When in Baltimore, do as the Baltimorons rent a Camry
We stumble into the BWI car rental center at 1:30 AM. All the counters are closed; not a soul in sight. I call the Alamo 800 number: “go walk out into the parking garage, someone’s there”. “What are you looking for?” asks the droll lot attendant. “A comfortable bed, actually”. “Well, the nearest car is a Camry; might as well take that”. Good call.
I left the Baltimore area in 1971. When I used to come back to visit in the nineteen eighties from California, I was always amazed at how everyone seemed to still drive big domestic sedans, which were practically extinct in the Golden State by then. Of course its been in the making for some time, and it obviously reflects my West-coast centric perspective, but it still strikes me as somewhat astonishing to see endless Camrys having replaced the big Chevys, Olds and Fords in the driveways of infinitely identical Colonial-style houses hereabouts.
But loading the whole family’s luggage in the vast trunk, and heading up the Beltway at 2 AM with tired travelers sprawled comfortably in the enormous back seat, the Camry’s tomb-quiet and plush-riding role in life is perfectly revealed: it’s the 1970 Chevrolet Impala, the best and most popular car of its time, reincarnated and updated. And if the new Hyundai Sonata wants to compete for this title, its trunk and rear seat leave it handicapped at the gate.
Evolution results in the same forms manifesting themselves, if the conditions are similar. That’s why Australians drive big Holdens; or they did, until the Camry took hold over there too. The Camry is supremely adapted to the typical American way of living and driving, which just happens to not by mine, unless I’m in Baltimore. Then it all comes back, in a silent rush, until it’s disturbed by flashing lights. Damn; the serenely still Camry has lulled me to well over seventy in the fifty-five marked Beltway. And Maryland has always had a rep for stiff enforcement.
But its not the invisible Toyota they’re after; soon a whole flotilla of lit-up cop cars are zipping by, heading for much bigger fish to fry. Baltimore: one minute you’re on the potholed set of The Wire; the next you’re gliding past blooming Dogwoods in Stepford. The Camry is equally at home in both: its supple suspension swallows the ancient cobblestones in Fells Point as effortlessly as the mussels at Berthas slide down our gullets.
The 169 hp 2.5 liter four’s muted growl on brisk acceleration is the only deviation from Bertha’s melted butter sauce smoothness. Since for its intended role, it’s faster (0-60 in 8.4 seconds) than heavily-patrolled Marylanders are likely to ever know or care, the growl will be rarely heard.
The six-speed automatic that appeared last year along with the new four are practically siamese twins, always seeming to know what the other is about to do. It’s almost impossible to trip them up, which is saying something these days. It’s as smooth and better than most of the competition as the Impala’s 350 V8/THM350 combo was in its day. And it’s at least as fast, as well as about twice as fuel efficient. Baltimore likes a helping dash of progress with its traditions.
The Camry’s simple and logical controls are your best friends at 2 AM when you don’t want to even waste a second before heading off in search of a real bed. Simple, intuitive; the radio even has two big knobs on either side and six preset buttons, again, just like yore. But where is the alarm clock? Do Camrys have a wake up call feature? And the climate controls are equally jet-lag proof. The Camry makes you feel like you’re in your hotel room before you’ve even gotten there.
The interior material quality isn’t going to leave rich memories, especially the subtle but noticeable difference in hue between certain grained plastic pieces whose job it is to create the impression of an unbroken vista. But the gaps and fit were all up to snuff, and the overall effort gets a passing grade, especially compared to our last rental, a Charger.
Since I assumed the steering was electric, I was pleasantly surprised, especially compared to the Corolla’s strange and unnatural feedback sensations. Looking at the specs, it appears that its not electric: do I get to change my mind? For a hydraulic unit, the overused word Novocaine is still the best. Did I think to lift the hood and check? Does anyone ever lift the hood of a Camry?
My brother’s six-year old Camry with 140k perfectly trouble-free miles joins its brand new stablemate at the curb in front of my parents house. Sometimes we ride his, sometimes in my rental. Is there a discernible difference? Hardly. Camry evolution has slowed down, as it’s reached a seeming plateau of development. But then there are times I almost can’t tell a new brick colonial from an old one. The Camry has become highly traditional. And it wears like a brick.
The neutral and soothing qualities of a Camry make it the perfect choice for a family reunion: everyone should be obligated to show up in one. No bragging or proving your eccentricity. No fighting about whose car to take or ride in. The Camry is the great equalizer, and it’s become the equivalent of the Golf in Germany: the classless car. Of course, in English, that expression takes on new meaning.
Travel, reunions, hotels and rental cars have their place. The Camry is the Marriott of cars; quiet, comfortable, easy to use, and soothing after a long and full day intense sensory inputs. The difference between a brand new 2011 and a well used 2005 is like whether your particular Marriot room was last renovated in ‘o5 or this year. The bed is comfortable either way, and once you shut your eyes, you can’t tell the difference. And as pleasant and comfortable it may be, you’ll always be glad to be back in your own bed, familiar lumps and all.