Farewell to the old Camry

Toilet paper — I get the exact same brand in the exact the same quantity, usually off the same shelf from the same store. It gets the job done, the price never changes, and it allows me to focus my attention on other interests. It’s the steadiest, most predictable part of my life.

And so goes the Camry.

My dad, an auto enthusiast himself with an Abarth 500 and a flawless W124 Mercedes-Benz, buys a new Camry Hybrid every 3-4 years. Why? Because, he says, it goes forward, backward, left, and right. Reliably. Comfortably. Efficiently. Nothing more.

And I mean nothing more — a sloppy ride, lifeless steering, and passively ugly styling negate most of the positives. Considering the strengths of the Mazda 6 and Honda Accord, it’s clear that the Camry appeals to people who buy cars the way I buy bathroom tissue.

Plodding forward on the same K platform since 2002 with 400,000 units (US) sold annually, it’s a cash cow for Toyota. This is a car that’s survived multiple recessions, fickle American tastes, the cold war, fluctuations in oil prices, and an endlessly evolving regulatory environment. It’s even outlasted brands like Saturn, Hummer, and Toyota’s own Scion. I’d call it a dinosaur if they weren’t roaming the earth en masse.

Back in October I flew to Spokane, Washington, the town where I long ago attended middle school and high school, for a close friend’s wedding. It’s charmingly quaint, growing briskly but insulated by mountains, trees, and lakes from the rest of America. Culturally, it’s more Montana than it is Washington.

After a short walk through the concourse I stood in line at the Alamo counter. Though I booked an economy car, Brittany offered me a Camry as a free “upgrade.” I paused for a moment then asked if she had “literally anything else, please.”

She politely replied, “Well, we have a minivan.”

I capitulated and accepted the keys to a white 2016 Camry SE.

From the thin paint on the plastic door handle to the moment I turned the flaccid steering wheel to leave the parking lot, it felt like it was engineered fifteen years ago (and it was). I remember 2002 quite well. I was done with high school but still living in Spokane, miserably wandering my way through my angsty late teens and awkward twenties without a plan or purpose. The only thing left to complete this picture is a Linkin Park album.

Though the Camry’s physical structure and driving characteristics haven’t substantially changed in well over a decade, the interior is a noteworthy improvement. Replacing corny translucent blue bluttons that previously adorned the center console, designers went with clearly marked, widely separated controls on each side of the LCD, adorned in large white fonts to appease an aging customer base, much like what you’d find in a Buick Lesabre.

The instrument cluster, on the other hand, is oddly busy with a color LCD, a fake machined pattern on the gauge faces, and fuel level and temperature needles combined with the tach and speedo. Toyota deserves credit, however, for at least including a coolant temperature gauge.

Padded vinyl across the dashboard, stitched in red, is a nice surprise along with tasteful pieces of fake aluminum plastic trim. It sweeps upward from the center stack like a pair of wings, paying homage, slightly, to BMW. The seats receive a similar treatment with attractively stitched and sectioned vinyl bolsters.

A strip of fake (but classy) polished brightwork wraps around the audio and climate controls and extends down to the shifter and cupholders, a nice way to add visual interest to hard and cheap plastics. Same goes for the arm rests on the doors.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the dashboard and doors are composed of harsh plastics. In 1992 the Camry earned a reputation for being plush and refined inside, a half step from the more expensive Lexus ES300. This, however, feels more like an upscale Corolla than a downmarket Lexus.

The graphite wheels, however, look pleasingly expensive. Additionally, the SE gains a sporty mesh grille, replacing the tacky Gillette razor slats on the standard car. Inside it feels as spacious as a Deville with plenty of head room front and rear (I’m 5’8”), a massive trunk that shames most luxury cars, and room to stretch your legs and elbows comfortably. Old folks will appreciate the easy ingress and egress that comes with a seating position that’s high for a sedan.

I spent the rest of the weekend driving people to and from the wedding venue in Idaho, visiting old friends, sampling spectacular local beers, and cruising aimlessly around neighborhoods where I used to cause teenage mischief.

The inland northwest has a truly spectacular selection of winding rural roads with elevation changes, cliffs, mountains, lakes, rivers, and trees decorating the landscape. Despite an overabundance of inattentive Subaru drivers, it’s an absolute joy to drive aimlessly up there.

This is the kind of place where you can enjoy something nimble and quick… which means I should have picked the minivan at the rental counter. Despite its size, heft, and height, the Dodge Grand Caravan offers quicker and more communicative steering, better acceleration from its 3.6L Pentastar V6, and more predictable handling than the Camry.

One would also think that despite a softer suspension and less aggressive steering, the Camry would serve as an ideal long distance cruiser. One would think.

Instead, it heaves when pushed into corners, even at modest speeds, while still transmitting bumps and undulations to the cabin. Bear in mind, this is supposed to be the SE trim, Toyota’s vague notion of “sporty.”

I had to fight for acceleration, constantly calling on the paddle shifters for a lower gear (of six to choose from) to squeeze a little juice out of the coarse, 178hp four-cylinder hamster wheel. It wasn’t any slower than a typical midsize family car, but execution was anything but effortless. The aging powertrain was a bit thirsty too, eking out just under 24mpg in mixed driving that combined nearby shopping trips with long highway drives to and from Idaho.

This car wasn’t equipped with navigation, Carplay, or Android Auto (all available as options) but made up for it with a beautifully crisp, if not quite powerful sound system. Bluetooth pairing and music selection with my Blackberry Priv was quick and easy. Unfortunately, the tall and narrow font chosen for the infotainment system required me to take my eyes off the road to sort through functions, in stark contrast to the large and crisply printed buttons flanking the display.

Call quality was awful, unfortunately. I was better off using my Blackberry’s built-in speaker and microphone.

It’s never easy for an auto enthusiast to write about an appliance. If I compare the Camry SE to a proper sport sedan it obviously comes up short. But as a mode of quiet transportation to suggest to older friends and family, it’s competent. Where it fails to impress, it pleases by executing on exactly what it promises: quiet dependability.

It’s easy for auto enthusiasts to dismiss the Camry. We tend to forget that Toyota’s mainstream midsize juggernaut emerged at a time when people were let down by Ford, GM, and Chrysler, offering a refuge of modest comfort and above average quality at an uncertain time. Back in the early 1980s, American manufacturing was a punchline and the Soviet Union threatened to obliterate us if we blinked the wrong way.

Its sustained popularity is a result of promises delivered, faithfully. Nothing less, nothing more.

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