Trackside Rental Car Review: 2014 Toyota Camry SE – All Aboard!

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Today has turned out to be Camry day at CC, not by planning but through sheer coincidence. Since Mr. Shafer and I both ended up with Camrys as our rentals on recent trips, it only seems right that we each reflect on our respective experiences. Which do seem to be somewhat different; but then we’re rather different too. And since he’s obviously playing the comic in this little Camry burlesque duet, I get to be the straight man, for a change. Or is it the stooge?

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To properly understand the Camry, one needs to put it in perspective and context. Quite simply, it’s a money making machine, for Toyota. Since 2001, Toyota has been building essentially the same Camry. And it will be for several more years, before the evergreen K-Platform gets finally retired after the latest generation that hasn’t even gone on sale yet.Yes, there’s been a few cosmetic and other changes along the way, like a new four cylinder engine (undoubtedly cheaper to build) and six-speed automatic. But who else is building essentially the same car for almost 15 years?

By keeping development costs low, and constantly reducing component costs and production efficiencies, the Camry is a substantial contributor to Toyota’s projected $20 billion profit this year. That’s head and shoulders above VW and GM. As Toyota has repeatedly said, it’s not about who is Number One in global sales, but who makes the most money. And Toyota does that by a huge margin, with profits about triple or more of those of GM, and double of VW.

Undoubtedly, the Camry is the lowest-cost car to build in its class, which is actually shrinking due to the relentless growth of the CUV segment. Toyota seems quite content to play it safe, and let others like the Accord and Mazda 6 be the segment leaders in terms of dynamic qualities. The competition in this segment, now that VW has entered it too with its US-specific Passat, means that margins will inevitably shrink to the extent incentives are required to keep volumes up.

Toyota’s strategy seems to almost be defensive, keeping the Camry “just good enough” while relentlessly reducing its costs so as to be prepared for a market segment shake-out, especially if/when the economy has the next case of the jitters. Just how that will all shake out, especially with the resurgence of the Accord, remains to be seen.

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Well, the Camry can be a money making machine for its owners too, given its sterling reliability record and good resale values. On my recent trip to Baltimore to visit with my 91 year-old mother and my younger brother, I got a double dose of Camrys: my almost new 2014 SE rental, and my brother’s 2002 XLE, which he bought on my recommendation to replace his trouble-prone Taurus. It’s fully lived up to its reliability reputation, requiring nothing other than wear parts and a pair of  struts. It just turned over 201,000 miles, looks almost-new inside and out, gets sterling mileage (mid 30s), and feels like it could do another 200k.

I got some back seat time since Mom called “shotgun!” when we took his car on some of our daily outings, like this one to Tilghman Island on the far side of Chesapeake Bay. The Camry’s back seat has always been one of its better assets, and I was very comfortable there.

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When I arrived in Baltimore on that Saturday afternoon, my plane was running a bit late, and the plan to join my mom for dinner at her retirement community seemed iffy. The last time in Baltimore, Enterprise offered me a brand new 2014 Impala as an unexpected upgrade. That was a pleasant surprise, as it impressed me considerably (review here). This time, as we walked to where the larger sedans there, they offered me an Impala again…the old W-Body version. Well, maybe I should have taken one, for comparison purposes.

But when I spotted this lone Camry SE, I bit, because I’ve been curious as to how different the sportier SE version is from the…ah…decidedly non-sporty regular Camry. So I hopped in and and tore off, eager to make the dinner appointment.

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I have this odd habit of goosing a rental car as soon as I get in it, perhaps after spending time at 550 mph, 65 just seems like standing still. Sure enough, as soon as I got on the uncrowded (Saturday) I-95, I had to arrest myself as the needle swung past 95. Whoa! Down boy; you’re not in Eastern Oregon.

