This past weekend, my friend and I took a 2018 Toyota Camry on a 1,700 mile road trip from Michigan to North Carolina to visit—and I know this may shock and surprise some of you—a Jeep junkyard. And while much of the trip was a complete disaster, and arguably pointless, I finally learned why the Camry is still the sedan king: because it’s multi-talented, and it just works.
(Full Disclosure: Toyota supplied the 2018 Camry for a few days with a full tank of gas.)
Ever since I realized my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle’s true beauty, I’ve been spoiling the giant AMC SUV with new parts. So when I spotted online what looked like a nice bumper and radiator in North Carolina, it was road-trip time. My chariot? This brown, huge grille-having V6 Camry:
My friend and I left Detroit at around five o’clock in the evening on Friday, which was way too late considering our destination—Pinetown, North Carolina—was 13.5 hours away. But alas, we prepared ourselves for a rough night of driving, got comfortable in the Camry’s nice leather seats, and enjoyed the pleasant ride quality as the Camry’s front MacPherson struts and rear multi-link independent suspension admirably smoothed out Michigan’s poorly maintain freeways.
Cruising on the highway in the Kentucky-built, $37,808 sedan was about as boring an automotive experience as exists on this Earth; everything was thoroughly fine. The ride quality was fine, the cabin was quiet and fine, the seats were comfortable enough and also fine, and the sound system’s audio quality was good—in a “fine” sort of way.
The interior was a nice place to spend time, the user interface was fairly intuitive, and things just worked well. There was plenty of forward visibility over the hood and around the A-pillars, and the heads-up display was perfectly legible but unobtrusive—featuring vehicle speed, RPM, the speed limit, the cruise control speed setting and also the distance setting for the adaptive cruise control (or the compass, when not using cruise control).
Speaking of adaptive cruise control, it worked well, maintaining an adjustable distance behind vehicles, and even bringing the Camry to a complete stop in traffic jams. The lane-keep assist also got the job done, torquing the steering wheel a bit to prevent the sedan from drifting out of the lane.
Our route from suburban Michigan took us through the lovely city of Toledo, then east on Interstate 80 through the tiny town of Elyria, Ohio (where we stopped for an “Oh Boy” burger), then diagonally southeast across Pennsylvania through the tourist-trap that is Breezewood, into Maryland, and then finally south into Virginia.
By the time my friend Brandon and I got to Fredricksburg, Virginia, we were both dead-tired, having spent over nine hours on the road after a busy workday. So—because we’re both cheap bastards—we drove to the nearest park on Google maps, found a quiet place hidden by trees, shut off the Camry’s 3.5-liter V6, and crashed.
As far as sleep-ability goes, the only other car that I’ve driven that scored as well as the Camry was the Cadillac ATS-V. But even without that car’s adjustable bolstering, the Camry was a solid sleeper, with leather seats that leaned far back and offered sufficient width for my small frame.
Bright and early the next morning, after about three hours of sleep, we washed up in the public restroom, and hammered down from the park in northern Virginia all the way to Pinetown, North Carolina, where we were met by a glorious junkyard filled with SJ-platform Jeeps, including this 1979 Jeep J10 Golden Eagle:
The junkyard, called Watson and Sons’ Jeep Salvage, had a nice southern charm to it, with chickens roaming freely under the car-casses and an old-school well whose pump had to be “primed” before producing nice, cold drinking water.
“Y’all can use my power tools,” the owner told me in a thick southern accent after apologizing that he was too busy helping another customer to yank the J10's front bumper for us. Brandon and I, who love to wrench anyway, accepted the equipment and got to work.
Unfortunately, bumper-extraction quickly became a disaster, as Brandon and I—already sweating in 100 degree heat as we laid under the truck trying to remove bumper bolts—were attacked by an irate bumble bee who almost certainly had a nest under the hood of the truck.
I asked Brandon to distract the insect so I could wrench on the truck’s bumper, but within a matter of seconds, my friend was sprinting out into the field like his life depended on it, with the bee giving chase. The bastard eventually stung Brandon, then turned its sights on me, and—despite my attempts to evade—shoved its stinger into my left shoulder.
Brandon and me running around in circles trying to escape the wrath of a bumble bee wasn’t a particularly great look around the burly men at the junkyard, and showing up in a 2019 Camry—the only non-truck there—probably didn’t help our street cred, either.
