Texas®

I can’t fault Toyota for not building a good car. In fact: I can’t fault Toyota for much of anything since doing so would be somewhat hypocritical. I mean, for years folks like me; journalists, and the car buying public have consistently cried for better quality cars from both foreign and domestic manufacturers and Toyota has delivered a car that is as close to perfect as you can make.

The Camry Hybrid ups the anti into perfection with the addition of their innovative hybrid technology, which also bumps the fuel consumption numbers way up. The in-town ratings on the sedan are pretty damn fine at 31 mpg and 36 highway. Hybrids do a great job in stop-and-go traffic and the Camry is no different. It runs the entire electronic draw off of the electrical system as the gas motor seamlessly shuts down.

Toyota’s gas engine in the Camry is so well balanced and designed you have a difficult time hearing it run when you are standing next to the car, but in the full-electric, the Camry is stealthy silent. So much so that I couldn’t help but give into the temptation to sneak up on a valet attendant who then jumped clear out of his red vest when the nose of the mica-blue Toyota suddenly appeared next to him.

The only problem I have with the Camry is that other than the occasional fun from the run silent, run deep electronics, is how the car is just so utterly devoid of the slightest bit of passion. As Toyota honed in closer and closer to surgically sharp quality, they managed to not just rid away the flaws, but also managed to erode any kind of endearing quirk.

Toyota first introduced the Camry back in the mid 1980’s, around the same time I was starting out as an automotive journalist. It was a bold step for a company that didn’t exactly enjoy the same reputation for quality they have now earned. The Camry’s own history and the phenomenal success enjoyed by Toyota in North America really go hand-in-hand. It’s their flag ship in sales and in conquests.

That first, real stand-alone Camry introduced to the North American market around 1986 was a very good car, actually. And at the time, it was cheep, well-built and was very much like an economy 3 series BMW. It was a fun to drive and reliable, small sedan that grew in size, popularity and quality.

The Camry eventually became the best selling car in North America. It’s built here, designed here and has really become the definition of an American Sedan. It’s the “Everyman” actor in the suburban play; the one you don’t notice but is always there, regardless. It shows up, does its job without fanfare or drama and slips silently into the night, barely disturbing the world around it.

I have had issues in the past with Hybrid technology and the tendency to package it into oddly contrived, little cars that are just plain awkward – like Toyota’s Prius. By rolling the Hybrid into the more contemporary size, styling and footprint of the best selling car in the market, I find it far more acceptable. The $33,000.00 (as tested) Camry is very comparable to other non-electric options.

If you had the need to blend into middle America, or into that suburban world where even the neighbor down the street has never noticed you even check your mail box, the Camry is the car you would want. It’s good looking, but not beautiful. It’s roomy, efficient, and simple to operate and as anonymous as kahki pants and a blue polo shirt.

During the last 30 years of the Camry’s run to the top of the sales heap there has been so little drama about the car that last year’s over-hyped pedal entrapment non-event came as such a shock. It seemed the Camry might have a flaw, but in my mind, my first reaction was that the issue was far more likely the “Loose Nut Behind the Wheel.”

The Camry is so lacking in drama, most drivers are more likely to be surprised they actually have to drive for a moment. While driving around north Texas, I found myself forgetting I was driving a couple of times. Inputs are muted and the silent operation of both gas and electric lulls you into a semi-stupor.

Honestly I’m struggling with this article. I have nothing bad to say about this car. Other than its vanilla anonymity, it’s an exceptionally well built car. The reason I’m struggling is that even with the sedan sitting right out side my front door I am having a difficult time being inspired to write about it. I step away from the car and I forget it almost instantly.

It’s funny how things go. I really like Toyota’s truck offerings because they have found the right blend of function and fashion. I loved the FJ Cruiser because it is wonderfully flawed in just the right ways for me. The Camry is the automotive equivalent of wearing a belt and suspenders simultaneously. It’s the choice you make when you only look at a car from a perspective of logic, checking any emotion or any passion at the curb.

There is a lot to like about the Camry, but you never hear “like” songs on the radio. Love is where the passion lies and love songs are the tunes that get under your skin. The Beatles didn’t write “Silly Like Songs” or “Like Like Me Do,” but for me, the right song for this is Meatloaf’s “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.” I want it, I need it, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love it…

It is really difficult to find fault with the 2011 Toyota Avalon, actually almost impossible. As cars go, Toyota knows the traditional American sedan market and with the Avalon, they’ve exactly hit the nail on the head for that market. It is amazing how utterly perfect, quiet, seamless and well designed the Avalon is, and how remarkably forgettable it is as well.

