First drive: Toyota’s new Camry could arrest Lexus ES sales

New hybrid Camry arrives next year and will likely impress both consumers and the Garda

In Ireland the original Toyota Camry was best known as a police car, but does the new version have a lot more to offer? We took it to the spiritual home of the movie police chase, San Francisco, to find out. Video: Neil Briscoe

 

What’s the greatest thing about San Francisco? Not the cable cars (climbing half way to the stars), nor the football team, nor even the beauty of the bay. No, the best thing about San Francisco is that, amid the hills and the bridges of the Bay area in 1968, the on-screen car chase truly became iconic.

That was when Bullitt director Peter Yates, star Steve McQueen, and stunt driver Bud Ekins created a 13-minute masterpiece of action, danger, and GT40 race car sound effects. It secured McQueen’s legend as a man of action (even though Ekins actually did the bulk of the driving) and made both the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Charger look cooler than ever.

You’d probably never describe the Toyota Camry as cool, exactly. It looks straightforward and simple – an honest four-door family saloon, with plenty of room in the cabin and a big boot. As cars go, they’re generally solid but unassuming, but I have to confess to having something of an irrational passion for Camrys. Call it my practical, sensible nature. Call it my love of sturdy reliability. Really though, call it what it is – my police car obsession.

Local superintendent

I love a good police car, and Camrys always made the best ones, at least as far as the Garda traffic corps and the special branch were concerned. Nothing cleared the outside lane of a motorway or dual carriageway in 1990s and early 2000s Ireland than a Camry driven by someone with a light blue shirt and a grumpy expression, even if it was just me and not the local superintendent.

The Camry has, sadly, been gone from these shores for a long time now, but I became unnaturally excited when Toyota announced earlier this year that it was going to bring the Camry back to Ireland, with the first ones landing in March next year.

The new Camry Hybrid shares its powertrain with the Lexus ES, so it has the same 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, backed up by a hybrid battery and electric motor, driving the front wheels through a CVT automatic gearbox
The new Camry Hybrid shares its powertrain with the Lexus ES, so it has the same 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, backed up by a hybrid battery and electric motor, driving the front wheels through a CVT automatic gearbox

Clearly, I couldn’t wait that long, and equally clearly, there’s only one place to test drive one of the ultimate cop cars. So here I am, parked on one of the vertiginously steep streets of San Francisco (a Quinn Martin production…) with the keys to a new Camry in my hands.

While the US market Camry can be had with a plain 2.0-litre petrol engine, or even a V6 with a pretty hefty 301 bhp, the Camrys that come to Ireland will, of course, be hybrids. The new Camry Hybrid shares its powertrain with the Lexus ES, so it has the same 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, backed up by a hybrid battery and electric motor, driving the front wheels through a CVT automatic gearbox.

Although our Camrys will be made in the same factory in Kentucky that churns them out for the US market, Irish-bound cars will be subtly different to the bright white four-door in front of me. The suspension and engine will be given a mild going-over, and the engine may get some tweaks too. That said, don’t expect the power output to move too far from the Lexus’ 215 bhp, nor its 106g/km Co2 figure.

Big digital display

Hop inside and it all feels very familiar. The bog central touchscreen looks and works more or less the same as those in the C-HR and the new Corolla, while the main dials, with the big digital display in the middle, are rational and sensible. You could accuse it of having a certain lack of flair (certainly there’s none of the drama of the C-HR’s cabin in here) but then you start to take in its qualities beyond the merely aesthetic. It’s big, for a start, with cabin space that feels a nudge ahead of even the likes of the Skoda Superb. The boot is surprisingly small at 427-litres, though, thanks to having to package the big battery stack, but there’s lounging space in the back seats, and the front seats are terrifically comfortable.

Inside, the Camry boasts lounging space in the back seats and terrifically comfortable front seats
Inside, the Camry boasts lounging space in the back seats and terrifically comfortable front seats

It is also, of course, exceptionally well made. While the touchy-feely quality of the cabin doesn’t match the likes of Audi nor BMW, the quality quality (if you see what I mean…) definitely does. As does refinement. The CVT transmission does the usual roar-rev-roar thing if you look for maximum acceleration, but as with most recent Toyota hybrids it’s less annoying than it used to be. Beyond that, mechanical isolation is excellent.

The Camry felt slightly stiff in the knees over big expansion joints and other chunky road furniture, but then European-bound cars will get a few tweaks, so it’s probably not fair to judge. The steering, as you’d expect, lacked feel but had nice weighting, and while it would be wrong to draw any handling and dynamic conclusions, the Camry went where I pointed it with a minimum of fuss. Not a drivers’ car, then, but then they never were. What it’s good at are the things that you really need day to day – comfort, refinement, and very likely reliability.

Canyon carving

Economy, too? Yep, not bad. We pretty easily broke the 48mpg barrier (5.9 l/100km), and that was with a mixture of stop-start heavy traffic, followed by some canyon carving up in the Marin Headlands beyond the Golden Gate bridge. Any police force would be happy to have something so frugal on the fleet. It is a bit big, though, feeling broad across its hips even on big US roads. Quite how that will translate to a boreen remains to be seen.

Will the Garda go for Camry’s again? Well, they haven’t said yes, yet, but equally they haven’t said no. The Garda press office said: “The Garda Transport section reviews all makes and models of vehicles on the market and when the time comes to purchase some all factors are taken into account.” Like I said, not a no.

Doubtless Steve McQueen would be sickened by me following in his car chase wheeltracks in a hybrid Toyota, but I don’t really care. Police, real police (as opposed to movie police) like, need, and use cars that are roomy, comfy, reliable, and rugged. The new Camry hits all of those bases, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s still the perfect cop car.

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