"Surely it's not as bad as everyone says it is," I think to myself as I accept the only car left at the rental counter. "The likes of Jalopnik love to dig into a good Camry rant here and there, but it's just low-hanging fruit, right?" Wrong. It really is that bad—and perhaps worse.
(Full disclaimer: I wasn't happy when I wrote this, but Dukie's Camry post reminded me that this exists. Think of a day when someone farts in your breakfast tacos, hides your Puffalump bunny, makes you take your favorite toy into the shop because it's just not 100% right yet and calls you a poopface. The only thing worse? A day stuck in a rental Camry.)
The counter was happy to hand over one of their first 2014 cars. There wasn't anything smaller available. As the office was quite busy, there wasn't anything else at all left that day, and seeing as I needed to get to work, I accepted my fate and resigned myself to a day with the Camry.
"It gets surprisingly good gas mileage for such a big car," reassured the counter worker. Okay, that's all fine and well, but I'm more concerned with parking and maneuvering it than I am filling it up. Quite honestly, my Lancer is usually a larger car than I need. A modern Camry has bloated to almost the size of Mom's old Ninety-Eight and no, sir, I don't like it.
Although I was only stuck with it for one day before I got my Lancer back, let me tell you all of the reasons why it takes the crown for Stef's Most Hated Rental Car of All Time.
Competition for this title was tough this year, as I also got stuck in a Chrysler 200 with a transmission that got confused every time there was a steep hill. But no, that car had some semblance of steering feel. The Camry? Completely numb, which brings me to my first grievance:
1. This car is the vehicular equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank.
Steering and pedal feedback is critical to letting you know what's going on with the car. Are my brakes grabbing yet, and signaling back to me via a stiffer pedal? Are the front tires steering the car at all? Lightness in the wheel would tell you otherwise, like when you're about to understeer into a field full of cows. Or have I accidentally veered into another lane of travel? Am I feeling those telltale vibrations in the steering that signal I've hit the little wake-up strips on the outer edge of the road?
All vital information. All sorely lacking from this rental-spec 2014 Camry.
I understand the target market likes "comfort" here. Comfort-oriented buyers want controls that are easy to move more so than they want a hoonable piece of kit. Otherwise, we'd all still have glorious manual racks and sweet biceps to match.
Where this becomes problematic is when a desire for comfort overrides the basic functions that make a car drivable.
Let me be perfectly blunt here: if you can't be bothered to feel what's going on with your steering or braking, you should not be driving in the first place. Get off the road. Please eversokindly chop up your driver's license into tiny bits. Set those bits on fire. Then hitch a ride with someone who understands that muting that essential feedback is actually rather dangerous.
2. No, wait—there's weight transfer. Enough to make you seasick.
There is one type of feedback you will receive, however. This car is so floaty, I feel like I'm riding around in Phillip Thomas's old K-Car with blown shocks.
Because I live in Austin, I got stuck in miserable stop-and-go traffic en route to dinner. I thought I was going to rock myself to sleep in this car, and no amount of turning up the radio could help it.
Contrast this with the Jetta rental I had for about a month: bumps and stops in the little VW were absorbed gracefully without upsetting the car. That's by no means a top-of-the-line sports car. Rather, it just has competent suspension.
I suppose you can always tell if your brakes are grabbing in a Camry by pressing on them hard enough to make the car do a sharp nosedive rather than by pedal feel alone. That's irritatingly easy to do.
3. The interior is laid out as impractically as humanly possible.
There are two buttons I use the most on my steering wheel: the browsing arrows for radio stations and the like and the stereo volume. The Camry only has volume on the wheel, and guess which control knob is hidden from my viewpoint behind the steering wheel?
That's right—just out of view is that pesky selection knob for the radio station, plus the screen itself is about as intuitive as the former mayor of Lajitas after a couple Shiners.
If only one of the radio controls was to make it onto the steering wheel, my preference would be for it to be the one that's out of view for the driver. Volume—the one control that's on the wheel—is clearly visible to the right of the steering wheel.
I'm short, but I'm only 5'4"—certainly not too far out of the norm. Just because it's a large car doesn't mean that you should need to be able to hunch over and see all the way over the steering wheel to use the radio controls.
There are arrows that didn't seem to correspond to anything I could use or figure out and buttons for Bluetooth and cruise control instead. Call me simple, but I typically don't care about these things—especially in a rental. I'd rather blast out the din of traffic with the sound of how awesome I am, or in lieu of that, whatever radio station I can find that isn't playing something completely terrible.
(Pardon the terrible iPotato picture, but you get the idea.)
Big screens for the radio—by their very nature—are terrible, especially given the fact that people who drive Camrys have a bit of a reputation for caring more about anything they can besides actually driving their cars.
