Perennially popular and professionally bland, the Toyota Camry may be America’s best-selling sedan but it still seems an odd place to start when you’re trying to build a sports car. Word of that incongruence doesn’t appear to have reached Toyota, and hence this 2021 Camry TRD – the latest in a series of models to bear the “Toyota Racing Development” tuning division’s branding.
Still, if ever a car was overdue a reputation makeover, the Camry is it. Now in its eighth generation, Toyota has thrown bolder styling and more memorable trim at the four-door stalwart, all in the hope of elevating it from “just another appliance” into something actually aspirational. The TRD badge, though, is more than just a styling exercise.
It starts with the 3.5-liter V6, the same 301 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque engine as in the XLE V6 and XSE V6. Toyota pairs it with the same 8-speed automatic transmission, too; just like with the Supra, if you want a manual gearbox you’re out of luck. Would more power be nice? Sure, but at $32,260 (plus $995 destination) this is actually the cheapest way to get your hands on Toyota’s V6 Camry.
It’s combined with TRD-tuned front and rear suspension, with thicker underbody braces. Stiffer springs lower the Camry TRD 0.6-inches compared to the regular sedan, and the shocks have custom tuning too. Toyota then adds larger front brakes, with the 12.9-inch discs almost an inch larger than standard, and dual-piston calipers replacing the regular single-piston version.
The 19-inch matte-black alloys not only look striking but they’re half an inch wider, not to mention being lighter than the regular Camry’s wheels to help trim unsprung mass. A bodykit gives a more aggressive look from every angle: a new aero kit deepening the front spoiler; a well-kinked gloss black rear spoiler; a dual exhaust system with polished stainless steel tips; and plenty of red TRD badging with matching red-painted brake calipers.
$500 added a two-tone Midnight Black roof and other trim, while $69 threw on some rear bumper appliqués. Inside, there are SofTex-trimmed sport seats that could be a little more supportive, red seatbelts, aluminum pedals, TRD logos sprinkled around the headrests, shift knob, and elsewhere, and matching red contrast stitching. With floor and trunk liners ($259) and “door sill enhancements” ($199) you’re looking at $34,207 all-in.
That still undercuts a Camry XLE V6, which starts at a couple of grand more, but you do sacrifice some creature comforts along the way. Spend the extra and you get dual-zone automatic climate control rather than single-zone, a 7-inch cluster display rather than the TRD’s 4.2-inch; leather seats with front heating; a folding rear bench rather than fixed; a 10-inch head-up display; an auto-dimming rearview mirror; wireless phone charging; and a 9-inch touchscreen infotainment system rather than 7-inch.
Annoyingly, beyond upgrading to the bigger touchscreen, you can’t actually add those missing extras to the Camry TRD, no matter how much money you promise to throw at Toyota. Certainly, the Camry’s cabin works okay – the infotainment supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in case the fairly dour native UI isn’t to your liking – and the switchgear feels sturdy if not especially inspiring, but it’s clear that compromises have been made in the name of performance.
So, does the 2021 Camry TRD live up to that billing? Honestly, it’s better than I expected. The V6 sounds good, the exhaust system proving to be more than just a visual upgrade, and its naturally-aspirated nature means linear power delivery. Toyota’s gearbox earns no complaints, either, with its slick upshifts and eagerness to downshift when you push on.
Since it feels like you’re paying most for the suspension changes, it’s gratifying to see that the biggest improvements over a regular Camry are in ride and cornering. The Camry TRD is firmer, certainly, though not teeth-rattling so, but it carries itself into the bends with more poise than you’d expect. Factor in nice weighting to the steering and – though understeer is the inevitable eventuality – you can have an entertaining amount of fun without needing to escalate to silly speeds.
As for economy, the EPA says you’ll see 22 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg combined. Those numbers do, unsurprisingly, take a dip the more time you spend in Sport mode, though mid-20s in mixed driving is perfectly feasible.
2021 Toyota Camry TRD Verdict
For all the talk of sedans being sidelined, sportier versions seem to be encountering a resurgence of sorts right now. Relatively attainable options like Acura’s TLX have proved ample reminder that there’s more to the category than just the German four-doors. Even among that crowd, though, Toyota’s offering stands out.
Affordability and legitimately entertaining tweaks over the standard car leave the 2021 Camry TRD pleasingly distinct in a line-up that – with four-cylinder, six-cylinder, and hybrid versions – is jam-packed. And, though there are compromises to be made for that price tag, sacrificing some cabin cosseting feels like a reasonable balance for a noticeable improvement in handling. The Camry may seem like an odd place to start when you’re building a sports car, but TRD’s handiwork adds some more-than-welcome personality.