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Toyota revives reputation

It has been a rocky road for the Toyota faithful as the company recovers from natural disaster and a rash of very public — and extensive — recalls that threw into question its normally cut-above-the-rest reputation.

So, the question is whether the new seventh-generation Camry and Camry Hybrid will get you down to the dealership to sign on the dotted line. Honestly, it should, based on a number of key incremental improvements to fuel economy and interior quality in particular.

Despite the best efforts of the Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu and Hyundai Sonata, et al, the Camry has owned the numero uno spot outright for the past decade. And it has managed this feat by playing it safe with styling, steadily improving its safety and technology features and offering its loyal owners plenty of cabin comfort and refinement.

For 2012, the Camry’s oh-so-subtle physical changes include a pointier front end, chiseled front fenders and an accent crease extending across the doors and fenders. The windshield area has also been increased for improved visibility.

That’s about the only part of the Camry that’s bigger. In terms of overall length, width, height and distance between the front and rear wheels, it’s a wash, although Toyota claims there’s now slightly more passenger space resulting from cabin layout adjustments.

In fact, the interior is where this Camry makes a more definitive statement. The organically shaped dashboard presents a layered appearance and lacks the former droopy look. As well, the dash and control panel’s shiny bits added to up-level models are tastefully done. Buyers can now choose from four different upholstery finishes, depending on the model, from woven fabric on base models to leather with faux suede seat covers at the luxury end of the scale.

Unseen changes have also been made beneath the car’s surface, where lightweight, high-strength steel helps to stiffen the platform. Additionally, revisions to the front and rear suspension are designed to keep the Camry more stable in a straight line with sharper steering response and improved ride comfort.

Very little has changed beneath the hood of both gasoline-engine Camrys, although Toyota now rates the standard-issue 178-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder at 25 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway, up by three mpg each from the 2011 model. Meanwhile, the carryover 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 achieves 21/30, compared with 19/28 before.

Easily the most impressive fuel-efficiency gain originates the new Camry Hybrid. Toyota has installed a 156-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that replaces the 147-horse 2.4-liter. The 2.5 functions in tandem with an electric motor that produces the same amount of torque (199 pound-feet) as the 2011 model, but the Hybrid’s net 200 horsepower is now greater by 13.

Most importantly, fuel-economy numbers jump to 43 mpg in the city and 39 highway, versus 33/34. Toyota touts more efficient electrical and mechanical components for the improvements, along with reduced overall weight and improved aerodynamics. Additionally, the more compact battery system located behind the rear seat means more trunk space.

Toyota ranks the Hybrid’s 7.6-second zero-to-60 mph time somewhere between the four- and six-cylinder gasoline-only Camrys.

As before, both those models operate with six-speed automatic transmissions, while the Hybrid uses a continuously variable unit.

Base Camrys roll off the assembly line in a reasonably well-equipped state, although stepping up to the LE from the base L adds keyless remote entry and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. The top-line XLE is understandably loaded to the hilt, but it’s the SE that should be the most fun to drive with its sporty suspension tuning, steering-wheel paddle shifters, more supportive front seats and a quicker-shifting transmission that blips the throttle when downshifting to match the engine speed to the new gear.

Compared to similarly equipped 2011 Camry models, list prices have been reduced between $200 and $2,000. You might consider that a return-to-full-strength bonus, however for the conservative Camry, saving that kind of dough is always in fashion.

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