Toyota earned its reputation as the highest quality constructor of all things automotive by producing cars like the Avalon for the last 20 years. It didn’t get to this point all at once but through generations of incremental improvement that has worked nearly bug and defect out of their cars.

They were one of the first Japanese based companies to fully embrace the concepts of incremental quality first put forward by American professor W. Edwards Deming. After presenting the American car makers with his theories and being soundly turned away by all of them Deming’s work inspired the entire nation of Japan to adopt and modify his theories, marry them with near religious mythology of the Samurai.

Other companies have used what became known as the Toyota Way to improve their product lines but nowhere did it become near religious zealotry as it did at Toyota. It became their mantra, and the concept of total quality became a lock step march forward. Unfortunately for Toyota it also manifested a blind spot where some of the executives began believing in their infallibility.

Last year’s fiasco regarding sticking gas pedals and other supposed safety issues really did serve up a wakeup klaxon for Toyota. They seemed to have become obsessed with being the world’s largest car company, rather than sticking with the tenets that had brought them so much success: Building high quality, low drama cars for the mid section of America.

The Avalon is just that, completely devoid of drama, as perfect as a mid-large sedan can be. It now occupies a place in Middle America, which was traditionally the land of Mercury and Buick. In driveways of empty nesters and mature buyers who seemed dedicated to Grand Marquis, Buick Century’s or Oldsmobile 88’s the Avalon started to creep its way into suburbia. GM took Olds off life support and Buick had a 15-year stretch where their product mix didn’t mix at all the Avalon started to reign as the no drama queen of the cul-de-sac.

The early adopters were one time Camry owners looking for a little more car but not willing to take the step to Toyota’s premium brand, Lexus. It is the car that people who don’t want to think about their cars line up to buy.

I am not saying that as a negative, but there are really two types of drivers out there, those who want to feel every bump, carve their way into and out of corners and think they are the long lost offspring of an unknown sprig of the Andretti family tree; or those who just want the thing to start and not cost them a fortune as their car gets them from point A to B.

While driving the Avalon on the highway it is a mileage master, soaking up blacktop like a ShamWoW, silently taking down exit ramps isolating the occupants from bumps, sounds and anything that might disturb the journey. It is so quiet I actually had a couple of times where I had to double check if I had actually turned on the ignition.

The level of quiet and lack of environmental inputs in the Avalon reminded me of those late 70’s “Sensory Deprivation Chambers” that became popular where you could float in high-salt body-temperature water completely cut off from everything to meditate or just be totally alone with your thoughts.

For some a car like this would be Zen-like ecstasy, for me the isolation is more likely to induce a nap or have me eventually snap like William Hurt’s Eddy Jessup character from the 1980 classic “Altered States”.

Coming in under $40,000, (as tested $37,884.00) and running EPA Estimated 20/29 MPG city/Highway with every bell and whistle in the book from heated, leather seating, Sat/Nav, back up camera and Bluetooth to name a few, I simply can’t fault the car for anything. It did everything I asked it to do and then some, but sitting down to write this I had a very difficult time picking out anything exceptional.

The pictures accompanying this article were taken in Howe Texas, just north of McKinney. While driving out there on highway and secondary road the Avalon proved its true strength as a distance driver, it would be an ideal choice for a long trip where you needed to know you were going to make it all the way without drama.

The midsized SUV market is kind of like the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears. Some are too big, some too small and others are just right.

The 4Runner is a nice throwback to the time when, in order to qualify to be called a SUV, you started with a truck frame and built a four-door wagon-like body on top. This means the 4runner has a slightly less lush ride than, oh say, a Lexus RX 470, car chassis, but with a nicely proportioned wheel base considerably more livable than a Jeep Wrangler, a true SUV.

I make this distinction for a reason, a car-based wagon does not have the ability to carry cargo, go off road or pull a trailer the way a properly framed truck can. It is really easy to understand how, lacking a foundation of a frame, the welded together bits flex too much and simply have less ability over all. The market has created SUV’s Crossovers, Sport Activity Vehicles and basically any variety of names and initials to hide the fact that they really are being used as tall station wagons.

The size of the 2011 4Runner has grown, mostly because of customer demands for third row seating and more head room. The last generation SR5 was, in my mind just about the perfect combination of utility, sport, and overall quality that has inspired me to try and purchase a used 4Runner on three separate occasions. The only problem was trying unsuccessfully to liberate them from their existing owners for a reasonable price.

