Mountain Wheels: Best-selling Toyota Camry goes long and lean for its latest generation (column) |

Mountain Wheels: Best-selling Toyota Camry goes long and lean for its latest generation (column)

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

As we discussed last week with the new rendition of the Nissan Pathfinder, there's a lot at stake when a carmaker considers the tweaks and outright reimagining required to keep its best-selling models fresh and exciting.

And in the case of the 2017 Toyota Camry, a perennial favorite for some 35 years and, impressively enough, America's top-selling passenger car of the last 14 years, anything you do to alienate or disenfranchise a very faithful audience can have serious consequences — especially as everyone and their dog has decided to just go ahead and buy a hulking SUV.

The newest Camry proves that for people who don't feel it their manifest destiny to roll in an oversized truck, you can still get an affordable, attractive, modern machine with better-than-average performance, decent gas mileage and a pleasant but not overwhelming range of technology.

To that end, the newest-generation Camry is a winner, and certainly feels more fulsome and accomplished than the sixth-generation car, which went in a stubbier, more upright-looking direction.

The evolution into a longer, lower-set and very lean-looking vehicle that seems to have more in common with Toyota's high-end Lexus cousins, and not just because it sports a Toyota-ized rendition of the Lexus spindle-shaped grille, with some sexy piano-black mesh. Though that's certainly an attractive direction to head in, with boomerang-shaped LED running lamps, dual exhausts and even an aero spoiler on my test vehicle.

In their efforts to appeal to everyone — a strategy that's helped drive that decade-and-half-long sales spree — Camry can be ordered up in almost infinite variations of finishing, engine or even a 200-net-horsepower hybrid edition, good for an easy 40 MPG. Does anyone remember those long-ago days when people cared about gas mileage, by the way? Seems like an eon ago now.

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I got to tool around in the very classy XSE model with a Blue Streak Metallic paint job, once a special feature but now a choice across the board. Mine was outfitted with a 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 with dual variable valve timing and a six-speed automatic transmission; that meant 268 horsepower on hand, a number suspiciously close to the power output of last week's Toyota Pathfinder.

If you do the math, you'll realize that that kind of power in a smaller four-door sedan can really get you moving and make the car well-suited for those long lunges up the passes, with front-wheel drive and some four-season-capable tires rounding it all out (and even a little throttle blipping when driven in sport mode, quite the thing for a gosh-darned Camry). At the XSE level, you get 18-inch alloy wheels with glossy black highlights, giving the car a snappier look.

My pedal-heavy week in the Front Range got me 24.5 combined MPG, slightly more than the EPA figure, and the trip computer suggested a previous driver had managed mileage in the high 30s. Alternately, a 178-HP four-cylinder option will make those numbers an everyday occurrence.

Camry keeps its best-selling status by being comfortable and poised but certainly not excessively sporty; you'll enjoy a steady and sturdy feel on the highway. Compared to the austerity of the attractive but certainly compact Corolla (which, in the purpose of truthfulness, I should report that my recent tester did very handily manage to survive a rear-end collision from older Cadillac SRX, so I have no complaints with Corolla's scale or safety), Camry seems expansive; front row seating is happily comfortable and the rear seating certainly more human-scaled than other midsize machines. Seating is stiffly bolstered but not impossibly rigid; suede upholstery in the middles of the seats helps keep you planted.

Speaking of safety, available Camry equipment includes pre-collision automatic braking (not a feature in older Cadillacs, I note) plus dynamic cruise control, lane-keep assist and rear cross-traffic alerts.

The current-generation car also receives a pleasant facelift in its cabin layout. There's a very broad center console and a convenient cubby for USB or sound inputs and the fancy wireless charging platform for appropriate (non-Apple) smartphones. Dash design is simple but gets a bit more of the Lexus inspiration in the form of stitching, a slight curve to the dash top and a rounded edge below at knee level.

You'll also enjoy the simple-to-use control stack and a three-zone navigation/information display (I got the seven-inch high-resolution display, loaded with Entune applications, plus JBL audio and 10 speakers).

Spoiler alert: the 2018 Camry is going to blow your socks off. But that's still a half a year away.

2017 Toyota Camry XSE

MSRP: $31,370; As tested, $35,903

Powertrain: 268-HP 3.5-liter V-6 engine; six-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 24 combined (21 city, 30 highway)