But I didn’t care, because the Camry got the job done, swallowing a giant 33-inch tire, a radiator, a front bumper, two coolant bottles and two wheel center caps—on top of my tools and our luggage—without any issue.
With the rear seats folded down via those two simple levers at the top of the trunk, there was even quite a bit of space left over:
After leaving the junkyard, Brandon and I turned the dual-zone climate control to its lowest temperature (the AC on the Camry cranks), drove to a barbecue joint, then spent the night at my coworker Jason’s house, where we removed the Camry’s battery to see if we could get the big hulking 440 cubic-inch V8 in Jason’s Dodge RV to fire up. (We could not.)
Removing the battery was easy, requiring a 10 millimeter socket for the battery cables and a 13 millimeter with extension for the battery hold-down bolt. Looking under the hood of the Camry, basic maintenance seems simple, with the oil dipstick front-and-center, the air filter held in by two simple clips that can be undone by hand, and coolant and washer fill tubes right there at the front passenger’s side of the car.
Getting to the rear spark plugs looks like a hell of a job, but that pretty much goes without saying on a front-drive V6, and to be honest, the average new-car shopper doesn’t give a crap.
Before my coworker and I began our journey back to Michigan, I filled up and calculated fuel economy for our mostly-highway drive to North Carolina: 32 MPG (I measured 33 MPG on two subsequent tanks). That’s not the 41 MPG that the less powerful L-trim four-cylinder Camry offers, but it does match up with Toyota’s 33 MPG highway claim for the V6.
The trip home took us through the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia and West Virginia, where I actually enjoyed the 3,549-pound Camry’s decent handling.
I didn’t throw the car into turns at ridiculous speeds (this is a public roadway, after all), but—especially after I got back to suburban Michigan—I drove the car into turns at speeds no sane Camry driver would attempt, and the machine remained unperturbed, though I found the throttle response to be a bit lacking out of the turns; I’d throw the pedal down, and—even in sport mode—I’d have to wait before the car got up and went.
But when the car does get up and go, it’s a bit absurd to your average layman, because the 301 horsepower direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 kicks the Camry in the pants. Yes, the Camry is quick. Damn quick.
Other car websites measure zero to 60 mph times for the V6 model at below six seconds, and I don’t doubt it, as shoving the pedal down (eventually) results in a pleasant engine sound and a rush of power that sent my brain-cage banging against my head-restraint. Wringing out the 301 horsepower V6 was actually fun, especially from a stop with traction control off and a window down to listen for the sweet, sweet sound of burning rubber.
Yes, you read that right. If you hammer on it, you can squeal tires and have genuine, USDA-approved, USPS-certified, FDIC-assured fun.
The drive back to Michigan was painless; my friend and I left Jason’s house a bit later than we’d hoped to (that RV just wouldn’t fire!), but we arrived at my house at about midnight, and I immediately got to bed, thinking to myself just how rock-solid the Camry was during our trip before I fell asleep.
Most of my complaints were minor. The eight-speed transmission was great, unless I gave the car the beans, in which case the vehicle didn’t move hard right away; a true sport mode that sharpens up response would be nice.
The front doors sounded cheap and kind of tinny when slammed hard. How much does this matter? I’m not sure, but it’s not good from a perceived quality standpoint. Speaking of which, there was a flimsy plastic cover between the sunroof and the sunroof visor that came loose on our car (a gentle shove put it back into position); I don’t know what its purpose is, but it’s about the cheapest-feeling plastic I’ve seen in a modern car.
Worryingly, the navigation often didn’t agree with Google Maps directions, which I consider gospel. And the backup camera was a a bit low-resolution for my tastes:
But otherwise, the Camry impressed me with its general competence. It’s solid at a lot of tasks. It’s comfortable enough to sleep in, fuel efficient enough to make my 1,700-mile trip (which was pointless, really, as I later found a better bumper close by, and the other things I bought in North Carolina I didn’t actually need) affordable, roomy enough to fit a full-size truck bumper and a huge tire, quick enough to force my noggin hard into my head restraint and my mouth into the shape of a U, agile enough to take at least some advantage of great Appalachian mountain roads, smooth enough to save my vertebrae from Michigan’s crappy roads, and most importantly—most of the features just seemed to be well thought out.
Individual components, subsystems and the overall system just worked, and you’ve got to respect that in a car.