There’s a reason our national GDP spiked in September: My kids went back to school. We went from driving nowhere every day to driving a gazillion miles every day to school and soccer and volleyball and cheerleading and the movies with new friends and the mall to buy sneakers and the pizzeria for dinner because we’re too exhausted from being in the car all day to cook.
Phew. This is why what I drive matters so much. I need someone to take care of ME while I’m taking care of my kids, and that someone is my car.
Wish List: A Car Designed For The Way I Use It
What I really need is a got-your-back car: one that is economical, reliable and comfortable. I need lots of places for stuff like keys and phones, a convenient place for my purse, places to put both water bottles and my Starbucks cup, USB ports so I can charge my phone and connect it to the car at the same time, enough trunk space for luggage or backpacks or sports gear. I would like great technology–navigation, connected phone, hands free voice commands, a radio that is easy to operate and safety features like blind zone detectors and a rear view camera. I would LOVE great gas mileage so the car costs me less to operate and I don’t have to spend extra time going to the gas station. And I don’t want to spend time at the dealer getting my car fixed: it needs to be really reliable. Oh, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money.
Like It Was Built Just For Me
I recently spent a week driving the Toyota Camry Hybrid and I got my wish(es). The people behind the design of the Camry thought about how I would use it, who would be in the car with me, and what nice little things they could add that would make me happy. Like the water bottle holders in the door panels, the microsuede seats (yes, and yum—more on these later) and the sweet-voiced lady who guided me through all the voice command options.
Then, they thought about how to make the media technology really easy: my phone was able to sync really quickly and very easily. And they got rid of the mechanical-feeling voice activation prompts with a very natural sounding lady who made setting a destination for navigation or making a phone call a pleasant experience.
And they thought about not stopping for gas every other day; the hybrid engine system allowed me to drive all week on a single tank; the driver feedback system calculated my mileage at 36.4 MPG.
It’s worth noting that my fuel mileage didn’t reach the estimated 40 MPG the car is supposed to get.That’s because the car has only 3,000 miles on it so far; as its mileage increases so will its fuel efficiency. Here is some insight on why hybrids take a while to build up their efficiency.
A Car That Makes You Smarter? Why, Yes!
Then, they thought about how they can make me a smarter and even more economical driver: they gave me a lot of information. The Camry’s driver information display—right in the center of the speedometer—lets you toggle through a menu of options; you can see your current gas mileage, when energy is being fed into the battery, when the car is under battery power and when it’s under gas power and you can see how many miles are left on your tank. To the right of the speedometer is an MPG meter that shows you your average and current usage so you can learn to lighten your touch on the accelerator and improve your mileage performance.
A Flat Floor Makes For A Happy Handbag
When I first looked at the Camry I had a ‘rental car eeew’ moment: Cloth seats. I was expecting a really great experience, but how could I focus on all the car’s great features if I was sitting on cloth seats? Oh well, I thought, and got into the car.
And to my delight, what looked like cloth seats were really microsuede. Yes, please: That lovely enviro-friendly material that is water resistant, that allows smushed grapes and Goldfish crumbs to be easily swept away, that spilled coffee just rolls off of, is what, between supple panels of leather, covers the seats of the Camry.
Some other nice touches included the leather covered dash board, the leather steering wheel and a flat rear floor: It’s a great place for a handbag, and where mine lived all week, just behind the center console and not under anyone’s feet; I could reach in for my lipstick and easily grab it when getting out of the car and put it back when I returned. Thank you Toyota for getting rid of the rear floor hump.
Part of the charm of this car is that it’s a hybrid and a sedan—the best of both worlds. While some hybrid owners really like the distinct look and feel of a hybrid, others prefer the more sublime feel of a sedan. Fadra Nally is one of those. She discovered this last year when she nearly bought a Prius and ended up with a Camry. You can read her story here and here.
The Car Key: A Special Sort of Challenge In A Hybrid
Men can be really funny. More than once in the eight years we’ve had a hybrid, my husband has parked the car, gotten out and closed the door. Leaving the car running. It’s so quiet, he forgot to turn it off (once was in a hotel parking lot. We were really lucky no one decided to drive off in our car!).
The Camry I test drove came with a keyless entry and push button start, adding a layer of complication to this issue. Keyless starters take some getting used to, partly because your key is not parked in the ignition when your’e driving so you have to keep track of it, and partly because Toyota’s engineers have come up with all sorts of safety defaults to keep the battery from draining when doors are left open or lights are left on.
There are beepers that let you know anytime the systems have been left on and the battery is in danger of being drained. But really confounding was knowing whether or not the car was on or off. There’s a ‘Ready’ light that signals that the car is ready to drive, and that’s your main clue that the car is on. But when the car senses the key—in your pocket, your purse or in your hand—the dashboard lights up. So even when you’ve put the car in park and pushed the button to turn the car off, it still seems as if it’s on; it’s silent, so you can’t hear that it’s shut off. So more than once I thought I hadn’t shut it off and turned it back on, only to try to lock the doors and was unable; it’s the safety default at work. This, too, takes some getting used to, but in the end, having the car be reliably ready to start when you need it is a good thing.
What We Loved:
Built in Georgetown, KY
Uses regular gas
$27,000 base price; $35,000 for the model we drove
The nice lady who provides voice activation prompts
Super easy phone sync
Easy to use connected phone, media and Bluetooth
Easy to read driver info feedback systems
Ultra low emissions
Hybrid engine reduces fuel costs $4,850 over 5 years
What You Need to Know
Two power outlets and one USB port
Safety package (blind spot monitors) and rear view camera add $1,200 to the price
Hard interior surfaces amplify road noise
Moderate 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space (about 2 cubic feet less than the non-hybrid Camry)
Hybrid option adds about $2,000 to the price
Disclosure: Toyota provided the Camry for my test drive; opinions expressed here are all my own.