Unless there are integrated voice controls—"Siri, make me a sammich and find a radio station that's not playing 'fun.'"—you're often going to have to take your eyes off the road to use a big ol' screen. Tactile buttons are better to clumsily fondle without looking, and when it takes a scavenger hunt to find how to scan through available radio stations, that's it. I'm out. Get me a different car now.
The other control I care about—HVAC—is all the way down at the bottom, with the knob controlling the fan speed mostly hidden behind the steering wheel, much like the volume knob.
All I know is that someone at Toyota needs to be pimp-slapped by a UX designer. Hard.
3. It has an "Eco" light and no one's had the common sense to cover it up yet.
Eco lights are the herpes of the modern dashboard. They've spread like a disease to various manufacturers, further cluttering up your instrument cluster with another useless light. They're meant to tell you when you're driving the car in a manner that will conserve fuel and other resources. Instead, they just end up blinking endlessly.
This is a distraction right in the lower edge of your peripheral vision. It flashes on and off constantly as you drive. Distracting you. Taunting you.
It doesn't just make me want to start disassembling the dashboard so that it never comes on again. It fills me with uncontrollable rage just thinking about it.
For a car whose target market is the reason why we have "idiot lights" on the dashboard in the first place, adding a light to tell them when they're doing something right in the manufacturer's eyes seems counter-intuitive.
I would love to see the stats on how many clueless Camry owners have rolled up to Pep Boys asking about the light that comes on and off all the time that they can't figure out. I'm sure it would make me die a little on the inside, but I want the full story before I cast my ballot for Camacho and tune into today's episode of "Ow, My Balls!"
We've seriously devolved into a society that needs idiot lights for hypermiling? Super-intrusive lights that look like the car's other warnings? We constantly moan about the ill effects of distracted driving, yet we're somehow okay with distractions if they make Toyota feel good?
This car makes me not want to live on this planet anymore.
4. Unless you're going for a nice Sunday afternoon dorifto, these are not real tires.
"Low-rolling resistance" tires have been credited for the Camry's improved fuel economy, but let's be honest: these things are terrifying to drive on in normal traffic. I have zero confidence in their ability to grip when I'd need to avoid a hazard or make a panic stop. I got tire squeal out of them going around a gentle corner at 40 MPH, for Pete's sake.
They should exist for one purpose and one purpose only: drifting. Why? Because their limits of adhesion are so comically low that these make for hilariously easy sweet sideways action.
Unless your side job is trying to break into Formula D, I don't want to see these on your car. Ever.
Especially not on an unsettlingly numb boat like the Camry.
The most terrifying thing about this car is the sheer number of them on the road. Thousands of people who can't be bothered to have an excessively shaky steering wheel when the car hits a bump or who are fumbling through the dashboard trying to figure out the settings. This is who we share the road with.
It points to an even more unsettling trend: numbness and disconnection. The Camry used to be a good, honest little car—a simple daily driver workhorse that was easily accessible to nearly all walks of life. Earlier Toyotas I've driven felt a little like driving a tractor, but it was a tractor that made noises, had grabby brakes and had steering that wasn't so light that a hamster could turn it.
This was sadly not the only rental car that felt like all of the feedback was a bit softer than it should be—a quiet murmur instead of a decent speaking voice—it was merely the worst offender. It's as if the makers of generic econoboxes have all lashed out, "Turn that racket down! Erma's trying to make a phone call."
Am I the only one who feels this is all a bit dangerous? Between the confusing interior, constant distraction from a blinking Eco light and general lack of feel, I felt as if driving this Camry moderately well in just everyday traffic took more effort than usual. I had to pay attention to other cues: visuals, sounds and extraordinarily boatlike weight transfer. Goodness knows, not everyone concentrates that much on actually driving from behind the wheel, so losing the extra cues for a vast chunk of American drivers is a horrible, frightening thing.
This model makes me fear for the future. Why? Because people who don't care about cars will say, "Toyotas are good, reliable, respectable cars—I'll just buy this." The Camry will likely sell. Other manufacturers, noting success, will look for things to emulate. "Perhaps drivers don't want to be bothered whenever they're driving over something they're not supposed to." Those already on the numb-train will simply make theirs worse, and others who aren't may start caving to this dangerous trend of comfort over sanity.
We need feeling. Particularly, the feeling of being connected and in control of the multiple-thousand-pound behemoths we use as basic transportation. Let's reverse this horrible trend. Go forth, and buy cars that still give you that basic "I am driving something" feeling—not the Camry, for Pete's sake.
Rental-spec Camrys aren't just bad. They are by far the worst car I've driven—ever.