Driving the Toyota Camry through the winding roads of Chikkamagaluru

To the home of Indian coffee to discover a sustainable way of motoring.
The Camry is a surefooted handler and a joy to push on the stunning Chikkamagaluru roads!
The Camry is a surefooted handler and a joy to push on the stunning Chikkamagaluru roads!Shot by Team evo India

Sunil Gowda looks to the skies and predicts rain. I can’t see a stitch up above and am about to make a remark involving spectacles and its liberal usage when Sirish kicks me under the table and gestures at me to shut up. Apparently, it isn’t the polite thing to do and so I turn my attention back to the cold press coffee; it’s just too hot to savour a hot cup, even one that counts itself amongst the finest in the world. Climate change is real. Planters’ homes in Chikkamagaluru are vast, rambling, lavish and gorgeous. But they aren’t air-conditioned. Nobody needed air-conditioners. In fact, every single one of them has a fire place. Perched right at the top of a vast 500-acre estate, Villa Urvinkhan draws inspiration from the finest planter’s cottages. Plenty of light and air, generous use of wood and local materials, peppered with interesting things including an 80-year-old box piano that once sat in the home of the Viceroy of India, and no air-conditioning. But that isn’t why Sunil is sweating bullets.

This is the time of year when it always rains in the hills of Chikkamagaluru, and the rains are terribly important for the coffee flowers to bloom. It’s only the first week of April but it is already the hottest summer on record, and every planter is doing the rain dance. If it doesn’t rain you can be sure of two things. The price of coffee will go up. And the quality will go down. It isn’t a sustainable situation. Which is exactly what we are here to talk about. Sustainability in motoring terms is now equated with electric mobility. Embracing EVs is like hugging a tree. Driving an EV is saving the polar bears. Or so we are told. But the Japanese do things differently; they take the time to achieve perfection and don’t let anyone tell them otherwise. Their research is staggering in both the depth and time it takes. They don’t do things in half measures. Attention to detail is deeply ingrained in their psyche, and they term this the Kaizen way of life. Translating, literally, to continuous improvement, Kaizen underscores the value of incremental, continuous efforts to improve things. And the Japanese apply this philosophy to everything they do, from their rail network to watchmaking, most importantly, automobiles. Toyota, for instance, pioneered hybrid technology way back in 1997, when the Just Stop Oil protesters were twinkles in their father’s eyes, driven not by external pressures but by an innate desire for efficiency and innovation. And today’s research says that swapping 90 internal combustion cars for hybrids is much better for the environment than building one full EV. If you look hard enough, you will find hints of the same Kaizen philosophy in some of the most mundane things in an Indian household. Case in point: coffee. We often take our morning dose of caffeine for granted, forgetting the incredible effort it took to introduce the crop to India, ultimately turning the country into one of the world’s largest producers, accompanied by a burgeoning coffee culture. In a quest for enlightenment on the subject of hybrids and coffee, we are on a road trip to the heart of Indian coffee — Chikkamagaluru — in the quintessential hybrid, the Camry. Our goal was to explore whether hybrids are a better answer to sustainability, efficiency and range anxiety, while uncovering the secrets behind a truly exceptional cup of Indian coffee. We begin our journey in Bengaluru, the IT hub of the country. Bustling with noise, traffic and energy, thanks in no small part to the copious amounts of coffee the corporate employees must chug to power them through the work week. Once known as the pub capital, it now boasts boutique coffee shops on every street corner, many of which directly source their beans from plantations in Chikkamagaluru. It’s as close to farm-to-table as you can get. Except we were going, literally, to the farm.

The hybrid system shuts down the ICE on downhill sections improving refinement and efficiency.
The hybrid system shuts down the ICE on downhill sections improving refinement and efficiency.Shot by Team evo India

At evo India, we are pretty familiar with the Camry. We’ve taken it to the Muppandal Wind Farms (India’s largest onshore wind project), toured the Western ghats, and even set a hybrid lap record at the Kari Motor Speedway. However, this road trip is a bit different; it’s an indulgence, a time to reflect on the qualities the Camry offers while seeking serenity amongst the lush greenery of the Budangiri range. It was in this very region that coffee was first cultivated in India in the late 1600s. Legend has it that the range is named after the saint Baba Budan, who introduced coffee to India. In the 17th century, Yemen, known as Arabia at the time, held a monopoly on coffee cultivation and trade, even prohibiting the export of green beans. Enamoured by the beverage, Baba Budan smuggled seven green beans out of Arabia in his beard and cultivated them in the hills of Karnataka. By the 18th century, when the British explored the region, they discovered coffee plants flourishing in the wild, realising the area’s ideal climate for coffee cultivation. This discovery led to the establishment of commercial coffee estates and the flourishing coffee industry in India.

With indulgence being the theme for this drive, Sirish applied himself thoroughly to the task at hand by chucking me the keys and jumping into the back seat for the first half of the journey. Navigating through the concrete jungle of Bengaluru, the Camry proved to be the perfect companion. In urban driving, the Camry Hybrid is propelled by the electric motor around 60 per cent of the time, with the ICE powertrain being called upon only for urgent acceleration or to charge up the battery. That means on the average Indian driving cycle, the Camry is much more efficient than a traditional ICE, while retaining the ability to head out on long trips without any range anxiety. But a hybrid excelling in the city is not exactly breaking news; it’s the way the Camry devours miles that might surprise a lot of people. Hybrids are commonly associated with efficiency which results in a low cost of ownership, and in stop-go traffic I’m getting an incredible 17kmpl. But the hybrid system also augments the performance of the ICE powertrain – the Camry’s 2.5-litre naturally aspirated engine makes 175bhp and 221Nm, while the motor generates 118bhp, making for a total system output of 215bhp and 0-100kmph in 7.8 seconds. Holding triple-digit speeds is easy but what’s particularly remarkable is the refinement. The hybrid system operates so seamlessly that discerning the source of propulsion becomes a challenge without checking the energy monitor on the multi-information display. At the back, Sirish has reclined his electric seat, pulled back the blinds, and is hammering away on Instagram. He can even control the volume and skip tracks on my phone, which is connected via Android Auto. There’s the safety net of nine airbags and ESP while my convenience is aided by parking assist and brake hold on the electronic parking brake. Up front I’ve got the seat coolers turned up on the vastly comfortable leather seats, which complements what is a very good ride quality. It soaks up rough patches really well and I don’t hold back, confident that I am in Toyota’s legendary quality, durability and reliability.

