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Toyota has given its lineup of best-selling Camry sedans a full redesign for 2012, but at first look you might not even know it. Nearly everything—every piece of sheetmetal, every element of the Camry's underbody structure, the suspension, and all the interior components—is different in the 2012, with only some engines and transmissions carried over. Instead of trying to make the new car radically different, Toyota essentially took a look at the existing car and asked how it could redesign nearly every component to make a better end result for core values like comfort and safety.
The Camry's new design (yes again, it's really new) definitely skews toward pragmatism at every possible opportunity. Corners are a little boxier this time, for aerodynamic reasons; front A-pillars are narrower (yet stronger) for better visibility; and the roofline has been tucked up and back just a tad for rear headroom.
Besides, the Camry has never been one for sex appeal. It's been such a strong seller for its combination of soft ride and roomy interior appointments, and for its strong value for the money, reliability, resale value, and other very sensible factors.
In most of those respects, the 2012 Toyota Camry is even better. Overall, the Camry rides and drives in a more refined, responsive way, and the package and features have been much improved. Thanks to some very significant weight savings, the base four-cylinder Camry performs better than ever, while the V-6 fills a niche for those wanting a particularly strong, refined (yet still budget-priced) sedan.
Toyota has refocused the Hybrid model, making it a more significant part of the model lineup and offering it in both LE and XLE trims. It's both better-performing and more frugal this year, gaining many of the improvements to the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and Hybrid Synergy Drive that the Prius got last year. Just like the previous-generation Camry, the Hybrid version feels about as quick as the base four—possibly a little more so when you tap into full electric-motor boost. And the mileage improvement is phenomenal: 43 mpg city, 39 highway for the LE.
With 10 standard airbags, Toyota has reclaimed top safety ratings with the 2012 Camry. It also has made Bluetooth hands-free connectivity a standard feature; sound systems have been upgraded; and the Entune system allows easy access to integrated apps—for Pandora music streaming, for instance.
For more than a decade, the Toyota Prius has been the public face of hybrid cars. A new, third-generation model was completely redesigned for 2010 to offer more features and even higher gas mileage. Now, for 2012, the Prius name expands beyond the iconic hatchback to include two new models.
The 2012 Toyota Prius hatchback hardly meddles with the pattern established in 2004: It's a five-door hatchback with a high tail and a split rear window. It's the most aerodynamic shape for a five-passenger mid-size car, and the Prius has one of the lowest drag coefficients of any car on the market--all in the service of fuel economy, which the EPA rates at a combined 50 mpg.
Inside, the styling is Space Age, complete with a "flying buttress" console that offers storage space underneath, though it can be hard to get to. The dashboard splits information into two areas: an Information Center mounted high and close to the windshield base, and more conventional instruments behind the wheel closer to the driver. Plastic surfaces are mostly hard, but the effect is distinctive if hardly luxurious.
The 1.8-liter engine is paired with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which uses a pair of motor-generators that can power the car solely on electricity (at speeds up to 30 mph), add torque to supplement the engine power, and recharge the battery pack during engine overrun or braking. The combined output of the engine and hybrid system is 134 horsepower.
The 2012 Toyota Prius hardly handles in a way to gladden the hearts of sports-car drivers. The 0-to-60-mph time is just under 10 seconds, and the continuously variable nature of the hybrid system means engine noise isn't proportional to road speed--which can take some getting used to for new drivers. The electric power steering is lifeless and numb (as it seems to be on all Toyota models that use it), but it responds fine and the car gets itself around corners adequately. The blending of regenerative braking with the all-disc friction brakes is excellent, and Toyota's had longer experience than any other maker in refining it.
With the interior volume of a mid-size car, the Toyota Prius hatchback offers plenty of space for four adults, or five if the back-seat passengers are willing to stagger their shoulders. Rear-seat legroom benefits from hollowed-out front seatbacks, but in front, the seat padding is skimpy and the hard-plastic center console cuts into knee room for taller drivers.
The 2012 Toyota Prius fits seven airbags as standard, along with the usual array of anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Radar-based adaptive cruise control, a rear-view camera, and a lane-departure warning system are all optional, as is a "Safety Connect" system to alert first responders after a crash. The much-publicized Intelligent Parking Assist, which controls the steering wheel to help parallel-park a Prius using the car's cameras--though the driver must brake--is a step in the right direction, though Ford's system is better.
For 2012, the Prius five-door comes in four trim levels: Two, Three, Four, and Five. There's an ultra-stripped-down base-level Prius One, but it's only for fleet purchase, and civilians can't buy it. The lowest-level Two and Three models are priced in the low twenties, but the highest-spec trim levels--with either the Technology Package or the first-in-your-neighborhood solar moonroof panel, which runs a small ventilation fan to cool the cockpit when the Prius is parked--will go upwards of $30,000.
Notable features include the Touch Tracer steering-wheel controls, which let drivers swipe and navigate through menus displayed in the Information Display, keeping their eyes closer to the road ahead than if they focus on the close-in cluster. Remote air conditioning, LED headlamps, Bluetooth, and a navigation system are also available.
