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Main | Tales of Excess, Toyota Land Cruiser Edition »
Friday
May122017

Quick Impressions

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Three Toyotas: Highlander, Corolla and Camry

Earlier this year, I was loaned both an all-wheel drive 2016 Toyota Highlander XLE and 2017 Toyota Corolla XLE to test. The Highlander, whose only option was the seven-seat layout with a pair of captain’s chairs in the second row, had absolutely no options, and listed for $39,450 with delivery. It was as I remembered it from my 2014 review of a similar Highlander, though that one was slightly more expensive. In fact, there was little change between that version and this, and thus little need for me to update what I had written before.

Much the same can be said the 2017 Corolla XLE that followed the Highlander. The last time I drove a Corolla was in 2014 when I went across to the west side of Michigan for a GM battery event. That car was a Corolla S Premium, a model mo longer listed on the Corolla Product Information sheet. The XLE doesn’t have the previous car’s paddle shifters or Sport button, which means you are at the mercy of the powertrain tuning. In other words, the CVT — which is now standard on all trim levels base models can be ordered with a six-speed manual) — determines the best ratio for the chosen road speed and acceleration, and heads for the highest ratio at the slightest provocation. If you want an idea of why CVTs are, in large part, unloved, drive this car. One thing I forgot to mention in my earlier review was just how bad the front seats are for trips of more than 15 minutes. Anything over that, and your rear will start to hurt — hard.

Which brings me to the 2017 Camry XSE V6 pictured here. (To be honest, I forgot to photograph the Highlander and Corolla.) As I wrote about the seventh generation Camry that was launched in late 2011 as a 2012 model, “[It]was an improvement over its predecessor, but continued to play it safe with a handsome interior, attractive-but-bland exterior, and driving dynamics designed to appeal to folks for whom self-driving cars are an object of near erotic desire. It was good at everything, but did nothing especially well, making it as inoffensive and useful as a napkin.”

All that changed when the 2015 model year came around. Calling this a mid-cycle refresh would be damning the car with faint praise. Toyota’s team in Michigan changed every outer panel, (except the roof), redesigned the interior (except for the upper instrument panel pad), increased torsional rigidity, and improved ride, handling and steering feel. The changes were clear improvements.

Despite the upgrades in style, refinement and capability, the outgoing Camry (it will be replaced by a new model built on Toyota’s modular TNGA platform later this year) lacks a certain je ne sais quois (a pretentiously French way of saying “I don’t know what.”) that subjugates any overt personality. Everything works reasonably well together, but the car lacks a definable point of view. Of course, with the aggressive blandness of previous Camrys, the current car is something of a revelation despite this oversight. It goes, turns and stops with an unexpected crispness, and is ably assisted by a powertrain that is creamy smooth.Unfortunately, the sloping windshield and coupe-like roofline make the mid-size Camry feel slightly cramped compared to its competition. However, if you want more room, move up to the larger Camry-based Avalon.

2017 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV

Nissan’s mid-cycle refresh of the Altima came just in time for the 2016 model year, and replaced every exterior panel forward of the A-pillars. The idea was to incorporate the corporate V-Motion grille and boomerang-shape headlights into a vehicle that was now three model years old. They shouldn’t have, especially the headlights. In light colors, like the Brilliant Silver of our test car, the lack of a body-color strip running from the fender to the bumper is very apparent. The headlights look misshapen, the front bug eyed and fat. It’s not a good look, but fortunately one that you only see when walking toward the car to get in. And it is oddly less jarring when darker colors are chosen.

The interior also has been upgraded, but eh the general themes are so similar that you would be forgiven for thinking little has been done here. If there’s one thing that stands out, it is how small the 5.0-in. color display in the center stack in this era of iPad-size displays. That and the refinements made to the Zero Gravity front seats. They have been reshaped for greater comfort, but the biggest change is that the headrests no longer sit within millimeters of the back of your head when properly adjusted. The previous design forced you to either lower the headrest or tilt your head forward so that it wasn’t in contact with the overly upright pad. It’s a big and much appreciated improvement.

One thing that didn’t feel as good this time around was the electrically assisted hydraulic steering. What had felt natural and fluid when I first drove the latest generation Altima in late 2012 now feels slightly disjointed and coarse. And it no longer provides greater steering feel than the best electric power units available today. I hope this was a fault unique to this vehicle, and not a result of some misguided cost reduction program. It made me almost (almost) long for the Camry’s more coordinated steering feel, even though the Altima felt roomier, more comfortable, and seemed to have a more spacious trunk.

2017 Mazda3 5-door Grand Touring

This one was very disappointing. Not the car, the experience. Apparently, the car had seen abuse at the hands of previous members of the press. (Cue Major Renault from the movie Casablanca as he says, “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on in here!,” while being handed his winnings by a croupier.) The second of the six gears in the manual transmission had a weak if not downright torpid synchro, and would grind with all the enthusiasm of a barista at Starbucks.  Rather than make it worse, a call was made, and the car went back for repair.

The two days that it was in my possession, however, were enough to determine that the changes made for 2017 are real improvements, not window dressing. The 184 hp/185 lb.-ft. 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G engine is reasonably gutsy and fuel efficient (25 city/33 highway/28 combined says the EPA). The revised front and rear fascias look crisper, and the the new 18-in. alloy wheel design (shod with P215/45-R18 all-season tires) is handsome. Inside, there’s a standard electronic parking brake, more sound deadening, perforated leather-trimmed seats, an analog tach with digital speedometer, and a full-color head-up unit. The changes are subtle, with the center console and the lower half of the instrument panel being the most noticeable differences between the 2017 and the car I drove last year.  The car also came with two of three new equipment packages, the Premium Equipment Package and the i-Activsense Safety Package. Among other things the former adds bi-LED auto-levying headlights, adaptive front lighting, a heated steering wheel, and navigation. The other package adds high beam control, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, radar cruise control, smart brake support and traffic sign recognition.

Unfortunately, the short time with the car meant there was little chance to test the standard for 2017 G-Vectoring Control that applies the inside brake to help rotate the car during cornering. However, the basic chassis settings are so good, this is icing on the cake. Which makes it even more amazing that Mazda sells fewer vehicles that Toyota, Honda and Nissan, not to mention Hyundai and Kia.

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