How good will the 2021 Toyota Camry be beneath its snazzy skin?

by CarPreview staff

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

What changes will make the 2021 Toyota Camry different?

America’s top-selling car should largely stand pat for 2021, returning a broad lineup of gas and hybrid models, plus available all-wheel-drive (AWD). In the works is a refresh that’ll include tweaked styling and could come as early as model-year 2022.

Meantime, this four-door sedan will remain one of just three midsize cars to offer a six-cylinder engine; the others are the Nissan Maxima and Buick Regal GS. It’ll also remain one of six available with AWD; the others are the Buick Regal, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Volkswagen Areton, and – with AWD as standard — the Subaru Legacy.

The Camry was last redesigned for model-year 2018, adopting a new underskin architecture and a curvaceous body that traded some interior roominess for sleeker styling. While the RAV4 compact crossover has overtaken it as Toyota’s best-selling vehicle, Camry sales are generally holding their own against a decline for the midsize-car segment as a whole. Indeed, rival automakers are discontinuing cars of all stripe, and Camry will lose two competitors when Ford drops the Fusion in 2021 and Chevy its midsize Malibu in 2024.

Driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of 2020 Toyota Camrys. In areas where the ’21 might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy the 2020?

2020 Toyota Camry SE

Little reason to wait, although there’s a chance Toyota could offer AWD in combination with the V-6 engine rather than exclusively with the four-cylinder. That might happen as part of a midcycle freshening, but sources differ on whether that would occur for model-year 2022 or 2023. The changes are almost certain to be minor. Still, there is a chance that waiting to buy a ’21 would get you a Camry in the final year before a midcycle update.

If the refresh doesn’t happen until model-year 2022, the ‘21 Camry should be a rerun of the 2020, the only likely differences new paint colors and minor year-over-year price increases. Even with a minor facelift, the Camry will continue with flamboyant styling, relatively engaging driving dynamics, and the all-weather security of optional AWD. Selling points include a reputation for strong resale value and great reliability, plus complimentary scheduled maintenance for the first 2 years or 25,000 miles of ownership, whichever comes first.

Expect the 2021 Camry’s lineup to mirror that of the 2020. Gasoline-powered models should return seven trim levels: L, LE, SE, SE Nightshade, XLE, XSE, and TRD. All but the L, SE Nightshade, and TRD will be available with AWD as an option to the standard front-wheel drive. Added for model-year 2020, the TRD boasts an upgraded suspension and racy styling add-ons. The 2021 Camry Hybrid should be back in LE, SE, and XLE form, all with front-wheel drive.

Will the styling be different?

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

No. It’ll retain the look that came with the model-year 2018 redesign, a look intended to bury Camry’s boring image. Indeed, today’s Camry car is the most boldly styled ever, with muscular curves, aggressive grille, swept-back headlights, and an almost fastback roofline. Named for the automaker’s Toyota Racing Development arm, the TRD amps up with aggressive aero addenda, including a prominent rear spoiler. Matte-black 19-inch wheels are standard and three of the four TRD paint colors include a contrasting black-metallic roof.

All-wheel-drive versions are distinguished solely by small AWD trunklid badges. Inside, their only differentiation is an electronic parking-brake button on the center console instead of a conventional under-dash parking-brake pedal lever.

Every ’21 Camry will return with Toyota’s usual clear instrumentation and a multi-function dashboard infotainment touchscreen, an 8-inch-diameter display on the XSE and XLE and 7 inches on the other models. The 2020 Camry was one of the first Toyotas to get Google Android Auto compatibility. It joined Apple CarPlay support as standard equipment on all trim levels.

We’ll likely need to wait for the coming facelift to see if Toyota makes the 8-inch display available on more models. The 7-incher is too cramped, especially when using the latest version of CarPlay included with Apple’s iOS 13 update. A redo of Toyota’s increasingly outdated Entune infotainment interface needs to come even sooner. The current Entune is frequently sluggish to respond, even when tasked with something elemental as changing a radio-station preset.

The 2018 redesign increased Camry’s overall length a half inch and its wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles) by a significant 1.9 inches. These changes contributed to a more athletic stance, but overall interior volume decreased in some key areas. The front seat is fine; long travel ensures even the very tall get sufficient legroom.

The ’21 will, however, continue with a back seat that relegates Camry’s roomy family-car credibility to the dust bin of history. The new stance took away nearly an inch of legroom and the fastback roofline dictated a lowered seating position and restricted door openings. Most adults will crane to climb in, then need to ride knees-up. There’s Toyota can do about that, but it shouldn’t wait until the facelift to offer heated seats on more than just the XSE and XLE models; SE and TRD owners, at minimum, deserve them too.

Expect 2021 L and LE grades to reprise cloth upholstery. The SE and SE Nightshade versions would get Toyota’s convincing SofTex imitation leather. The XSE and XLE models will again have genuine leather standard. The ’21 TRD will return with black SofTex-trimmed front buckets with fabric inserts and enhanced lateral bolstering, red-stitched TRD embroidered headrests, a red-stitched leather-wrapped steering, and even red seatbelts. Its main instrument screen will also get a TRD-programmed startup sequence. The Hybrids will return specific readouts for battery charge and energy flow. 

