An Afternoon Driving 2015 Toyota Cars…

toyota motors logoToyota kindly invited me to a test drive event featuring its 2015 cars, for which they rented space at the beautiful Coors Field baseball park.

Separately, I’ve shared some photos from the behind-the-scenes tour of Coors Field, but I also want to write about the cars themselves. I have driven almost exclusively Toyota cars since I was an undergrad, including a Prius, a Tercel, a Supra convertible, a Sienna and my current car, a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. They’ve all been incredibly reliable and rugged and I’ve never had a major problem with any of them. Now I’ve owned other cars along the way too, notably a few Volvos and a Chrysler Town & Country minivan, but the three ovals of the Toyota logo has been on just about every one of the cars I’ve enjoyed owning.

And a random factoid: The logo is a vertically symmetric interlocking set of ovals. According to the company, the inner ovals symbolize the heart of the customer and the heart of the company, overlapping to represent a mutually beneficial relationship and trust between the two, as well as forming a ‘T’ shape for Toyota. The outer oval one signifies the world embracing Toyota. Each oval is drawn with different stroke thicknesses, pointing to Japanese calligraphy art and culture and the space in the background is meant to exhibit the ‘infinite values’ for which Toyota stands. These values are: superb quality, value beyond expectation, the joy of driving, innovation, and integrity in safety, the environment and social responsibility. Got it?

Rather than have the entire vehicle line, the Denver event was focused on three cars in the 2015 Toyota lineup: The budget-minded Yaris, the incredibly popular Camry sedan, and the family-friendly Sienna minivan. Since I used to own a Sienna and, well, it’s a minivan, I basically ignored that and took both the Yaris and two different models of Camry out for test drives: the Camry SE and the Camry SE Hybrid.

Let me share some pictures and I’ll talk about each one.

First, the disclaimer, as was displayed in each of the cars I test drove:

warning: this is a pre-production prototype vehicle and the design, fit and finish are subject to change

Don’t often see those on cars I drive, I have to admit. But I like it.

In fact, you can buy these cars at the local dealership, so I don’t think this disclaimer was because they were going to move the steering wheel onto the other side of the dashboard or replace the radio with a microwave oven or anything else dramatic. Still, just in case something catches your eye, you’ve now been warned.

Toyota marketing director David Lee gave us a quick walk around of each vehicle, here standing in front of the Camry SE that I’d later drive:

david lee, marketing team, toyota motors usa, in front of 2015 camry se

One of the things we learned is that the front grill tells you the model style: The “angry grill” (like this one) is for the sports edition, and the calmer grill with vertical bars is for the LE edition. And the Toyota logo on the front? If it has a blue inset it’s because it’s a hybrid version of the vehicle.

Turns out that the Toyota Camry is the best selling car in the world and has been for 12 years now. They sold over 400,000 units last year in the United States alone, all made at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (Georgetown Kentucky) assembly plant which is also apparently the largest car factory in the world. I really want to go, actually, and especially bring my children along. If you’ve never seen something big like a car made on an assembly line, it’s quite astonishing.

Still, for a company that has sold over 7 million hybrid cars, I was a bit taken aback by the mileage indicated by the dash computer on the Camry SE, as shown:

2015 toyota camry se mileage

The best mileage the car had seen was 27.9mpg. My Highlander Hybrid gets better mileage in real world driving conditions and it’s probably twice the weight, so I was really surprised. 27.9 isn’t bad, but 35, 38, 41 would be a lot better. As you’ll see in a bit, the Camry SE Hybrid blows this out of the water, fortunately.

The other thing that struck me when I got behind the wheel of the 2015 Toyota Camry SE is how complicated everything is. Even the steering wheel:

camry se steering wheel

If you count, that’s 17 buttons split under your thumbs, with another set of controls on various stems coming off the steering column.

The question becomes “when is a car too complex?” and while I’m confident that the Toyota design team is following industry trends, I wonder if it isn’t the case that one reason we have more distracted driver accidents is simply because our vehicles have become so much more complicated. What do you think?

