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  6. 2020 Toyota Camry TRD First Test: A Good Use of the TRD Name?

2020 Toyota Camry TRD First Test: A Good Use of the TRD Name?

We test the sport-focused Camry on the track and on the street

Every time I see the letters TRD stuck onto the side of a Tacoma, Tundra, or 4Runner, I wince a little. Not because they're bad cars—just the opposite is true—but because TRD stands for Toyota Racing Development. None of those off-road warriors strike me as particularly racy (unless you live in Baja). So in an effort to expand the TRD brand to the street, TRD recently set to work on Toyota's perennial midsizer with the hope of turning the Camry into something genuinely fun to drive.

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The result is the Camry TRD. At $32,125, it's the cheapest way to get into a Camry with a V-6. That said, the reason the TRD is seemingly so inexpensive is because it's based on the Camry SE. That means features such as blind-spot monitoring, an upgraded infotainment display, and premium audio aren't just left out of the standard equipment list but unfortunately aren't available at all. If it's a TRD you want, it's a TRD you're going to get—and nothing more.

What you do get over an SE, though, is a whole host of chassis upgrades. Special dampers with TRD-specific valving, stiffer anti-roll bars, new wheels that are both wider and lighter than the standard ones, bigger brakes, two-piston calipers to do the stopping, a cat-back exhaust, and a racy body kit account for a $5,755 price hike over a base SE.

Inside, the only visual cue that differentiates the TRD from a normal Camry is red stitching. But during a cold start, the Camry yowls into life. Under even light throttle loads, the bark from that cat-back exhaust surrounds the driver. It's a reminder that you're not driving a normal Camry, and it's the most satisfying change Toyota made to the TRD. You won't find that sweet exhaust note anywhere else in the midsize class.

The usual Camry conveniences still exist, too. The trunk is cavernous and easy to use, the cabin is spacious, and the car is easy to maneuver. I missed blind-spot monitoring during my long commutes, though, and wish it was at least an option here. Not only that, but the Tokyo Drift body kit drew more than a few skeptical stares in my time with the car. I loved it. Let them look. That's what it's there for.

Our tester was equipped with Michelin all-seasons. Toyota might have done this because we're in the middle of winter, but so far 2020 has been as dry as this Southern Californian can remember. Summer tires would have been perfectly appropriate for this test, and we think the all-seasons hindered the TRD at the track.

In 2017, we tested a Camry XSE with the V-6, and it logged a 5.8-second 0-60 run. Surely the spiced-up Camry would be at least a little quicker to 60 than it's less focused V-6 brethren, right? Wrong. The TRD's 0-60 time is still 5.8 seconds. Over the quarter mile, the TRD was actually a tenth of a second slower than our last 2018 XSE V-6 test car. The TRD covered the quarter in 14.4 seconds, with a slightly higher trap speed of 99.8 mph (compared to 14.3 and 99.6 in the XSE).

Assistant road test editor Erick Ayapana found launching the TRD difficult, and he wished for the stickier tire, too. "These tires lose grip fairly easily," he said. "Why is this car on all-seasons? Also, the nannies intervene despite them being turned off. So there's a fine line between achieving the right amount of wheelspin without having the traction control kick in."

TRD made no changes to the engine or the steering. That means the V-6 still makes the same 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. The eight-speed automatic transmission also goes unchanged, and it's still geared too tall for our liking. This, in combination with our car's lack of sticky rubber, explains the Camry's stagnant 0-60 time.

We expected more from the TRD around our figure eight. After all, the lion's share of the changes were to the chassis. At 26.5 seconds, the TRD shaved 0.2 second off the time set by the V-6-powered Camry XSE we tested more than two years ago. Testing director Kim Reynolds noted understeer, and again, we think summer tires likely would have helped neutralize the persistent push up front and even bring the TRD on par with the Accord Sport's 26.4-second time.

"There's maybe a touch more remaining understeer than is appropriate, but the brake pedal feel is communicative and lets you trail-brake (trade braking for cornering) in classic Chris Walton style," he said, referencing our road test chief. "My only real issue is a sudden loss of power exiting the right corners. It's brief but unhelpful."

I also noted the power loss when coming off the right-hand turn around the figure eight. Because the transmission seemed to be the culprit, we switched the car to manual mode, but that didn't help. In manual mode, the paddles serve as a sort of gear limiter, meaning that if you select third gear, for example, the car will still shift between gears one, two, and three freely but won't go past it.

During normal driving, the transmission's exceptionally tall gearing isn't really noticeable. However, if the spirit for sporty driving ever takes hold, the Camry's transmission becomes one of its two major flaws. The TRD has eight ratios in its transmission, which means Toyota could have relegated the last two to fuel economy duty.

Instead you find yourself stuck at low revs midcorner, and powering out requires either a frantic flick of the downshift paddle or the patience to ride out whatever gear was chosen for you. Almost every gear is far too tall for any twisty road. This is also a flaw of the non-TRD Camry, and reworking the transmission would have required money Toyota clearly wasn't willing to spend on the TRD.

The TRD's second and much more apparent flaw during normal driving is its ride. The stiffened chassis means the car is too easily upset by midcorner bumps, and every rut in the road makes its way into the cabin. The understeer Reynolds detected at the track is still present during faster driving, and the ride is almost too uncomfortable for the daily commute.

Dan Gardner showed us what a Toyota TRD sedan could truly be. Using the Avalon TRD as his base, he added sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R tires and even lighter wheels. He then added even more power via a new intake system, bumping the V-6 to 330 hp. Perhaps most important, he cured the understeer with the addition of a custom differential.

The changes Gardner made to his Avalon are what Toyota should have been willing to do to the Camry. But it didn't. What we're left with is a car that is on the wrong side of both uncomfortable and sporty—and a missed opportunity for TRD.

If you don't mind being jiggled around in your seat all day, you could daily drive it. But the trade-off for that stiff ride should be something truly fun to drive with minimal understeer, and that's still missing despite the TRD treatment. It's hard to recommend the Camry TRD when the exhaust note is the best thing about it, and it's even harder when you realize cars like the Accord strike a much better balance between sportiness and comfort.

2020 Toyota Camry TRD
BASE PRICE $32,125
PRICE AS TESTED $33,050
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 3.5L/301-hp/267-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,556 lb (61/39%)
WHEELBASE 111.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 194.6 x 73.1 x 56.3 in
0-60 MPH 5.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.4 sec @ 99.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 118 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.86 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.5 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 22/31/25 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 153/109 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.77 lb/mile
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