At 15.1 cubic feet, the 2021 Camry’s trunk will remain average for the class, although bare metal lid hinges ready to crush contents carelessly placed are a penny-inching design flaw. Thumbs up, though, to engineers for packaging the nickel-metal hydride battery pack under the rear seat to give Hybrids the same trunk volume as gas-only models.

Any mechanical changes?

2020 Camry XSE AWD

As noted, there’s a chance Toyota could make AWD available with both of Camry’s gas-only engines. If it doesn’t, the ’21 Camry will be a mechanical rerun of the 2020. It’ll continue on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) underskin platform adopted with the 2018 redesign. TNGA is a modular system that accommodates a breadth of cars and crossovers, including dedicated hybrid models like the Prius.

The understructure helped create the best-handling Camry yet, and its versatility allowed engineers to adapt the AWD system from the RAV4 to this midsize car as well as to its platform-mate, the larger and more expensive Toyota Avalon. Neither sedan was designed originally with AWD in mind. The system normally operates in front-wheel drive and directs up to 50 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels in response to acceleration from a start or when the front tires slip.

Models with AWD were not made available for testing in time for this review. They weight a nominal 165 pounds more than their front-drive, four-cylinder counterparts, so expect acceleration to be about the same, with any deficit offset by an extra measure of straight-line traction in slippery conditions, a comforting attribute for snow-belt drivers.

Among front-drive Camrys, figure only the TRD trim to really match the athletic road manners of class pacesetters such as the Honda Accord Sport and Mazda 6 Grand Touring. The TRD will again have thicker underbody bracing, specific suspension components and brakes, and wider but lighter wheels. Grip and balance are exceptional in this souped-up sedan. The penalty is a firm ride that can get uncomfortable on pockmarked pavement.

Non-TRD front-drive 2021 Camrys won’t shake your confidence. But transition quickly into a turn and you’ll discover the sense of harmony between steering and suspension is lacking. It’s what separates them from the best handlers in the class.

2020 Toyota Camry XLE

Engines won’t change for ’21. L, LE, SE, SE Nightshade, XLE, and XSE will again come standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine of 203 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque (206 and 186 on XSE). AWD versions duplicate this engine protocol, including a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. In our tests, front-drive Camrys with this engine accelerate with more authority than other midsize sedans equipped with their base engines. The tradeoff is a less than refined engine note in anything but gentle driving.

The TNGA platform is designed to also host much larger vehicles, such as Toyota’s Highlander midsize crossover and Sienna minivan, which rely on a V-6 engine. That enabled the automaker to continue to offer a V-6 in the Camry. Optional on the XSE and XLE and standard on the TRD, this peach of an engine displaces 3.5 liters and generates 301 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque.

Torque is the key ingredient to acceleration and while this V-6’s output will continue to trail that of high-output turbocharged four-cylinders in some competitors, you’re not liable to notice the difference in most driving conditions. Also equipped with an eight-speed automatic transmission, V-6 Camrys will again provide robust pickup off the line, where torque steer — pulling to the side during rapid acceleration — is laudably a non-issue. Further, the V-6’s smoothness and its deep reserves of power for high-speed passing and merging is unmatched by most competing turbo four-cylinder engines.

2020 Toyota Camry LE Hybrid

With the Prius serving as its fuel-economy headliner, Toyota can tout the performance advantages torquey electric-motor assist brings to its other hybrid vehicles. Indeed, the Camry Hybrid is surprisingly quick and a far more engaging alternative to a gas-only four-cylinder Camry. The battery pack beneath the rear seat helps lower its center of gravity, for extra handling stability. And with its 18-inch wheels, sporty suspension tuning, blackout grille and leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters, the Hybrid SE is loaded with personality. 

For ’21, the Hybrid will continue with a 2.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine of 176 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque. It pairs with a battery-powered electric motor that makes 118 horsepower and 149 pound-feet of torque. Toyota rates net output at 208 horsepower but does not specify a torque figure. The transmission will again be a continuously variable automatic (CVT).

This is not a plug-in hybrid and cannot run on electricity alone for any appreciable distance. The battery recharges by recapturing energy otherwise lost to coasting and braking. Sensors automatically determine the best blend of gas power and electric assist to optimize fuel economy and performance.

Will fuel economy improve?

2020 Toyota Camry XSE

Unlikely, and that’s no bad thing. EPA ratings for front-wheel drive 2021 Camrys should repeat those of their 2020 counterparts, meaning they’ll remain midsize cars with subcompact-car fuel economy.

Expect ’21 Camrys with the gas four-cylinder engine to rate an impressive 29/41/34 mpg city/highway/combined in entry-level L trim, 28/39/32 mpg in LE and SE form, and 27/38/31 in XSE and XLE guise.

EPA ratings for 2020 Camrys with AWD were not released in time for this review, but our projection would be 26/38/30 mpg city/highway/combined. As in the RAV4, when AWD isn’t required, the electromagnetic coupling on the rear drive axle can disengage the propeller shaft from the differential to prioritize fuel efficiency.    