Finally, I was given the keys and an invitation to drive around and enjoy the Camry. So I did, stopping on an urban street for a quick photo:

2015 Toyota Camry SE, City Street, Denver CO

The Camry SE handled very nicely, it’s a very comfortable car and the starting price on the 2015 SE model is only $23,840, which felt quite reasonable given the luxurious feel of the interior, quality of the finish and sleek exterior lines. It’s come a long way since the very first boxy Camry was introduced to the US market!

I then took advantage of the chance to drive the Yaris, an entry level car that could just as easily be part of the Scion brand line from Toyota. I’m always curious about really inexpensive vehicles because I have one child who’s driving, another who is less than a year away from driving, and a third who will be ready for her fancy convertible just a few years later. For under $15,000 what can you get?

Turns out the 2015 Toyota Yaris is quite impressive. It’s not an Audi A8 or top of the line Lexus LS by any means, but with a starting price of $14,845 it’s surprisingly sleek and well designed by the Toyota team in France. It’s based on the Toyota Aygo for sale in the EU (or possibly vice-versa, I’m not sure).

Here’s my Yaris candid, in front of a great mural on the wall of a local community center near downtown Denver:

toyota yaris in front of mural, denver co

What most impressed me was the myriad of safety features on the car, including 9 airbags and just about every safety technology Toyota could squeeze into the little vehicle, including Vehicle Stability Control 15, Traction Control, Anti-Lock Brake System, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist 16 and Smart Stop Technology. All in an entry level car that, if you could drop $1000 as a down payment, would run you about $300/mo, well within reach of many first-time buyers.

The Yaris has a tightly designed control panel that definitely seems inspired by racing cars:

2015 toyota yaris control dials dashboard

I found the driving performance of the Yaris to be surprisingly similar to the Camry SE, and both had a hiccup on aggressive acceleration from 0-50 at about 25mph where they seemed to be switching gears too early. This would be an issue you’d have to learn to compensate for when merging onto a busy but fast moving highway, for example. For just driving around in the city, however, the Yaris was peppy and responsive and was definitely a car I could enjoy, especially with its standard 37mpg (without the surcharge of hybrid technology).

The best car I test drove, hands down, was the 2015 Camry SE Hybrid. That’s a honey of a car, for sure, and the 0-50 acceleration is smooth, powerful and a delight. In fact, hybrids have a different torque ratio (or something like that) and all modern hybrid cars are really smooth in their acceleration. My 2008 Highlander Hybrid has the same great performance that is guaranteed to surprise drivers who think hybrids are somehow underpowered when compared to more traditional gas vehicles. It really isn’t. It’s really quite fast off a stop!

And that gas mileage on the Camry SE. Very nice:

2015 toyota camry se hybrid gas mileage efficiency

55.2mpg and great performance and comfort? That’s a no brainer.

What’s even better is that the surcharge for the hybrid engine is far lower than it was when I bought my Highlander Hybrid. Back then it was about $10k more to get the “hybrid synergy drive”. Today, Toyota assured me that it was around $3000 to get the hybrid, something that’s far easier to amortize over the lifetime of your vehicle. In fact, the 2015 Camry SE Hybrid starts at $26,790.

And the tech. All the cars have really amazing controls and tech interfaces. Even the entry-level Yaris has a USB plug and AUX input, and the Camry features wireless charging so if your cellphone has the right circuitry or add-on case, you can just lay it on the right spot and it’ll charge without wires. How cool is that?

I’m not a huge car guy, I don’t know torque or bore ratios, and I can’t tell you what kind of suspension or the horsepower of any of the vehicles. Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure to drive other cars if nothing else than to remember what’s great — and not so great — about your own vehicle. I definitely enjoyed driving the Yaris more than I expected, and while the Camry SE was nice, it was the Camry SE Hybrid that was my favorite. That’s a beautiful car, very well appointed, with a great fit and finish, all the tech and gadgets you could ask for, terrific performance and great mileage too. If I were in the market…

Thanks to Toyota for inviting me to this event. I’m still a happy Toyota owner. 🙂

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