Winner: Toyota Camry Ascent Hybrid
The eighth-generation Camry heralds a new era for Toyota in Australia. It’s the first time in 30 years that the car-making giant has offered a fully imported Camry range to the Australian market.
The new Japanese-built sedan is available in four specification levels (Ascent, Ascent Sport, SX and SL) and three engines (2.5-litre four-cylinder, 2.5-litre four-cylinder/hybrid and 3.6-litre V6).
And it’s the Camry Ascent Hybrid that has claimed the title of best medium car under $50,000 for 2018.
So how come the Camry soared from also-ran to usurp reigning champion, the Mazda6, in just over a year? Put it down to a complete redesign and a sub-$30,000 RRP that is $500 less than the superseded equivalent hybrid model.
Introduced to Australia in November 2017 immediately following cessation of Australian Camry production, the newcomer is the first sedan to adopt Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA), which the company says has transformed the way its vehicles are designed, engineered and packaged.
According to Toyota, TNGA “enables greater freedom in design, resulting in a more athletic profile with a lower roof and bonnet, a better driving position and improved dynamics due to its lower centre of gravity and greater torsional rigidity”. TNGA packaging has allowed the nickel-metal hybrid battery to be moved from the boot area to under the rear seat, improving cargo space and positioning weight lower in the car.
The new 2.5-litre four-cylinder Dynamic Force Engine provides 11 per cent more power (now totalling 160kW) and four per cent more torque (now 423Nm), with thermal efficiency rated among the best in the world. And a redesign of the hybrid system and new Auto Glide Control system has improved fuel economy to a class-leading 4.2-litres/100km.
Combined with a host of changes to the MacPherson strut front suspension and new rear suspension aimed at improving handling dynamics and ride quality, the boost in performance brings an element of unprecedented driving engagement to the Camry.
Even the CVT has six quick-shifting ratios for manual-like gear changes, while a new sport drive mode has been added, delivering improved acceleration response relative to pedal input.
The latest safety technology is standard across the Camry range and includes a pre-collision system, autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure alert with steering assist. Also tick boxes for the seven airbags, all-speed active cruise control, auto high beam and a reversing camera.
Connectivity and creature comforts include an upgraded multimedia system, 7.0-inch display audio with Toyota Link connected mobility, Optitron instruments, 4.2-inch multi-information display, power lumbar adjustment on the driver’s seat, dual-zone air-conditioning, keyless entry/ignition and LED headlights.
The extensive engineering and design revisions found favour with Australia’s Best Cars judges, who agreed the Ascent Hybrid was class-leading for smoothness and quietness and equal class-leading for space and ride. It was also awarded top scores in the objective areas of fuel consumption (10 out of 10) and environment.
Significantly, the Ascent Hybrid also scored better than its Atara SL hybrid predecessor in terms of pricing, depreciation, insurance, seating comfort, performance and handling.
All up, this makes the 2018 Toyota Camry Ascent Hybrid a convincing winner and a smart new car buy.
Second place: Mazda6 Touring
Sometimes, despite best efforts and intentions, the planets just don’t align.
Such is the Mazda6’s situation in this year’s Australia’s Best Cars awards. A new, upgraded Mazda6 was launched just over a week after final judging of the awards. Unfortunately, Mazda Australia could not provide an example in time.
It was left up to the outgoing model – reigning best medium car under $50,000 champion and judge’s choice – to fly the flag against Toyota’s new Camry and Subaru’s upgraded Liberty.
Let it be said the Mazda6 remains an excellent car and ownership proposition. Just look at the scores: class-leading ergonomics, build and finish and handling, along with equal class-leading environment and braking. It also scored solidly for depreciation, fuel consumption, safety, build and finish quality, performance, ride and smoothness and quietness.
The new Mazda6 can only be better again, based on details of its update. These include a fresher appearance, all-new interior with added comfort and equipment, as well as engine, transmission, steering and suspension upgrades to improve the driving experience. Bring on next year's awards!
Third place: Subaru Liberty Premium 2.5i
Subaru’s Model Year 2018 all-wheel-drive Liberty sedan range came in for an upgrade in February. Revisions include cosmetics (new grille, bumpers, headlights and wing mirrors), convenience and style (enlarged central display), new-generation infotainment (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity) and safety (third-generation EyeSight driver-assist system and addition of lane-keep assist).
Premium variants also added a suite of vision-assist features including steering-responsive headlights, adaptive driving beam, side-view monitor and front-view monitor. Subaru also made engine, suspension and transmission tweaks aimed at greater vehicle response, efficiency and driving pleasure.
The upgrades – on what was already a very good car – helped the new Liberty to equal class-leading scores for safety (10 out of 10), space, practicality and ride, and above-average scores for depreciation, insurance, standard features, ergonomics and handling.
In terms of performance, there are grounds for argument that the Liberty 2.5i could do with more oomph and grunt. Compared with the 2.5-litre units in the Mazda6 (138kW/250Nm) and, particularly, the Camry Hybrid (160kW/423Nm), the Liberty looks underdone at 129kW/235Nm.
Its continuously variable transmission (CVT), though, is among the best of its kind, shifting smoothly through stepped ratios in the manner of a traditional automatic.
Overall, the Liberty is a comfy, accommodating drive that would meet the expectations of most buyers in the mid-sized sedan segment. This also makes it a worthy placer in our Australia’s Best Cars awards.