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Toyota’s old favourite comes home

Wednesday, 21st November, 2018 3:53pm

I can remember it as if it really were just yesterday. In fact, it was more than 15 years ago, and I was testing one of the last such versions of this venerable car to be imported into Ireland.

It was big, it was red, it was hugely comfortable, and there was I, sat behind the wheel, unable to understand why I had a completely clear outside lane of one of Ireland’s busiest motorways right in front of me.

All the rest of the traffic was stacked neatly in the inside lane, all travelling at a rigorous 119km/h. What’s going on, I wondered? Has someone spotted a speed trap van? And then I looked down and around at the car in which I was sat. A Toyota Camry.

And I was wearing a light blue shirt. It’s me. I’m the garda. Or at least, everyone else thinks I am. It was at that moment that I knew I’d love the Camry forever.

Not that I had long. Barely 24 months after that drive, the Camry was in Irish terms no more. With its high price tag and petrol-only lineup, the Camry was considered passé in a market that was looking for smaller, more efficient, and usually diesel-engined cars. So, the favourite wheels of the Garda Traffic Corps bowed out, and left Irish shores.

And find success it did. In fact, Toyota claims that the Carmy is the best-selling four-door saloon car in the world.

And so, to my great delight, it’s coming back to Ireland in 2019. Still a stolid and solid four-door in a world of SUVs, but this time around it’s packing a hybrid powertrain, so it’ll be much more relevant to 21st century motoring needs than the 2.4 litre petrol of old.

The first Euro-spec Camrys won’t arrive here for another month or two, but Toyota Ireland has announced that its prices will start at €39,750 and that there will be only one engine option. It’s the same 2.5 litre petrol hybrid that you’ll find in Lexus’ equally new ES executive saloon, and it develops a pretty healthy 218hp, with CO2 emissions down around the 100g/km mark.

I hopped a flight to San Francisco to take a sneak-peek test drive. It bears saying that the US-spec Camry will be slightly different to the European and Irish ones, but the broad strokes of the car will be similar enough to give us a good idea of what to expect.

The first thing you notice about the new Camry Hybrid is that it’s rather more striking to look at than the last generation that was sold here. In fact, it’s more striking-looking than the regular, normal Camry saloon (which won’t be coming here) mostly thanks to the big grille that juts out of the lower bumper.

The rest of the styling is typically Camry — clean and simple, but certainly not without appeal. Step inside and you’ll find a cabin that’s full of familiar Toyota bits and pieces - the steering wheel, the touchscreen, many of the buttons and switches and so on. You’ll also find a lot of Lexus in here too, though, helped no doubt by the Camry’s close relationship to the ES.

The front seats in particular are hugely comfortable and supportive, and quite luxurious when wrapped in the leather trim of our high-spec test car. The half-digital instruments look good, and the infotainment system is simple and easy to use, even if it lacks such niceties as Apple CarPlay.

Space is good in the front and back, but a little less so in the boot, where the Camry’s 475 litres gets conclusively taken to the cleaners by the likes of the Skoda Superb.

That’s in part because, of course, the batteries for the hybrid system have to live under the boot. So, it’s a trade-off.

Do you go for the Camry’s low tax rating and future-proofed powertrain, and accept a little less luggage space? Or the Skoda’s conventional diesel power and huge boot.

Actually, the Camry’s hybrid power makes a pretty strong case for itself, especially in refinement terms.

The big four-door just swishes along, switching with surprising frequency to pure-electric running, even when you’re cruising on the highway. In the snarled, tangled downtown San Francisco traffic, struggling through to the bottleneck that is the Golden Gate Bridge, the Camry was in its element, spending long periods with the engine powered down, while all around were burning needless hyrdrocarbons.

It’s not at a loss when the road opens out, either. As with all hybrids, the engine holds on to high rpm for a while when you accelerate, but there’s enough torque in the system that it never takes too long to build up to your desired speed, so the effect is less intrusive than once it was.

The Camry handles quite tidily too. It’s no sports car, that’s for sure, but sharing a basic chassis with the likes of the C-HR and the new Corolla means that its steering is more responsive and accurate than you might expect, and there’s a solid, dependable feeling to the way it corners. Exciting? Not especially, but certainly satisfying.

We’ll have to wait another little while to see how the Camry tackles Irish roads, and to see if motorists’ memories are long enough for it to still clear the outside lane like it used to, but one thing is certain — the Camry’s coming back, and it’s good to see it coming home.

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