2018 Toyota Camry XSE V-6

Toss out “Toyota Camry” during a word-association game, and most automotive enthusiasts would respond with some allegory for anonymity, appliance, or a similarly unflattering description for automotive wallpaper. The latest Camry, with its all-new platform, fresh powertrains, and expressive styling, attempts to shake off that image. The range-topping Camry XSE V-6 is the most effective implementation of that retooling, blending the lineup’s most powerful engine with the sportiest trim level.

More Power, More Styling

This XSE is part of the sporty S pillar of the Camry family, which also includes the lower-spec SE; Toyota has an entirely different L vertical with L, LE, and XLE Camrys that wear toned-down front and rear bumpers and ride on more comfort-oriented suspension setups in order to attract traditional Camry buyers.

Even those softer-edged L models are notably more satisfying to drive than past Camrys. But the S trims build on that solid foundation with firmer damping, bigger wheels with wider tires, and distinctive front and rear bumpers with gaping intakes and lots of blacked-out trim. That you can order the XSE with a contrasting black-colored roof (a $500 option) and a blood-red interior speaks volumes about Toyota’s lowered inhibitions.

The XSE—as well as its L counterpart, the XLE—unlocks the option of grabbing the Camry’s new 301-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine. With port and direct fuel injection, the six is 33-hp stronger than last year’s port-injected 3.5-liter V-6. Torque is up 19 lb-ft to 267, peaking at the same 4700 rpm as before. Other 2018 Camrys are propelled by a 2.5-liter inline-four or a gas/electric hybrid powertrain.

The V-6 Camry is intriguing not only for its substantial horsepower, but also for having six cylinders. Nearly every competitor has turned to smaller, turbocharged four-cylinders for their up level engine options, including the Camry’s nemesis, the Honda Accord. This V-6 is a stonker, though, sending the Camry from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds—2.1 seconds quicker than a four-cylinder Camry SE we tested. And it spits an edgy snort out of the XSE’s quad exhaust outlets, one that’s more distinguished than four-cylinder competitors’ vacuum/blender soundtracks. Still, the 252-hp turbocharged inline-four in Honda’s top-dog Accord 2.0T scoots that model to 60 mph 0.3 second quicker. Although the two sedans have nearly equal peak torque, the 2.0T Accord has barely any torque steer whereas the Toyota has plenty.

The rest of the XSE experience is similar to that in other Camrys—although with the glaring exception of its vastly superior interior quality. Stepping down even one level to the SE—or, if coming from an XLE, an LE—is a descent into interiors filled with more hard plastics and uneven panel gaps than you’ll find in top-rung Camrys. It may be that Toyota is using this as a way to entice buyers up the price ladder, given that active-safety features such as lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and automated emergency braking are now standard across the lineup. At least the infotainment system shared with lesser Camrys is just as easy to use here, thanks in part to the attractive chrome-tipped hard-button shortcuts to key menus that flank the screen, as well as the volume and tuning knobs located close to the steering wheel.

So where does this leave the Camry’s renaissance? Blending the sedan’s most dramatic styling changes with its strongest engine and its nicest innards punts the Camry XSE V-6 near the head of a class led by the Accord 2.0T. The privilege is expensive, though. The four-cylinder XSE starts at $29,895 and includes LED headlights and taillights, quad exhaust outlets, inductive phone charging, a panoramic sunroof, a 10-inch colour head-up display, dual-zone automatic climate control, and leather seat covers, features that are either optional or unavailable on the SE. The V-6 is another $5950, and our test car added the $940 enhanced navigation system, $1050 360-degree parking camera and sensors, and a few dealer-installed options, bringing the total to $38,059. So make a mental note for future word-association games: Now “Camry” can be interchangeable with dynamic, stylish, and (at least occasionally) pricey.