Although Jason complained about the abysmal lack of performance in his Camry rental, I found this one to be adequately sprightly, the six-speed automatic clicking off quick shifts which kept the 178 hp 2.5 four in the sweet spot of ts power curve. I was curious as to just how this naturally-aspirated Camry compared to Jason’s hot new 2014 turbocharged VW Passat. Motor Trend’s test of the Camry SE four timed it from 0-60 in 8.1 seconds, a whopping 3/10th of a second behind the turbo Passat. And the turbo Passat shut it down at the drag strip with another whopping 3/10th of a second quicker run. Which one will most likely make it to 200k miles without any engine issues?

 

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Well, the turbo Passat takes the crown, but it hardly makes the Camry a slug. Back in the sixties, a 16.2 second run in the 1/4 mile would have been brisk for a stock car with a healthier than average V8. In any case, the SE was more than fast enough for my purposes on the Baltimore Beltway, and I did make it to dinner with Mom.

The SE’s suspension clearly is firmer, and that adds control at higher speeds, which is to my preference. But it’s a bit like American cars in the way old days: firming up the springs and shocks alone does not make a splendid handler. The Camry’s aged and cost-effective underpinnings result in a car that is not as refined and dynamic in its handling as the class leaders, or our own Acura TSX, despite the extra firmness.

The steering is number than average, and the more aggressive 17″ tires were inordinately loud on concrete, although ok on asphalt. The engine pulls well, but doesn’t sound as refined in doing so as the best in class Honda four. Just good enough, but still a more fun car to drive on the winding two-lane back roads we took to visit my other brother in Harrisburg, PA. than some rentals I’ve driven.

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Lots of folks hate on the Camry’s styling. Whatever…I’m neither attracted or repelled, although I think the current version is the best of the bunch, as its angularity make it look a bit less pouffey and feminine than some of the previous ones. Hey, if Cadillac chose to ape the Camry for its ATS, it can’t be all that bad, eh?

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I obviously abstained from whatever Jason was ingesting when his Camry’s upholstery reminded him of the 1976 Chrysler wild green and yellow Castillion fabric. Mine looked…like generic upholstery fabric of the times. The seats were comfortable, but no one is going to accuse Toyota of spending a dime more on its interiors than they deem necessary. It’s not as bad as some of their cars a few years back (prior gen Corolla, Venza, etc.), but it screams what it is: the cheapest to build car in its class. And that seems to be working for Toyota’s bottom line.

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The back seat is like all Camrys: quite roomy. What else is there to say? In some ways, it’s the best seat in the house.

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Yes, there’s lots of buttons, but I just ignored them all except the cruise control. And having a leather-wrapped wheel makes a surprisingly big difference in how I react to a steering wheel. The rest of the interior design? I don’t spend a lot of time in new cars to really compare properly, but most of them do very little for me these days. They all look too much like boom boxes, if those things even still exist.

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We went on outings every day, and my mom kept saying “I didn’t expect to see this again”. Well, thanks to the miracle of the automobile, it’s not that hard. But I did leave her behind for a quick trip on Friday morning to the B&O train museum, perhaps the most comprehensive in the world, certainly in terms of really old locomotives and rolling stock from the earliest days of the railroad. The Baltimore and Ohio was the very first common-carrier railroad in the US, and soon became a pioneering powerhouse during the great industrialization of the area as well as a large segment of the East Coast. I should be writing it up instead of the Camry.

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The restored roundhouse just barely visible in the back is chock-full of engines, including some of the oldest steam engines anywhere, and a fine number of Civil War locos. I’ll try to get to it soon. I also took a twenty minuter train ride along the area where the B&O once had the world’s largest train-building shops, warehouses, etc.  It’s easy to forget that the railroad is almost 200 years old, and still rolling along on essentially the same technology, now at 200+ mph. Was the railroad a more important invention than the car?

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Let’s just say I got a bit more carried away shooting the Camry than I would typically with a rental car.

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The truth is, I started out with some enthusiasm about writing up this Camry, but now my interest has switched to trains. Camrys and ADD will do that. All aboard!!