Remember that one horrible yet unforgettable commercial for a Toyota Camry, where an excited mom described the handling of the car as “grounded to the ground?” The reason why they used that unintelligible take instead of using dialogue an actual human would say is because Toyota has made the same car for the last decade and they’ve clearly run out of ideas.
(Full disclosure: I rented a brand new Toyota Camry SE on my own dime and drove it around Florida and then compared it to my sister’s 2004 Camry LE with more than 170,000 miles on it.)
Let’s get one thing out of the way - the Toyota Camry is not, and never was, a bad car. The fact that it’s likely the butt of every automotive joke and punchline of every Buy This Incredibly Fun Car For The Price Of A Camry I’ve ever written doesn’t mean that it necessarily has any inherent or egregious faults - far from it.
If you want to engage in a reasonably-appointed drive to and from your nine-to-five job as Junior Assistant Manager, you buy a Toyota Camry. If you want to make sure your family gets to school in relative safety and comfort without having to sacrifice one of your screaming children as collateral, you buy a Toyota Camry. Most normal people situations require a normal people car, and for that, you buy a Toyota Camry.
Having said that, there is a very good reason why you shouldn’t drain your savings account during this year’s most joyous Toyotathon - every Camry made within the last 15 years is nearly indistinguishable from any other.
Here are a few of my experiences with the ubiquitous model.
If you’ve ever seen two Toyota Camrys parked next to each other in a public lot, you’d probably never assume that the owners knew each other. You’d probably never assume that they met on the Camry Owner’s Club Forum off topic section and are hashing out the details of their soon-approaching departure from a judgmental society. In fact, you’d probably have never noticed it, as Toyota Camrys aren’t bland so far as they follow the styling cues of every other car maker in existence. The car is a hide-in-plain-sight parking lot ninja and blends in to its surroundings better than a mad-at-the-world 13 year old at a Linkin Park concert, and that’s mainly due to the car’s milquetoast looks.
The polished sheen of the new Camry I rented had undoubtedly faded a tad, although quick spritzes with a hose and a minimum-wage dry job with a terry towel had rendered this sedan’s exterior condition good enough for the next passerby to man the helm. Its tapered halogen headlights adorned the front end, with a wide-mouth blacked-out grille that likely took cues from a person that was more mustache than man - something impossible to unsee, for sure.
Weird-looking as it may have been, it wasn’t out of place as nearly every mass market car manufacturer has its current models donning the surprised catfish look. Like JNCO jeans in the ‘90s, it’s a sign of the times and the new Camry is as much a follower of mainstream trends as any brand that’s a slave to its large, doesn’t-give-a-crap-about-cars customers.
Toyota’s long game of making millions of cars while offending absolutely fuck all is the only mantra they’re willing to entertain, all the while raking in cash against the likes of Honda, a company that can’t figure out why no one wants the fugly Accord Crosstour.
While the angly-edged new car represented a post-Twitter exercise in mediocrity, the 2004 Camry was a pre-YouTube, four-door case of Bud Light. The unchanging expression on the car’s monochromatic face was right in line for the derptastically happy looking cars of the time.
Sure, the newer Camry might have had more flair in certain places, but the flat slab doors with the addition of the no-frills quarter panels, roof line and rear end is exactly the aesthetic DNA carried over by every styled-by-focus-group Camry for the past decade and a half.
As I opened the door of the mostly clean rental Camry, a faint aroma emanated through the designed-by-committee cabin. It was unmistakably new car smell, tragically losing its grip to the now odorless sun-bathed plastics and glues holding the almost nice looking interior together. Fit and finish of the unapologetically plastic-y panels had a passable amount of detail, but just off-putting enough that you just knew it was the 304,572nd made in Toyota’s plant using the cheapest material allowable by their accountants’ complicated algorithms.
If one dove deep enough into the various nooks and crevices (of which there were many), they’d find casting flash in a manner befitting only the cheapest convenience store model plane kits. Do they still sell those? God, I’m old.
The feel of the steering wheel, gearshift, window controls and touchscreen were all things that had never left the realm of familiarity of you’ve driven a car in the last five presidential terms, much in the same way that the microwave at work doesn’t take any particular getting used to - just press the buttons you know and get on with it. You only have half an hour for lunch and that gas station burrito won’t nuke itself, now will it?
Sliding into the used Camry, I immediately noticed that other than the obvious human slime - er, patina on the touchable plastic bits, the two cars were ergonomically identical. If you approached both cars in the dark, carrying two White Castle crave cases and three 7-11 Big Gulps and set everything down in roughly the same positions, you’d be 300 feet from your house before you noticed that you’re driving the wrong car.
The used Camry had ample room for cell phone storage with three power ports, as did the brand new offering. The new car did have modern-ish amenities like Bluetooth audio and phone answering controlled by the steering wheel, but the older car had an aftermarket stereo auxiliary input that did pretty much the same thing if you connected it to an iPhone within arms’ reach, with the added benefit of a removable faceplate, allegedly to prevent coming back to a car with a smashed window and a chilly, disappointing drive home.
While there may have been a progression in styling from old to new, one can argue that whatever points are gained by the car looking fancy and new are lost because the older Camry’s battered-yet functional interface has character. The loose key cylinder that allows you to take out the key when the car is on? Character. The slightly misshapen airbag covering from countless days roasting in the sun? Character. The seats now holding the nectar of a thousand farts? You bet your flatulent ass that it’s character. While an old Camry will never mildly impress your neighbors when it drives up to your starter home, you’ll never give a brand new Camry a name.
Having said that, the only thing holding someone back from having an equally carefree experience with their new Camry is the passage of time. Mark my words, after a few hard daily driven years, the new’un will be just as pleased to wear its battle scars as any Craigslist beater worth its firm price.
Surely the driving experiences would’ve been different, with all the advances in modern motoring over the last decade, right? RIGHT?!
It should come as no surprise that save for a few worn bushing clunks on the older auto, both cars are equally bereft of automotive joie de vivre and are about as inspired as a collaboration between Michael Bay, Adam Sandler and Carlos Mencia, but you knew that already. In fact, you likely knew the answer to the articles titular question when it was first asked - but let’s throw qualitative standards out the window and focus on the cold hard numbers.
Toyota’s K platform has been the modular architecture for many of the brand’s iconic cars for much of the past two decades. What this essentially means is that the bones of your grandmother’s Camry LE with its headliner held up with thumbtacks and the car that your parents are pushing you to finance with your tax return are the same.
Putting that into the context of these two cars, between 2004 and 2016, the Camry grew about an inch and a half in wheelbase and an inch in width. While that’s a marked improvement for a man who would run to the phone after an Enzyte infomercial, it amounts to a less than one percent difference in overall size for a four door family car.
The base four cylinder engine grew from a paltry 2.4 liters of displacement to an Earth-moving 2.5 liters, and horsepower increased by more than one per year, from 157 to 178. However, during the same time period, the weight of the car also increased by 200 pounds, rendering the power to weight ratio, performance figures and real-world fuel consumption - you guessed it - exactly identical.
Both cars received better than average reviews from the hard-nosed publications that test cars for a living, and running costs, while not a one to one comparison because of the time elapsed since the release of both cars, wouldn’t be astronomically different, even if you factored in any initial warranty work.
So why then, would anyone buy a spankin’ new Toyota Camry when the exact same practicality, utility, and reliability can be had on the used car market for next to nothing? I think it’s the same reason why people willingly listen to the same chord progressions in pop music, eat the same ingredients in every Taco Bell creation, and buy a new Call of Duty every year - it’s shiny, safe, and above all else, familiar.