All this isn’t by accident; their cars aren’t magically gifted superpowers during production that make them indestructible. It’s a meticulous process that takes years. For instance, Japan, being a small country, doesn’t have a huge amount of warehouse space to store spare parts. Consequently, parts are produced in smaller batches compared to places like the US. The result is that if a manufacturing issue is identified in one batch, it can easily be rectified in the next one. Moreover, Toyota constantly improves its parts throughout a vehicle’s lifecycle, contributing to its long term reliability. That is the Kaizen concept put into practice. Similarly, the greatest beverages in the world — be it single malt whisky or fine coffee — are all produced in small batches. In the case of coffee, smaller roasters will pay attention to growing conditions, the quality of the bean being used, processing and roasting methods, and ultimately, this will affect the flavour of the coffee. Brave Man Coffee, which is produced for consumption by guests at Villa Urvinkhan isn’t marketed or sold online; it’s produced on special order, ensuring an unparalleled level of care and attention in every batch that large coffee roasters simply can’t match.

The estate also cultivates pepper climbers that grow on the tall jungle trees.
The estate also cultivates pepper climbers that grow on the tall jungle trees.Shot by Team evo India

As we get up to the hills, the scenery transforms from sepia brown to emerald green. With coffee estates on both sides and tall trees that tower above them, it’s a sight to behold. And that’s when Sirish wakes up and demands we pull over. Swapping seats immediately reveals how much cooler it has gotten outside. Chikkamagaluru coffee owes its uniqueness to this climate and the natural shade provided by the trees. Nestled at 4000 feet above sea level, this area benefits from cool temperatures and abundant monsoons, making it perfect for coffee cultivation. The shade-grown coffee plants mature at a slower pace, allowing them to develop more natural sugars, thus enhancing the flavour profile. Furthermore, the leaves and fruits from these trees act as natural fertilisers, enriching the soil unlike anywhere else on earth. The hills also make for very good drivers and Chikkamagaluru has been a hub for off-roading and rallying for ages. The Coffee Day rally was Sirish’s favourite round when he was competing in the Indian Rally Championship and he’s now indulging his enthusiast side, sticking it to sport mode, engaging the paddles, flinging the Camry up the hills. He recalls that even multiple Indian Touring Car champion Arjun Balu came away impressed by the Camry’s handling while setting the hybrid lap record at the Kari Motor Speedway. With commendable front-end grip, well controlled body movements, and precise steering, the Camry navigates the hills with aplomb – and it’s even more fun on the nearly 5-kilometre private patch climbing up the Urvinkhan estate that has no oncoming traffic and which resembles a tarmac rally stage.

The sprawling Urvinkhan Estate has been in the Gowda family since the 1800s; one of the very first plantations not owned and run by the British and they’re respectful and proud of their heritage. Khan is the anglicised suffix for Khananna or place in old Kannada while Urvin translates to brave man, which is the name of their own in-house label, which is claimed to be among the finest in the region. The family actively manages the estate to ensure top-notch service and safeguard the surrounding, pristine environment. Their commitment to sustainability is evident through initiatives such as shifting to solar power, adopting a lithium-ion battery system, phasing out plastic bottles, implementing rainwater harvesting, and supporting local businesses. Their ethos resonates strikingly with the philosophy embraced by Toyota. Over coffee, our conversation eventually brought us back to the Camry, parked within earshot. In the light of the setting sun, by the side of the infinity pool, the Camry’s Japanese aesthetics shines through, exuding sophistication without being ostentatious — a refreshing departure from today’s look-at-me designs. It embodies maturity and intelligence, a commitment to sustainability, and an attention to detail that also reflects in the coffee we are savouring.

Sirish and Lenny enjoy a hot cup of "BRAVE MAN COFFEE".
Sirish and Lenny enjoy a hot cup of "BRAVE MAN COFFEE".Shot by Team evo India

Handpicked beans are roasted to perfection in a 3.5 kilo roaster that is older than Siddhanth, the general manager. Although he can easily upgrade to newer, larger and more sophisticated machinery, he prefers the tactile nature of producing coffee this way. He roasts each batch himself, monitoring the temperature of the roaster, listening intently for the beans to crack, and then separating out burnt beans by hand. You won’t find that eye, or nose, for detail in your store-bought coffee. Next morning we wake up to thick dew and overnight rain. Sunil was right. As much as an eye, planters need a keen nose. To sniff out the beans. And sense the rain. Neither did we need an air-conditioner. He’s right in prioritising sustainability, similar to how the Camry uses just a fraction of the resources required to produce a BEV while still delivering efficiency and eco consciousness with performance and range. It is a showcase of the Kaizen philosophy at work. And while India still has strides to make in many domains, when it comes to coffee, we can Kaizen with the best of them.

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