The 4Runner has suffered a little from market demands where the Need/Want ratio means the core SUV buyer tries to use it as a minivan, drive it like a car, and pull like a truck. It is an interesting result as you see different ratio’s of car/truck/van coming out in multiple vehicles from the same brand. In Toyota’s case they have the Rav4, Highlander, Sequoia, 4Runner, FJ and Land Cruiser taking swipes at the ratio and Camry based Crossovers parsing the market even further.

The 4Runner name plate has been around since its introduction in 1984 when it became one of the first mass market Japanese SUVs alongside cross town rival Nissan’s Pathfinder and has earned a very loyal following. In its 5th generation first introduced in 2009 it has crept into the large part of the midsized market and have pushed total sales of all generation of 4Runner close to, if not exceeding 1 million units.

For my money, the 4Runner has just about the right mix and with a base just under $28k for a well appointed SR5 and an “As Tested” price on our “Limited” with all the bells and whistles hitting $37,800.00 it sits right in the meat of the market.

There are some features on this SUV that are simply smart, it has a parking assist camera mounted near the rear giving a full view when in reverse and it displays (smart) in the center rear view mirror.

Leather seating and steering wheel covers are flawless and comfortable, the layout has the fit and finish we all have come to know as a hallmark for Toyota, again flawless. The small V8 under the hood sports 270 hp, is quiet and smooth and we found the expected 22 MPG highway was actually a pretty accurate measurement of fuel economy.

There are lots of vehicles in the overlapping segments serviced by the 4Runner each takes the recipe for S(sport)-U(utility)-and-V(vehicle) and blends a different end result. Toyota pushed the 4Runners size to Large but it still has that medium feel.

It works for me, and I will buy one.

I will be the first to admit, I don’t get it.

That statement goes for many things in life but in particular I am using it to refer to a couple of things that have happened to Toyota this year. If you have been living under a rock and haven’t heard the once bullet proof reputation for quality and safety Toyota has built up over the last twenty years has taken quite the hit this year with tales of runaway Camry’s and even a story out of San Diego of a Prius suddenly accelerating down the highway.

The story of James Skies, a 61 year old San Diego based real-estate executive losing control of his Prius on the highway as it raced to 91 miles per hour made anyone with even an ounce of automotive knowledge trip their BS meter to red. Main reason is trying to get a Prius to get to 91 MPH is in itself something fanciful and the idea that you could have the clear thinking ability to call 911 but not think to shift to neutral or turn off the car raised even more red flags.

Let me be blunt the words “Sudden” and “Acceleration” should never be used in the same sentence as the word “Prius”. The idea that “Unintended Acceleration” could happen to a Prius is kind of funny because my experience with this car was that INTENDED Acceleration was hard enough to achieve so much so that I had a number of near religious experiences as the room I estimated to make a left across traffic always seemed to invoke prayer.

I understand the mission of the Gas Electric Hybrid Prius is not to be a speed demon or to be considered in any way a luxury car, it is all about buzz words like carbon footprint and minimizing the impact on the ecology while still getting you from point A to B. This eco-minded zeal is not to be minimized, but rarely have I run into a group of owners who are more fanatical about their cars as you will with the Prius.

There are dozens of on-line forums populated by Prius owners where they gather to wax poetic about how smart they are to have purchased this car and share stories of how far they can go on a tank of gas in self-congratulatory ways. I am sure there are sub forums on recycling water bottles into nifty items and I would assume even sub forums on how to properly remove pennies from a public water fountain.

Needless to say this is not my key demographic. As a matter of fact it is probably a form of purgatory for someone like me who is a “Car Guy” to be trapped in a Prius owners convention.

I guess the main thing I have an issue with is how the reality of the hybrid and the perception perpetrated by the Prius Pod People is somewhat at odds. The Hybrid technology involved in the Prius is a great step forward to reducing some of the negative effects the automotive business has on the ecology but the simple fact is this is a REALLY expensive way to be cheap.

Sounds silly, but the “as tested” price of the Prius provided to Any Driven Sunday checks in (before any incentives or tax breaks) at $32,520.00. This is entry level for Mercedes C class or Infiniti G37, which both have tail pipe emissions equal to the Prius and are rated “Clean” cars by the California Air Quality board.

Now both of these cars are much larger and even at their entry points well sorted options that get good gas mileage but are not in the 51MPG range that the EPA gives the Prius, but what is? Well the Volkswagen Jetta and Rabbit TDI Turbo Diesels both get as good if not better mileage than the Prius in town and FAR better on the highway.

