Dipped in electric blue, the edgy, low-slung sedan in my driveway looked ready to run – and not to the nearest Grab-N-Sack for a loaf of Wonder Bread.
The strange, slinky sedan seemed itching to hit some wide-open West Texas highway.
It couldn’t possibly be a Toyota Camry, I figured, not with four beefy exhaust pipes protruding prominently from beneath the bumper.
Heck, Toyota worries about what drifts out of one pipe.
When left alone in garages at night, its vehicles probably meditate – if not chant.
A few years back, though, Toyota head Akio Toyoda declared that the company’s cars needed to be a lot more exciting – a demand that must have sounded like an invitation to a loud party.
The 2018 Camry XSE I had recently was proof that the engineers and designers at Toyota happily accepted.
Get this: The all-new Camry and Honda Accord, the leaders in the mid-size sedan segment, both flash enough style and performance now to be mistaken for sports sedans – and at a time when mid-size sales are in decline.
You sure couldn’t see it in the hard-cut “Blue Streak Metallic” Camry heating up my old driveway.
Like way too many Toyotas and Lexis, my Camry faced the world with a busy, almost overwrought snout.
Aggressive, nice-looking headlamps, for instance, flanked a V-shaped grille atop a small horizontal blacked-out grille that resided above a second larger grille. Whew.
At least the rest of the car flowed a lot more smoothly, starting with a broad slightly raised hood that eased gracefully down to the frantic grille.
In keeping with its more sporting character, the new Camry’s tires and wheels got pushed to the corners of its body – 19-inch black and polished wheels wrapped with decent 235/40 tires.
Meanwhile, the sides of the body – never one of the Camry’s strengths – looked taut and defined thanks to crisp lines through the door-handles and down low above the rocker panel.
I thought the best part of the Camry’s sleek new body was its slinky top and rakish rear roof pillar, sloped like a fastback.
However, the top was painted black except for the roof pillar, which was part blue and part black, and looked like someone had nodded off in the paint booth.
I didn’t get that, but, then, I never understood moshing or Jimmy Kimmel, either.
Although most vehicles in the mid-size sedan segment rely on economical four-cylinder engines now, the Camry XSE took a bit of a step back, opting for a healthy V-6 beneath the hood.
It’s a step in the right direction, I say. With direct and port fuel-injection, the revamped 3.5-liter engine cranks out 301 healthy horsepower through an 8-speed automatic.
Smoothly responsive, the V-6 can easily spin the Camry’s front wheels if pushed, creating a silky wave of torque that can propel the Camry to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
It even spews out a bit of a growl doing it – the sound of an engine that only gets 22 miles per gallon in town.
Despite its larger, more powerful engine, though, the XSE slightly trails the new Accord in acceleration, probably slowed some by its 3,700 pounds of weight.
It’s difficult to detect. Like the Accord, the Camry rides on a stiff, fine new platform that gives the big sedan quick reflexes and sure feet – unusual attributes for a Camry.
Push it into a 30-mph corner and the front-wheel-drive sedan calmly clings to the concrete with minimal body lean.
Though the ride felt fairly firm for a former grocery-getter, the rejuvenated Camry never bounced or stumbled, feeling ready to tackle a 1,000-mile drive.
More surprising still, the Camry’s nicely weighted steering actually conveyed some sense of what the front wheels were doing.
Shazam, Andy. Where exactly are we?
Likewise, the black interior in my XSE will mostly refute that old image you may have of crusty plastic Camry interiors.
A classy dash in smooth, pliable plastic, for example, would have looked thoroughly refined if not for a giant, swoopy center stack at mid-dash featuring a 10-inch display screen.
That was mostly offset by the fact that the stack provided functional buttons, knobs and switches for all its controls.
Like all Dudley-do-right sedans these days, the Camry’s dash also housed safety features such as active cruise control, pedestrian detection and lane-departure alert.
The only options on my $38,000 Camry, in fact, were a driver’s assist package ($1,050) and navigation ($940).
Although that price approaches near-luxury levels, the interior generally looked and felt upscale.
Supportive bucket seats offered smooth leather bolsters and patterned centers, while the door panels displayed padded centers and armrests.
You can put the classy Camry to work as well: The back seat had Uber-like leg- and head-room for hauling drunken millennials back to their lofts, at $50 a pop.
Never in my memory have both the Camry and Accord shone with this much styling and sizzle – not that they are likely to slow the truck trend.
Either one would be far more fun on those soccer and grocery runs than some dowdy, dawdling crossover or SUV.