Look for EPA ratings of 2021 Camrys with the V-6 to again rival those of midsize-car rivals with high-output turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Expect the XLE to again rate 22/33/26 mpg, the XSE 22/32/26, and the TRD 22/31/25 mpg. Our 2020 TRD review sample averaged a surprisingly frugal 27.5 mpg.

The ’21 Camry Hybrid will again steal the show, with the LE likely to repeat at 51/53/52 mpg city/highway/combined, astonishing for a car of its size and performance. Expect SE and XLE grades to again rate a very impressive of 44/47/46.

All ’21 Camry models will again use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will there be new features?

2020 Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid

Probably not. The ’21 Camry will again be available with a solid array of convenience and safety features, although being more liberal with driver assists should be on Toyota’s to-do list.

Toyota Safety Sense-P (TSS-P) will again be standard across the entire lineup. TSS-P includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, and automatic high-beam headlight control.

However, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection will likely remain standard on XLE and XSE models and optional on all other ’21 Camrys except the L and, oddly, the TRD. This important safety tech really ought to be standard starting with the LE trim, at minimum.

The 2021 Camry L will remain a rental-fleet special and not widely available for retail sale. While it will include TSS-P, LED daytime running lights, and CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, it won’t have any other features of note.

Expect the LE to again account for the lion’s share of 2021 of Camry sales, and we’re pleased Toyota makes AWD a stand-alone option starting with this popular trim level. All ’21 Camry LEs should return with 17-inch aluminum wheels and a power driver’s seat among standard features. The Hybrid LE will return with keyless access with pushbutton ignition and dual-zone automatic climate control.

Gas-only and Hybrid SE grades will again build on the gas-powered LE, adding SofTex upholstery and single-zone automatic climate control, plus the aforementioned 18-inch wheels, tuned suspension, blackout grille, and leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters. The SE Nightshade will return with wheels, door handles, side mirrors, window trim, and badging all in black.

The ’21 TRD will again continue with a feature set similar to that of the SE while adding the V-6 engine, performance exhaust and suspension, and the unique interior and exterior trim.

All 2021 Camry XLE models will again have full LED exterior lighting, leather upholstery, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, wireless smartphone charging pad, and 8-inch infotainment screen. The XSE continue to blend most of the SE’s appearance upgrades with the XLE’s comfort and convenience features, although it’ll again have unique 19-inch wheels.

Will 2021 prices be different?

2020 Toyota Camry LE

They’ll probably increase marginally due to year-over-year inflation. Camry pricing already trends slightly higher than the class average, and while Toyota frequently offers cut-rate financing incentives, direct discounts off the asking price are uncommon.

For reference, here are 2020 prices for front-wheel drive Camrys; base prices include the manufacturer’s $995 destination fee. The ’21 Camry L started at $25,250, but you’re very unlikely to find a new one in dealer inventory. The ’21 Camry LE was priced from $25,795, the SE from $26,995, and the SE Nightshade from $26,740. Base prices were $30,280 for the four-cylinder XLE $30,830 for the four-cylinder XSE.

Toyota had not released pricing for the AWD option in time for this review but expect it to add about $1,400 to the base price of a front-drive four-cylinder LE, SE, XLE, or XSE.

2020 Camry XSE AWD

The ’21 TRD should again be the most affordable Camry with a V-6. Its 2020 base price was $31,040. Base prices for XLE and XSE models equipped with this engine were $35,405 and $35,955, respectively.

Despite its stiff ride and lack of heated front seats or blind-spot alert, the extrovert’s pick among gas-only models would be the TRD. Its brash styling stands out, and it’s more entertaining to drive than you might expect.

If you’re seeking something less demonstrative and more environmentally sensitive, but with very satisfying road manners, a Hybrid is a terrific Camry choice. It’s really the lineup’s sweet spot. For 2020, Camry Hybrid base prices were $29,205 for the LE, $30,905 for the SE, and $33,505 for the XLE.

Most key options will again come in packages, with pricing and equipment that varies according to trim-level selection. Some of these extra-cost items on mainstream models (LE, SE) can include blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert, keyless entry with pushbutton ignition, imbedded garage-door transmitter, wireless smartphone charging, and a power sunroof. Pricing ranges from $900-$3,180.

Upgrades for the XLE and XSE can include a panoramic sunroof, JBL-brand audio system, imbedded GPS navigation that doesn’t require a cellular data connection, ventilated front seats, front- and rear-obstacle detection, surround-view camera, and a head-up instrument display. Packages for these models span $1,060-$5,245.

Available again in conjunction with AWD will be an optional Cold-Weather Package that adds heated seats and mirrors to the LE, heated seats, mirrors and steering wheel to the SE, and a heated steering wheel to the XLE and XSE.

When does it come out?

2020 Toyota Camry XSE

The release date for the 2021 Toyota Camry will likely be in the fall of 2020.

Best competitors

Buick Regal Sportback, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima and Maxima, Subaru Legacy, Volkswagen Arteon and Passat

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]