I am not against Hybrid technology, as a matter of record the Hybrid GMC Sierra and Chevy Tahoe’s are fantastic examples of how the technology can be used to lessen the impact of large fuel hungry vehicles by including it in a way that is seamless and smart. Where a hybrid really shines is in the grind of bumper-to-bumper urban traffic when it can shut down the gas burning side all together, keeping the car’s Air Conditioning and other items running off the batteries.

One of the Achilles heels of the Hybrid is highway performance.

On the highway the Hybrid drive does little to help leaving the little 1.8-liter inline four to try and pull the car down the road. Paradoxically the Prius actually gets a lower MPG on the highway than it does in the city, most cars fair the other way. When it comes to highway performance the words “Plan Ahead” comes to mind. It is lackluster at best and overtaking a slow moving truck on an incline requires a long run up and total commitment to achieve.

If you’re driving includes long highway stints and especially with a load of bundled newspapers to take to the recycler the Prius might not be your first option. In my experience the long distance champions from Volkswagen are the only option as you can drive them like you would a normal car with far better fuel mileage and comfort than the Prius.

I think one of the things that just gets under my skin about the Prius is the considerable sticker price for a sub compact. The Prius fits into the market, size wise, as a competitor to the Kia Forte, Honda Fit and even Toyota’s own Yaris and Scion XA. Each of these cars pull down fuel ratings in the Mid 30’s to low 40’s and a price point that is easily HALF of the Prius.

The rough numbers I came up with on this are from my experiences a couple of weeks ago with a Kia Forte Koup provided to Any Driven Sunday. The Kia was a great example of how good a cheap car can be coming in at around $17,000.00 and pulling around 35 mpg. The 15-mpg gap to the Prius, with a gas price of just around $3 per gallon will result in having to travel over 117,000 miles in the Prius to justify the $15,000.00 price gap.  That is the kind of thing I can’t get my head to justify.

I really enjoyed the Kia. It had an overall feel of the old Honda Civic SI I used to drive back in the 80’s and a fantastic overall fit and finish and was just downright fun example of minimalist automotive expression.

One of the main reasons the stories of runaway Toyota’s gathered such momentum over the spring is partially my own profession’s fault. For the last 5 years, in particular, most news venues have parsed the automotive coverage into the advertising department, eliminating anyone in the works who knows anything about the car business at all. So when a fantastic story pops up like “sudden acceleration” the 24/7 news cycle jumps up and races to cover it in the most sensational way to insure ratings.

Again if there were actual automotive journalists left in daily newspapers, instead of advertising copywriters providing actual journalistic ethos to the story, the first thing people might have heard was that in the History of the National Transport Highway Safety Administration they have NEVER proven a single case of “sudden acceleration” was anything other than “pedal misapplication” or “pedal entrapment”.

As with the damaging reputation falsely attributed to Audi most cases have been proven to be people smashing down on the GAS rather than what their brain says is the brake. Now just yesterday my friend Jack Fink at CBS11 TV interviewed a professor who managed to replicate the supposed electronic glitch in Toyota’s fly by wire throttle system. He has turned over his findings to the NTSB but as yet no one has been able to substantiate his findings.

I am not saying that the problem does not exist, but in most of the cases involved aftermarket floor mats, loose debris in the car interfering with the operations of the pedals or in at least one case the diagnosed epileptic medical seizures and recent change in medication of the driver who crashed into a lake may have been a major contributing factor but the cause of that accident is unknown.

In any of these cases it is always quick to blame the car rather than the driver or even when the attention of the world was on the Ford Explorer the lack of proper maintenance on the simplest thing like tire pressure. Nope, the 24/7 news cycle now means shoot first and ask questions later.

Toyota has undergone some pretty major issues this year they seemed unprepared for. The negative press and their response to it and the piling on by everyone from senators to late night talk show hosts has been a handful to deal with but they continue to produce some of the best cars on the market.

The Prius is one that, as a sum of its parts, is exceptionally well built but one that just does not add up to me. It is too expensive to be cheap and just lacks the overwhelming advantage for me to recommend unless you really do fit into the exact market.

Another looming issue for Toyota actually has a root in Texas. A Russian born professor, Alex Severinski, who lives here in Texas, filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Toyota for technology developed by Paice LLC. The suit wound its way through the courts for the last six years. The suit was just settled on July 21, 2010 with both parties entering into a confidential agreement. This agreement also had to include Ford as Toyota has licensed their hybrid technology to Ford so the suit could potentially be more expensive than all the negative publicity involved with the “Runaways”.

All that being said there is nothing wrong with a Prius, if it is right for you, buy it and you will have an extremely high quality but expensive economy car that I will still admit I don’t understand the appeal for.