The Toyota Camry has been the top-selling sedan in the USA for many years. Besides the Big Three American trucks on the highest-selling-vehicles podium, Toyota’s own RAV4 in fourth place, and the Honda CR-V in fifth, no car sold more units in 2020 than the Camry – 294,348 in all. In a country that prefers trucks and SUVs above all else, this is a remarkable result for a humble sedan and its sales figure bests the next-best midsize sedan – the Honda Accord – by nearly 100,000 units. Between the Camry and the Accord sit the respective brands’ compact sedans, the Corolla and Civic. And, with a hybrid and standard gas-fed version, there are a few choices to make in deciding which is the best Toyota Camry for you.
Clearly, there is still money to be made in the midsize sedan category if you can field a competitive product, but only the Japanese and Korean manufacturers are left to duke it out in the segment. American automakers have officially given up on the sedan, with the Ford Fusion discontinued, the Chrysler 300 ancient, and the Chevrolet Malibu living on borrowed time. But is the Camry still the best midsize sedan in America, or is it merely trading on its legacy and good name? To come out on top, it must beat its main rivals. Here they are in alphabetical order:
- Honda Accord
- Hyundai Sonata
- Kia K5
- Mazda 6
Mid-Size Contenders, Ranked
While you couldn’t be faulted for buying a Camry, the competitors have upped their game, and the Camry sinks to number five in the rankings. Here are the winners:
- Honda Accord. The Honda Accord is the best midsize sedan on sale in America. It boasts modern styling, powerful, turbocharged engines, and a truly fun and rewarding driving experience. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) in lower-rung and hybrid models is properly calibrated and seldomly irritates, and the ten-speed automatic transmission in the more powerful models is class-leading. It’s spacious inside and has a massive trunk. Infotainment is right up to date too. It really has no noticeably weak spots and deserves its place at the top of the podium.
- Hyundai Sonata. The redesigned-for-2020 Sonata has nearly catapulted to the top of the class. Winning features include its very affordable entry price, yet excellent standard specification, making it perhaps the best value for money in the class. Its styling is truly striking and its interior is extremely well built and finished. Its drivetrains are very efficient, if not offering quite the performance of the competition. It is not nearly as fun to drive as an Accord, but comfort is exemplary, so you might not mind at all.
- Mazda 6. It’s a shame the Mazda 6 does not sell better because it’s an excellent car. It feels more expensive inside than most rivals and top-spec models in particular, are plushly finished with Nappa leather. It is quieter inside than an Accord or Camry, yet nearly as much fun to pilot as an Accord. It’s not as well-specced as a Sonata at the price and some options are not available on mid-trim models. The trunk isn’t class-leading either and there is no properly eco-friendly model in the range. It comes third not because of any noticeable weaknesses, but because the competition is just so good.
- Kia K5. The Kia K5 is brand-new for 2021 and it vaults right past the Camry to snatch forth – a commendable effort on the first try and way better than its Optima predecessor. Its exterior design stands out in this class and you will not be let down when getting in – the modernity is continued inside, with great finishes and a high equipment tally. Refinement is not always great, especially on bigger wheels, and it doesn’t have the polish of an Accord, but it remains a solid contender.
- Toyota Camry. Fifth but by no means disgraced, the Camry nevertheless still sells in far greater numbers than its rivals, even if it is now falling behind in terms of noise levels, and the base engine is neither powerful nor refined. However, an economical hybrid is available (its economy matched by the comparable Sonata’s) and a powerful, V6 TRD flagship. It’s also quite engaging to drive and space and trunk size rank near the top of the class.
The Camry Range
The Camry has lost its baseline L trim for 2021 and the trim levels now offered are LE, SE, XLE, XSE, and TRD. The latter three are available with the desirable 301-horsepower V6, providing stirring performance, especially on the sport-optimized V6-only TRD, if not great fuel efficiency. The LE hybrid offers an excellent 52 MPG combined and the normal 2.5 FWD does 32 MPG, but the TRD does no better than 25 MPG combined, although a 2.0-liter turbo Accord cannot beat that by much either, with 26 MPG. The 2.5-liter turbocharged Sonata beats them both with a combined figure of 27 MPG.
The standard eight-speed automatic transmission in the base Camry is refined enough, but the engine isn’t, the long-stroke design getting strained as the revs rise. The only fun Camrys to pilot are the V6 models and here, everything comes together – a smooth engine, a cooperative transmission, and enjoyable handling. The TRD is an intriguing model and if you’re hell-bent on owning the sportiest Camry, it will be just what the doctor ordered. We would avoid the entry-level models unless you have no penchant for speed and want to enjoy the excellent fuel economy.
So, which is the best Toyota Camry to buy? We would like to combine the powerful V6 engine and refined drivetrain with all the comfort we can get, so it seems that the XSE is probably the best model in the range, if you have made the decision to steer clear of the hoarse four-pot. The TRD is surprisingly difficult to resist and offers a fun-to-drive package that tops the Camry range and comes close to offering the type of well-engineered sporty drive that Honda and Mazda do so well in their most powerful models. Whichever way you go, you can be sure that the established Toyota values of quality and reliability are in place. In 2021, at least this can finally be combined with some fun behind the wheel too.