Review: Toyota Camry TRD lacks where it matters
Toyota's ambitious Camry TRD is the best driving Camry ever, but other areas hold back this questionable Fast and the Furious prop car
A Camry with a wing you say? Heresy! The Toyota faithful, lovers of the most anonymous and boring cars in existence would never want that atrocity. Except they did apparently. The Camry TRD, with its fixed rear wing and aggressive bodywork, has proved a hit for Toyota. It represents great value, and it offers a certifiably TRD sporting chassis underneath. But, there's a but. Unfortunately, there are many key areas that hold back this ambitious would-be sports sedan, and they do enough to undermine it and make it nothing more than a dressed prop car from a Fast and Furious movie.
What is it?
The Camry TRD. Basically, Toyota's TRD department, Toyota Racing Development, has fettled the Camry with a sports-minded suspension to make this the sharpest driving Camry ever. To go with it, Camry TRDs receive a shouty bit of bodywork, with a deep front fascia, side skirts, and a fixed rear wing. No, not a spoiler, a wing. Red highlights are sprinkled about, from the red TRD stitching on the head restraints, red seatbelts, and red pinstriping along other exterior pieces. The attractive wheels are matte black (wish they were gloss black) items also bearing the red TRD logo. It looks unlike any Camry ever before it: mean. Why a typical Camry owner would something mean is as good as anyone's guess, but it shows that Toyota has the cajones to try something ambitious with their best-selling sedan that always carried the excitement of cheap mild cheddar. However, there are lots of bits, rather integral bits mind you, that have not received the TRD treatment. This absence is what holds back the Camry TRD as a pretender rather than the bona fide Tillamook sharp variety.
Veracity, that's what the Camry TRD steers with. While all new Camrys do drive surprisingly well, especially when compared to their boring ancestors, the TRD sets a new standard for Toyota's front-wheel drive family sedan. Weighting is natural and not too light, but also not tiringly heavy. Response is linear and true, with the Camry TRD changing directions nicely and with a vigor when asked. Approach a corner quickly and the front tires dig into the tarmac without fuss and whisks you right to your apex and onto the next. This, in a Camry? Yes. You will find understeer eventually, but the basic handling balance is that of a convincing neutrality and with a perfect amount of body roll for the street. What I really liked in this regard is just how organic it felt from the wheel. Right from the first get-go, I got the sense of feeling that "yeah, this is what a car should feel like."
TRD is responsible for stiffening the suspension in all the right places to give this level of control to the driver. Yet, despite these improvements, the ride quality is still everyday usable without feeling harsh in any way. This tuning is very akin to BMWs of old, you know, the good ones.
Under the hood is Toyota's familiar3.5L V6 with 301 horsepower, which is unchanged from the standard V6 Camry. This tried and true motor is wonderfully smooth, foregoing the coarseness that has plagued V6 engines of old. Delivery is like a graph with a slope of one, with an equal rise and run. Put your foot down and power gradually increases all the way up and builds to a steady crescendo of power up top. The V6 also sounds rather good, emitting a smooth growl with a restrained yowl at the top end. 0-60 MPH happens in 5.8 seconds, which is at least competitive with other mid-size competitors, but not class-leading. Gas mileage was great, though, with an average of 26 MPG overall and 35 MPG on the highway.
Minus the wing, I do like how the Camry TRD looks and with its two-tone paint. The appearance is sharp and definitely stands out among other transportation pods. Price concerned, the TRD does represent good value as this tester rang the as-tested price to $34,282. At under 35 grand, the TRD is far from the most expensive Camry you can buy, with that honor being reserved for the more luxurious XSE. Toyota definitely could have goofed and priced the 'sporty' be-winged model much higher, but have shown restraint and met this attractive price point. In actuality, it's one of the cheapest V6 Camrys you can buy, which must certainly have helped with how often I see the Camry TRDs on the road.
Like I said earlier, there are faults to consider with the Camry TRD. While the Camry TRD has a potent chassis underneath, there several factors that undermine this would-be sports sedan. For me, the most glaring issue is the eight-speed automatic transmission. Shifts are smooth if on the lazy side, but the real disappointment comes from the cheesy, plasticky paddle shifters behind the wheel, and not because of their material, but because they're actually worthless. What do I mean by that? Despite the gear lever having a +/- mode and the paddle shifters, there is zero way to have manual control over this transmission.
