Mountain Wheels: Reimagined 2018 Toyota Camry pushes into sports sedan territory (column) | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Wheels: Reimagined 2018 Toyota Camry pushes into sports sedan territory (column)

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

If you could go back in time and tell the past version of yourself — the one driving that second-hand Camry you inherited from your mother, the reliable but mostly unexciting uber-car of all uber-cars — that the Camry was going to finally get exciting in 2018, what might your reaction be? Shock? Surprise? Indifference?

The stakes are high when you're dealing with one of the most successful automobiles of all time, and incremental changes can mean the difference in literally millions of sales over each variant's lifetime.

The pleasant reality is that the 2018 Camry is about as revolutionized as it can be, a tremendously transformed, beautified and even sporty automobile that virtually moves the car into a different segment.

If you opt for the highest-end variation that I got to drive, the V6-powered XSE sport edition, it really is a quantum leap: a Camry that looks more than a little like a BMW 6-Series sedan crossed with a Mercedes C- or E-Class, with a 301-horsepower direct-injection V6 and an entirely modernized design that's completely contemporary and even borderline upscale.

The timing, of course, is a little fishy for the new Camry, as Americans continue to gravitate toward SUV-sized vehicles for their daily travels. But given that the Toyota stalwart has sold nearly 400,000 units per year over the last decade and a half in the U.S., the significance of the new model cannot be overestimated. It's also assembled in Kentucky, if that helps to fill you with an additional spirit of American-made pride.

Drivers who aren't necessarily gaga over the bulk and unwieldiness of an SUV may find themselves drawn to Camry's significantly reimagined attributes, with a lower, wider and more substantial feeling to the automobile.

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It's been dropped lower to the road, like one of those European sports sedans, with a lower roofline and hood. A 2-inch-longer wheelbase helps to provide a more comfortable experience for both driver and passengers.

The 2018 model comes in five grades, and navigation is a built-in feature in them all. Standard models come with a 203-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder some 20 percent more efficient than previous models, and even the impressive V6 is rated at 32 MPG on the highway.

There's also a hybrid variant that generates a pretty easy 50 MPG, and features a much improved and virtually seamless hybrid system for more efficient gas-electric handoffs.

While my XSE, base priced at just under $35,000, is certainly not going to entirely emulate the sports sedan its design suggests, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the driving character, the handling and its comfortably speedy style.

The eight-speed transmission is certainly smooth and elegant, and new rear suspension and shocks (tuned a little more sportily in the XSE) help provide a feel that's edging toward Lexus, in an approachably simple kind of way.

Seen head-on, it really does look pretty Lexus-y, especially the XSE with its glossy black grille and mesh radiator vents, plus LED headlamps and a much more aggressive overall character.

Wheel sizes range from 17 to 19 inches (the XSE had the latter), and my fully-loaded model got the whole package of goodies, from a full-cabin panorama sunroof to a rear spoiler and dual exhaust.

Seating is leathery and ample, with additional leather surfacing on the doors and center armrest.

The technology elements are also surprisingly upscale, with an available nine-speaker JBL audio system (including speakers in the A-pillars) integrated to the third rendition of Toyota's Entune infotainment system — anchored in a 10-inch touchscreen display.

A 360-degree bird's eye camera is also an option for easier and safer parking and navigation, and a wireless charging pad for an appropriate mobile phone is also available. A head-up display also carries driving data into your line of sight.

Safety systems have also been updated to offer full-speed-range dynamic radar cruise control, rear cross-traffic automatic braking and full lane-keeping and collision-avoidance tools.