The biggest Prius news for 2012 is the addition of two new models. The first is the 2012 Toyota Prius V wagon, which offers far more load space, all the traditional Prius virtues, and a combined EPA gas-mileage rating of 42 mpg. After a series of delays due to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, it went on sale late in 2011.
Coming in the early part of 2012 is the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, the first mass-market Toyota to plug into the electric grid to recharge its battery pack. It's virtually identical to the Prius five-door hatchback on the outside, but its battery pack holds three times as much energy, and plugging it in to recharge gives it 8 to 13 miles of all-electric range against the 1 or 2 miles provided by the standard model. Note, however, that unlike the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, the electric range may not be continuous--the plug-in Prius will switch on its engine at any point it needs more power than the batteries can deliver. The EPA hasn't yet rated the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, and like all blended plug-in hybrids, its real-world mileage will depend entirely on how much it's used in all-electric mode.
Over the past decade, the Nissan Altima has found a niche for itself as one of the better-selling mid-size family cars. It's not quite the sales titan that is the Toyota Camry, or the Honda Accord, but like the Ford Fusion, the Altima is a steady, strong seller in a field overcrowded with great sedans and coupes, a new one taking aim on the segment every year.
The Altima cuts a distinct profile, one of the assets it has in the win column as it reaches the midpoint of its life cycle. The four-door sedan and two-door coupe strike us as two of the better-looking mid-sizers. There's a simplicity to its profile, and just a few well-rendered details to highlight its athletic stance. The two-door's as close as you can get to a mock Infiniti G37, with some of the same proportions and guidelines. Both versions have an uncluttered cabin that's easy to read and helm, even if some of the plastics look a little more drab than the ones in the Accord or the Sonata.
The Altima's four-cylinder engines are fine, competitive starting points for acceleration and fuel economy, and Nissan still offers a manual transmission for the shrinking set of buyers who want to shift it themselves in this class. Normally we'd prefer the automatic for cars such as these, but instead of a stepped-gear transmission, the Altima has a CVT. It's more responsive than the ones in Nissan's past, and the ones we've sampled from other brands, but the CVT tends to amplify the engine noise from both the four-cylinder and the very powerful, 270-hp V-6, while it doesn't quite zip with the ratio-to-ratio changes of a good automatic. Still, the Altima with a V-6 is strikingly fast, and its handling is a cut above most of its competitors, with the ride going a little pitchy in the shorter-wheelbase coupe.
A gimmick-free interior keeps the Altima looking fresh inside. In terms of raw available space, it's somewhere between the vastness of the current Accord and the new VW Passat, but larger than the Fusion. Rear headroom can be an issue in the sedan, and space is cramped in the two-door in most directions; tall drivers will have to adopt a lean-back driving position if they opt for the sunroof.
Every Altima comes with pushbutton start--whether you want it or not--and air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, and intermittent wipers. On SR models, a power driver seat and woodgrain trim are standard. Options range from a moonroof, a navigation system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and leather seating. Those features pile on Infiniti-like luxury in the more mainstream Altima, and can drive its sticker price to more than $32,000. Our advice: stick with the cleanly styled, swell-handling versions with fewer luxury features for maximum value.
The 2012 Nissan GT-R is a magical piece of metal, though it doesn't entirely look like one at first glance. Nothing rivals its straight-line performance even at five times the price, and brilliant handling makes its 0-60 mph times of under three seconds all the more thrilling.The brilliance begins with the GT-R's thundering twin-turbo six-cylinder engine. It's no homage to the 300ZXs in Nissan's past--it's a blistering performer with 530 horsepower and 448 pound-feet of torque, enough to slingshot the GT-R to epic speeds, and to make it quicker than a Porsche 911 Turbo or a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. Awe-inspiring traction from a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system and big wheels and tires produces seemingly endless amounts of grip and beautifully balanced handling, with a slightly softer ride or a launch assist available at the tap of a switch. The clunky-sounding automated-manual six-speed transmission fires off upshifts and downshifts at the click of a paddle, perfecting the GT-R's videogame feel while giving some room but no cover to critics who believe all supercars need to be rear-wheel drive, manually shifted, and powered by V-8 or V-12 engines.
The GT-R's styling doesn't exactly press its exotic-car case. Tomahawked sheetmetal cuts an interesting, not gorgeous, shape, and carbon fiber trim gives the plain interior just a dab of intrigue. It's all put together with care, though, and unlike some other supercars, the GT-R has great room for people in front, and a bit of room for small people in back, as well as a useful trunk.
Standard features include stability control with an all-the-way-off mode, and all the usual airbags. A rearview camera, offered as an accessory, addresses the GT-R's blind spots. Also on the standard-feature list: a Bose audio system that wages war with the GT-R's considerable drivetrain noise, perforated leather upholstery on power seats, and a DVD navigation system with plug-in USB connectivity.
Priced unlike few other cars of its performance range, the $90,000 GT-R has some obviously bargain-priced bits and pieces, but none of them are remotely involved with its NASA-grade performance. To feel the magic, and see why it's so incredible as a supercar, you can't just sit in it. You have to flog it, push it, and let it remind you--almost gently--that it always has more grip and more power at hand.
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