Slide the lever over to manual, start pulling paddles, and no matter what, the moment your right foot passes even just a third of throttle travel, the Camry TRD will override you and downshift. On a backroad, driving with an enthusiasm that a sport-minded car likes to be commanded with, this means you can never utilize the midrange power that this big V6 offers. So, try and select third gear at about 3 to 4,000 RPM, put your foot down and the car instead will kickdown to second on you. It's absolutely maddening, and I'd even go as far to say dangerous. Using the midrange in corners allows so much more adjustability with the throttle and to control the chassis, but the transmission logic decides to take control from you altogether. So I ask, what is the point of even having them? Every other new non-Toyota I've driven that has a manual way of shifting gives you real manual control, but I guess not for Toyota. What a shame.
The lacking commitment to fun continues with the traction and stability controls, which are intrusive to say the bare minimum. Can you turn them off? Sorta. To disable the nannies completely, you have to be completely stopped and hold down the button. If you're rolling, you can't do it at all. What you can do is disable traction control partially with a single click, but even then you have to be going under 30 MPH. But, the catch with that is the moment you're above 30, all the aides just come back on. So you can partially disable traction, but only when below 30...right. Oh, and the brakes felt rigid and wooden. You get used to it, but the first few uses were quite disconcerting.
The interior is a standard Camry affair, albeit with a few dressed up pieces that I find tacky. I'm fine with the red TRD logos stitched on the front seats, but the red seat belts are laughable. With an interior borrowed from the lower-tier SE model, there is a pronounced amount of hard plastics used throughout that do seem disappointing compared to rivals. The price is still good value technically because of the chassis and V6, but the interior quality does disappoint overall. What worried me were the rattles the driver's door produced on the motorway, as well as the metallic rattle and tininess when shutting the front doors at perfectly reasonable and even light forces. The rear doors made a distinctly different and more secure sound. The side skirts also rattled with each door close.
Other bits inside that annoyed me were no automatic front dome lights. Instead, only automated lights between the front and rear seats were present. And to go further with lighting, the door lock and window switches have an ambient lighting for nighttime use to decipher which are which. However, when you open the door to enter at night, those switches do not light up like they do in other cars, making them quite hard to see. Once you start the car, then they turn on, but considering how often one opens the door and then has to unlock the rest of the car for passengers using the inside switch, I found it annoying. I guess muscle memory would eventually take over.
Like most other Toyotas, the center display screen looks about ten years too old and it and the aesthetic of both the hardware and software needs a desperate update. It's fine to use, but it just isn't pretty. My biggest complaint on the inside, though, is with the seats. Sure, they're comfortable items, but they offer zero lateral support, being the same seat as other Camrys, just glammed up with fancy trimmings. So, when attacking turns or cloverleaf onramps, you're left having to brace yourself from falling out of the seats. Hyundai's Sonata N-Line has fantastic sport seats that are unique items from the standard model and provide gratuitous support for fun motoring.
So, it's no good then?
The principles are good, but it's the details that leave much to be desired. Toyota has done a bang-up job in making the Camry TRD a canyon-carving machine with its approachable, confident steering and handling. But, if it wants to have real sporting intentions, then why have they left an automatic transmission with zero logic in its programming? Seats that can't hold you in place worsen the experience further making for a car that can't realize its aspirations, rendering this attempt as a pretender. The lack of manual shifting and worrying about holding yourself in place just about completely zap any fun out of spirited driving.
The bones are there to make a compelling and legit TRD offering, a Camry sports sedan, but it has sadly been diluted and dumbed down with oversight and micro managing. If you all you want is a Camry that looks cool and sporty (granted you like the wing), then it's the perfect car for you. If what you want is a mid-size sedan with real sporting intentions, then you'd best look elsewhere.
2021 Camry TRD V6
As-tested price: $34,282
Pros: great steering and handling; smooth V6
Cons: Idiotic transmission programming; unsupportive seats
Verdict: Close to greatness, but watered down.