It used to be that if you wanted a “sporty” Toyota Camry, you bought the six-cylinder version.
You also (hopefully) understood that you weren’t really buying a performance-oriented Camry, per se, but simply the most powerful Camry. There is a difference. The 2020 Camry TRD, however, is the first of Toyota’s long-standing bread-and-butter mid-size sedans that one could actually construe as “sporty.”
Since its introduction in 1983, the closest the Camry has ever come to letting its hair down was a dealer-installed bolt-on supercharger kit for the V-6 model, sold by Toyota’s in-house performance arm, Toyota Racing Development, better known as TRD. The Camry’s existence was otherwise vanilla, delivering customers reliable, inoffensive transportation and nothing more while riding a wave of ubiquity to a reputation for being automotive wallpaper. There is plenty of “more” in the Camry TRD, however, as it represents a near-total performance makeover of the current model, itself the most driver-focused version ever. We even sampled it at the unlikeliest venue for a Camry: Texas Motor Speedway.
Mo’ Camry, Mo’ TRD
The TRD’s front brake rotors are 0.9 inch larger in diameter than those on the next-sportiest Camry, the XSE V-6 model and are squeezed by two-piston calipers instead of single-piston units. Toyota also has retuned the feel of the brake pedal. Stiffer springs and stiffer, larger-diameter anti-roll bars (27.0 millimeters thick versus 25.4 millimeters on the XSE) increase the Camry’s resistance to body roll by 44 percent in front and 67 percent in the rear. The suspension changes are matched by stiffer underbody braces and a V-brace behind the rear seats (as a result, those seats cannot fold as they do on the regular Camry). TRD also fits dampers with internal return springs and revised valving compared with the units on lesser Camrys.
If this sounds a bit ridiculous in the context of a Camry, we’re not done yet. Just look at the matte-black, TRD-specific 19-inch wheels. Not only do they look tough, each one is 3.1 pounds lighter and half an inch wider than the XSE’s 19-inch rollers; Toyota also wraps them with Bridgestone Potenza summer tires. And then there is the fast-and-furious body kit, which is includes gloss-black lower-body add-ons—complete with a red pinstripe—and a rear wing supported by two struts.
It Actually, Uh, Works
You’ve probably by now picked up on our skepticism for this hotted-up Camry. But this sedan indeed is unlike anything wearing the Camry badge that’s come before it. (Well, short of the Camry-labeled Toyota NASCAR racers, but those have about as much in common with the production car as this writer does with Brad Pitt.) After back-to-back spins on flat, uneventful roads outside Dallas, Texas, and an afternoon’s worth of track driving, we can say the TRD is appreciably more focused than its siblings, if not exactly that much spicier than other uplevel mid-size family cars.
With Texas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval off-limits to us, we got to fling the TRD around an autocross course on the track’s infield. This experience threw the differences between the Camry TRD and the lesser XSE into stark relief. Body control is markedly improved, a direct result of the TRD’s 0.6-inch-lower ride height and fatter anti-roll bars. Twirling the steering wheel invites an immediate response from the front tires, and the summer rubber adds palpable bite to the car’s entry into corners relative to the XSE’s gooey all-season tires.
Braking feel in the TRD also is more consistent, with much better feel of the brakes’ initial bite making its way to the pedal during hard stopping. The cars we drove weren’t equipped with special brake pads, either, so color us impressed by the Camry TRD’s relative resistance to brake fade over the XSE, which, by the end of the day, had developed a notably soft pedal. The Camry TRD genuinely is fun to throw around, though the steering ratio is no quicker than the regular model’s and TRD drivers aren’t given much additional steering feedback.
No Mo’ Power
The only other big miss is that the TRD doesn’t receive more horsepower to back up its almost absurdly boy-racer appearance, which, aside from the red seatbelts, actually does look better in person than in photos. The TRD employs the same 301-hp 3.5-liter V-6 as the regular six-cylinder Camry XSE and XLE models. The engine calibration is even the same, as is the eight-speed automatic transmission’s tuning, which means the gearbox still is rather reluctant to downshift for spirited driving.
In a non-TRD 2018 Camry we tested, that same V-6 and automatic transmission yanked the front-wheel-drive sedan to 60 mph in a swift 5.8 seconds. The TRD surely should put up similar numbers, but the car shouldering the burden of elevating the Camry’s station is practically begging for more oomph. The V-6’s soundtrack partly atones for its lack of additional power. Six-cylinder engines are fast going extinct in the mid-size class, with most of the Toyota’s competitors having moved to smaller, turbocharged four-cylinder engines, which tend to be effective if soulless in tone. This Camry actually sounds wonderfully throaty when you get on it, thanks to TRD’s cat-back exhaust system.
The Camry TRD’s performance makeover was revealed to be almost too serious on a brief drive on normal roads outside Texas Motor Speedway. The ride is Viagra firm, and the summer tires generate more pavement slap and thrum at freeway speed than do the all-seasons on the normal Camry. While the spicy exhaust’s extra volume falls into the background most of the time or is overwhelmed by the TRD’s considerable tire noise, we found that it generated some booming and droning at around 60 mph with the engine turning at just 1500 rpm.
Yet, given this sedan’s general competence, though not sports-sedan levels of performance, these trade-offs mostly leave us asking why. Toyota didn’t seem to have an answer beyond that it could build the TRD and thus push the Camry’s envelope. So it did. No competitor offers something so similarly hardcore, aside from the soon-to-die Ford Fusion Sport, which flexes a 325-hp twin-turbo V-6 and all-wheel drive. Hyundai’s all-new 2020 Sonata is sure to spawn at least a somewhat-high-performance variant, which could give the Toyota a run for its money.
The Camry TRD is successful mainly in proving that the Camry is more capable than you might realize. We doubt any of the 6000 or so Camry TRDs that Toyota plans to build for the 2020 model year will ever end up at a racetrack or even a parking-lot autocross. Buyers will dig its look and its aggressive sound. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the sportiest Camry (finally) being a real thing is that, at $31,995, the TRD is now the least expensive way to get a V-6 in the Camry.