The hire car lottery landed Porter with America’s best-selling saloon

- @sniffpetro­l

‘You might wonder how the Camry handles, and here I can say with confidence: I don’t know’

IT WAS A COLD AND WET DECEMBER DAY when I touched the ground at Phoenix, AZ, a Hertz booking ahead of me. There’s little as casually exciting to the car-minded person as the hire car lottery and the knowledge that, for some freewheeli­ng rental companies, ‘Ford Focus or similar’ could lead inexplicab­ly to a De Tomaso Pantera. In this case what I’d paid for was ‘Toyota Camry or similar’ so you can imagine my disappoint­ment when I got an actual Toyota Camry.

If you’re in the UK you might remember the Camry as the kind of understate­d machine driven only by Toyota dealer principals and local Rotarians and which was relaunched in 2019 after a 14-year absence only to disappear under the crashing waves of overwhelmi­ng disinteres­t. In the US it’s rather different because the Camry is one of the bedrocks of the national fleet. So while America’s best-selling vehicle by a mile is the Ford F-series, and Toyota’s own RAV4 has now become American’s favourite non-pick-up, among sedans the Camry reigns supreme. Last year alone they sold almost 300,000 in the US, a sales total barely bettered by the UK’S entire ’22 top ten put together. So, after the initial rental desk disappoint­ment, I became curious: what do millions of Americans see in the Camry?

Well, to start with it’s not a bad-looking car. Previous-generation Camrys melted like cheap margarine into the motoring landscape and, while ubiquity means the current one is unnoticeab­le on the average American street, it does feel like some effort has gone into the styling, from the beaky nose to the fake rear diffuser. The A-pillar diverges at the top in a cackhanded way most cars manage to avoid and the funny pressed line on the D-pillar only makes sense on upscale models with a contrast roof but, overall, it’s not ugly at all. The interior works well too, what with its clear dials and E-z-2-use buttons. I would describe it as un-annoying, and mean that as a compliment.

Your modern rental-spec Camry comes with the 2.5-litre four that makes some horsepower and sounds wretched above 3500rpm. Fortunatel­y, it’s library quiet at lower revs and the eight-speed auto is determined to keep it there while changing gear so cleanly you begin to wonder if it has gears at all. There’s also a Sport button, the pressing of which causes a significan­t change in whether or not the letter S displays within the instrument­s. The paddles behind the wheel deliver an equally low-key effect, to the extent that, while steadily driving in a straight line, I decided to see how many gears I could change before feeling any difference. It was about five. It’s therefore best if you let the car take care of itself.

You might wonder how the Camry handles, and here I can say with confidence: I don’t know. There are no twisting ribbons of B-road within the grid pattern streets of greater Phoenix but I can tell you that when it comes to turning off one long, straight road into another long, straight road it’s deeply fine.

In other words, the Camry is brilliant. I’m not joking. It has a job to do, and that job is to be the transit system for millions of Americans, all of whom rely on the car as the only way to get around. You drive to work, to the supermarke­t, to the movies, to your kids’ soccer practice, to the bowling alley, to the golf-a-rama, to the store again because you forgot to buy mustard. You’re in your car a lot. And in these circumstan­ces a 911 GT3 or Civic Type R might become irritating. You need a car, but less so. Conversely, a 1989 Lada Samara wouldn’t be enough. You need something that’s excellent at being unobtrusiv­e without being crap, and can arrive on your drive, box fresh, for $380 a month. That’s the Camry. It doesn’t ride with the buttery suppleness of a Phantom but it’s plenty comfortabl­e enough for the job in hand, neither good nor bad. And that’s a hard trick to pull off across pretty much the whole damn car. It would be easy to sneer at its like-driving-but-less-so ethic, but for plenty of punters in the US that’s what’s needed.

Here at evo we worry about the turn-in and tip-in. The columnists either side of me sometimes can’t sleep for worrying about tread shuffle. But for many people that’s not a problem. And in that context you can see why the Camry is popular. It does the job so well, and yet asks so little, it frees your mind from having to worry about it. Goes, stops, great a/c, unlikely to break down. Which means you can carry on with your life. Think about your kids’ education, think about your health, think about your job, think about the economy, the ballgame, the future. But don’t think about your car. Because your car is a Camry. This is the world it serves. And it’s damn good at it.

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