“When the mind houses two personalities, there’s always a conflict. A battle.”
So says the psychiatrist in the third-last scene of PsychoÂ in an attempt to explain the curious behaviour of an odd motel proprietor. It’s an age-old internal conflict depicted time and again in novels and film â€” Norman and Mother,Â Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,Â Golyadkin Sr. andÂ Golyadkin Jr. in Dostoevsky’s The Double, that Black Swan girlÂ â€” and it’s perfectly embodied by the sportier of the “green” Toyota Camrys.
In SE Hybrid guise, America’s best-selling midsize sedan tries to be two things. At its core, it’s a competent, mature sedan, endowed with all the attributes needed to make it a first pick among car buyers. But it’s also conflicted, pressured to be something it’s not.
If these past stories tell us anything, it’s that the dominant personality always wins.
The Camry SE Hybrid dons the clothing of the standard Camry SE, and it’s not a wardrobe that dazzled me during the model’s launch. Instead of the wide, uninterrupted whale’s mouth grille seen on non-SE Camrys, this trim delivers a front fascia that’s the dictionary definition of complex. Busy, festooned with plastics of contrasting colors, meshes of different patterns. Gaping faux air intakes gulp nothing, but look sporty doing it.
Since its debut (where Toyota seemed to love showing the SE off in unfortunate white paint), I’ve called it the Scream mask grille. Take my word for it â€” the darker the paint, the better.
The SE Hybrid’s grille, like that of the SE and XSE, is part of a makeover that includes a rear lip spoiler, side sills (for that lowered look), attractive 18-inch wheels, and egregious phoney vents cut into the rear bumper. Poke your finger in there and you’ll find a flimsy piece of gray plastic that feels like it could come loose any day. That superficial sportiness carries over to the lower bumper, where twin exhaust tips emerge from the agressively molded plastic â€” but only on one side.
But inside? Inside, this Camry is exactly what you’d expect of a Camry. Only the existence of discrete paddle shifters and a “sport” button to the rear of the shift lever gives any pretense of athleticism or scrappiness, and it’s not like you can’t find those features in any number of family sedans. It’s simply a comfortable place to spend a great deal of time. Larger Toyotas always seem to get the front seats just right, and this car didn’t fail that tradition. Hell, I’d wear pants made of SofTex if I could.
While the cabin of this tester does its best to look mildly upscale, adorning the dash with textured metal trim shining from a sea of soft-touch black, look closelyÂ â€” especially at the lower door panelsÂ â€” and you’ll spot evidence of “affordability.” Outside, I noticed a rough gap with missing paint between the rocker and rear passenger-side wheel arch. If such factory imperfections existed on my (descended from Heaven) ’94 model, I never noticed.
Where the Camry SE Hybrid’s internal battle becomes clear is behind the wheel. While snugly nestled in the tester’s vastly comfortable driver’s chair, any attempt at sporty driving quickly falls victim to the car’s inherent persona â€” a sedate, mild-mannered nature that attempts to lull an aggressive driver into calm tranquility at literally every turn. This is a Camry first, a hybrid second, and nothing else third.
Sure, you can switch into sport mode, call up those phoney gear ratios on the continuously variable automatic and downshift to your heart’s content heading into a tight turn, but this Camry only grudgingly obliges. Are you sure you want to do that?Â it asks. Fine, if you must. Without a traditional tach staring you in the face and with just 208 combined horsepower (and 163 lb-ft of torque) from the 2.5-liter four-cylinder/electric motor combo doing the pulling, there’s little point in trying to hustle. It gets around just fine, but quick launches under heavy throttle meet with lag from the CVT. Passing power is adequate; it’s better when “sport” mode inflates the revs, but you’ll have to fumble for that button first. The steering is nicely weighted but somewhat lacking in feedback. Navigating the infotainment system? A straightforward affair.
Never is there much drama, which is a Camry strong suit.
And it’s a hybrid, for God’s sake, so why would you want drama? Next to that sport button are others labelled “Normal,” “Eco,” and “EV mode” (the latter of which is pointless). Get the V6-powered XSE if a ballsier Camry fills your dreams. No, this one is for flashy looks and sedate â€” yet confident â€” motoring.
On the generously frost-heaved and broken asphalt surrounding this northern burg, the SE Hybrid’s suspension is exactly how you’d want it. While only slightly on the stiffer side around town, the car’s legs flexed athletically while traversing the rough stuff at speed, never bottoming out or bouncing the Camry onto the shoulder, but not shaking loose any fillings, either. However, get too exuberant, and this so-called sport edition quickly implores you to put a stop to all this nonsense, young man. Again, it’s a Camry. Effortless driving and excellent ride quality rule the day, but if you’re looking for sport DNA, the turbos and stick shifts are over that backwards-hatted Honda crowd.
It’s too bad the below-seasonal March temps and soft snow tires kiboshed a perfect-conditions test of this hybrid’s green potential. It took a pretty feathery right foot to keep the car in all-electric mode during gentle acceleration, and a week of mixed, fairly placid driving (the car’s default mode) returned a combined 36.8 miles per gallon. The EPA rates this model at 46 mpg combined. In contrast, a V6-powered Toyota Highlander Hybrid I drove last summer returned 35 mpg combined.
Should a buyer choose looks over Mother Earth, the basic SE â€” rated at 32 mpg combined â€” keeps an extra $4,300 (USD) in the buyer’s bank account, but don’t expect the same level of content. Toyota knows it takes more than ecological sensitivity to lure buyers up the price ladder, and value remains a time-honored motivator. So, the Camry’s hybrid line packs on the optional features available in lower-rung trims.
For the mid-pack SE Hybrid, this means standard dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, full-speed adaptive cruise, smart key entry and push-button ignition, and electronic parking brake. Take note that Canucks don’t see the same differences as their American counterparts. Up here, Camry SE buyers make do with 17-inch wheels, so going green really does improve the car’s looks. The Canadian SE Hybrid brings the features enjoyed by U.S. buyers (via a $2,900 convenience package) and adds upgraded Entune audio, an 8-inch touchscreen, and a moonroof for good measure.
As one of the most diverse sedan models in the business, there’s little mystery why this perennial frontrunner remains at the head of the midsize pack. Toyota hasn’t forgotten what works. If buyers truly cared about driving dynamics and unassailably sexy sheetmetal above all else, you’d see a hell of a lot more Mazda 6s on the road.
For Toyota, it’s a good thing the dominant personality wins.
[Images:Â Â©2018 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]