to get it in and out.
Both sedans and sport-utilities have their stronger and weaker points for practicality. The Toyota RAV4 has slightly more rear headroom than the Camry, for example, but some might prefer the Camry’s lower height for exit and entry. And while it might be easier to slide cargo into an SUV than lift into a trunk, much depends on what you’re carrying. If I’m bringing home a can of lawnmower gas, I’d rather have it in the trunk than the passenger compartment.
The Camry’s trunk is 427 L. That’s smaller than the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima, but it’s offset by more rear legroom in the Toyota. The Subaru Legacy tops the Camry’s trunk by one litre, and 39 mm (1.5 in) more rear legroom. But the Honda Accord is the champion here, with 472 L of trunk and 61 mm (2.4 in) more legroom than the Camry – although it’s front-wheel drive only.
The Camry offers a smooth ride and a quiet cabin, and my tester’s power seats made it easy for me to find the right seating position, but of course no vehicle is all things to all people. My taller husband didn’t find the seats as supportive as I did, so be sure to test-drive it for more than just around the block. I didn’t need the new heated steering wheel during my summer drive, but it’s my new gotta-have-it feature for winter, and it will make cold-weather treks that much more comfortable.
With all-wheel drive, the Camry comes strictly with a 2.5L four-cylinder that makes 205 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque in the XSE AWD (the engine is tuned slightly for different trims, but the changes are only one or two horsepower or lb-ft of torque). It’s mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, which on the sportier XSE includes paddle shifters for manually shifting sequentially through them if you prefer. Hybrid or V6 powertrains are also available in the Camry, but only with front-wheel drive.
I never felt cheated by the four-cylinder’s performance. It accelerates smoothly and with decent pep from a stop, and it’s very good on the highway, where it cruises nicely and then has enough stuff in reserve when needed for passing.
Driving Feel: 8/10
The Camry isn’t an exciting driver, but it’s an honest one. Older Camry models suffered from vague steering feel and a too-soft suspension, but that’s been fixed for a while. The steering is responsive, the ride is just firm enough so it’s confident yet comfortable, and the brakes do a great job of bringing everything to a halt.
All-wheel drive became available on the Camry for the 2020 model year, using a system adapted from the RAV4. It runs in front-wheel drive under normal conditions, electronically decoupling the rear wheels for fuel savings. It engages almost instantly when needed for traction, and can send as much as 50 per cent of what’s available to the rear. You’ll still need winter tires when that season arrives, but it provides extra assistance on slippery roads over front-wheel-only models.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
The Camry XSE AWD is officially rated by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) at 9.5 L/100 km in the city; 7.0 on the highway; and 8.4 in combined driving. I came in better than that last number, averaging 8.2 L/100 in my week with it.
The Camry XSE’s official combined figure of 8.4 L/100 km is the highest among its AWD sedan rivals, but everyone’s pretty close. Kia’s K5 rates 8.2 L/100 km; the Nissan Altima is 7.9 for most trims and 8.1 for the top-trim Platinum; while the Subaru Legacy with 2.5L engine rates at 7.9 L/100 km.
Two Camry models are available with all-wheel drive, starting with my XSE AWD at $37,190, and from there you can go to the XLE AWD at $38,650. Both are an $1,800 premium over the same models in front-wheel only.
You get a lot of features for the money, but some all-wheel rivals do better. Go for the Kia K5 GT-Line, the model’s priciest all-wheeler at $35,995, and you get such items as a panoramic sunroof, power-folding mirrors, heated and ventilated leather seats, heated wheel, and 10.25-inch touchscreen with navigation. Nissan’s Altima Platinum, at $35,498, includes leather seats, heated wheel, and navigation. Select Subaru’s Legacy Limited at $34,895 and it includes 11.6-inch screen with navigation, heated seats and wheel, leather upholstery, and all manner of advanced driver-assist technologies.
Many people switched to crossovers and sport-utilities to get all-wheel drive, and an increasing number of companies are putting it into their sedans to draw drivers in. It’s still not a long list, and if all-wheel traction is your preference, drive the Toyota against its rivals from companies such as Subaru, Nissan, and Kia. No matter which, you might decide a sedan really is all the utility you need.