In the process of testing the 2019 Toyota Camry Hybrid, the car actually managed to hurt me, a little bit. I’m not talking about the existential soul-bruising kick that every painfully rational and practical and boring car like the Camry gives you, this is an actual, physical bit of pain, imparted by the car to me when I operated one of its controls.
You know how, on many modern cars, if you open one side window at speed you get an annoying thrum thrum thrum wind sound? Car engineers call that “side window buffeting” and it’s technically known as “Hemholtz resonance.”
I did a whole explainer about this phenomenon a few years back:
“Air passing over an opening forms tiny tornadoes as it moves past the front edge of that opening. When those tornadoes, or vortices, reach the opening’s back edge, they make a wave of pressure that pushes air into and out of the car. Since sound is nothing more than waves of pressure, this makes noise. If you’re driving slowly the effect’s not too bad, but if you drive fast enough, you reach a resonant point. Imagine I stand by your open car window and use my science powers to push on the air inside the car, compressing it a bit. The car air then springs back out, then back in, then back out, then back in... That’s what happens when you drive fast enough. The vortices keep pressing on the air in your car just at the right time to make big pressure waves that we can feel and hear.”
It’s annoying, and we notice it more with newer cars than older ones because aerodynamics have improved so much that it dramatically magnifies the effect.
Well, this latest Camry must have absolutely fantastic aerodynamics, because it also has the worst case of side window buffeting I’ve ever encountered. In a run on the highway at about 70 or so mph, I tried lowering the side windows and holy crap, was it bad.
The whole car shook; you could feel the wind buffeting pulses in the motion of the seats. It was like the whole car was being shaken by a giant, invisible, windy hand of Zephyr.
The worst part was the pressure change in the car really messes with your eardrums—it actually hurt, like flying on an airplane with a bad head cold. Here, I documented the experience on video, so you could be a part of the magic with me:
I should remind everyone that, overall, the Camry Hybrid is just fine. It’s capable and does its job well and gets near 40 mpg and has decent seats and isn’t going to offend anyone. I’m also pretty sure most people who buy Camrys are going to use the a/c on hot days and never even consider the madness of opening a window while driving more than, say, 20 mph.
But, let’s be clear here: this sucks. I’m sort of surprised this level of wind buffeting was determined to be just fine by Toyota’s Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH) test teams, because it’s every one of those noisy, vibrating, and harsh things.
I know how important good aero is to modern cars, especially ones as focused on efficiency as the Camry Hybrid. I get it. But that doesn’t mean I have to like a car that effectively beats you into submission if you want to drive with some windows down, because I don’t.
Sometimes I want to drive with the windows down and engaging with the air of the world around me, but I don’t want to pay for that privilege with pain in my inner ear.
I guess this is just one of the little prices we pay for progress.