Record Hunting: Toyota Camry Hybrid at Kari Speedway
It’s early. early enough for it to still be dark outside, while The Residency Towers’ grand lobby is still spectacularly lit up. Coimbatore is known for its cars and judging by the last few hours of sound sleep, it knows how to do luxury as well. Recently renovated, the Residency Towers was playing host as we had come down on a very specific mission. Not the covert James Bond kind, although it would have fit the script — more of a determined attempt at going where no one in India had gone before. Setting a lap record for a hybrid car, the first of its kind in the country. I slide into the Camry’s plush seats and the pampering remains uninterrupted, the cabin cutting out the nip that’s in the air. I push the starter button and… the engine doesn’t fire up. Easily my favourite part of the Camry is the sophisticated drivetrain that allows you to rely on only electric power to get moving. ‘Ready’ it says on the dash, replacing the aural cues that would otherwise tell me that the car was waiting for my inputs to get a move on. I glide out of the hotel in silence, and set my coordinates for the Kari Motor Speedway.
Luxury has another name
This is not the first time I’m driving the Toyota Camry Hybrid. In fact, I’ve actually driven it a fair bit — exploring untouched forests of the Western Ghats, driving it to the largest windmill farms in the country, living with it at home in Pune — and it has always impressed. Quietly confident in its abilities to pamper its occupants, it never feels the need to shout its abilities from the ramparts. This is the 8th generation Camry that received a facelift with a sleeker grille, a larger and wider airdam on the new bumper flanked by chrome accents, darkened taillamps and dualtone 18-inch alloy wheels. But it has always been the interiors that have been an oasis of calm and there’s a new 9-inch floating infotainment screen complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The air-con vents have been repositioned and there’s a new trim for the dashboard, centre console and arm rests. I barely feel the combustion engine switch on when I hit the highway. The Camry’s drivetrain works such that it can stay in EV mode at city speeds when it has sufficient charge in the battery. But pick up the pace, and the ICE wakes up to deliver the additional performance it needs together with the electric motor. Even with the engine firing, there’s nothing but a hush in the cabin. The suspension goes about its business in silence — the Camry does an incredible job of isolating you from the outside world. I would describe the ride quality as cosseting — the dampers are very well tuned, keeping the body control in check while doing a fabulous job of absorbing whatever comes its way. Ground clearance may look like an issue, but it never is.
Getting to the Kari Motor Speedway from Coimbatore involves driving down the highway that leads towards Pallakad, and then hanging a left onto a narrow road. This stretch snakes through the countryside and gives us but a glimpse at what the Camry’s dynamic abilities are. The racetrack eventually comes up on the right, just as the sun was rising over its pristine tarmac. Now we’re talking.
We roll into the pits. The Camry may be a luxury sedan but it looks at home here. It’s low slung and purposeful. Proportions don’t get more stunning than its cab-back design with a long bonnet and stubby boot. Large 18-inch wheels add to the bling while the face is all sharp cuts and creases. Properly aggressive looking, this. The blue tint surrounding the Toyota logo — indicating this is a strong hybrid — was standing out in the soft morning light. And while we could gawk for longer, the call of an empty racetrack is far more seductive. I take it easy on the out lap. I’ve been to Kari’s new layout before but it’s always good to spend some time refamiliarising yourself with the place. I pick out braking markers, apexes and revise the lines in my head all the way through until I come around the last corner. Punch the driving mode button and put it into Sport mode. Long press the ESP button to turn it off. And I give it everything. Smash the throttle to the floor and the Camry calls on the ICE and the electric motor to deliver every ounce of power they can. This is an incredibly complex system but it works seamlessly — the electric motor supplementing the engine and filling in the gaps in the torque curve to deliver a constant, seamless shove. The 2.5-litre nat-asp engine makes 175.5bhp and 221Nm, while the motor generates 118bhp and the total system output is an impressive 215bhp. 0-100kmph comes up in 7.8 seconds. And it feels fast. Coming out of the last corner, you can feel the drive it has down the main straight, leading to C1. The Camry has a CVT so you aren’t really banging through the gears as you pick up speed but you can access predetermined ratios using the paddles. There’s no tacho either but the dial showing what’s going on with the energy system is pinned to the power end of the dial, while the speedo climbs past 130... 140… 150kmph. Toyota knows its way around hybrids that focus on performance. Using hybrid power the Toyota Gazoo Racing Team has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for four straight years. And in the WRC the recently unveiled hybrid Rally1 Yaris performed incredibly well, placing second overall and ensuring that the team is the front runner for the championship this year. Smash the brakes for C1 and the car shaves off speed confidently. The car may be harvesting energy from braking but the feel at the pedal and the stopping power isn’t compromised. In fact, the brakes give you plenty of confidence to push lap after lap, resisting fade and remaining consistently strong with their bite. Turn in for C1 and the Camry reacts deftly. You need to remember — this is a luxury car. It comes packing all sorts of excesses to keep its occupants pampered. It is heavy. But at the same time, it handles well. Being a sedan, the centre of gravity is closer to the ground and that means there’s less roll. The suspension has been set up for comfort so when you do push the limits of the car, you will find it leaning over to one side. But it settles there quickly and loads up the outside to give you a good amount of grip. The tyres squeal, and the trick is to keep it at the limit of adhesion. Too much speed, and you’ll scrub the fronts as you understeer — killing the tyres and your lap times. The chassis communicates what’s happening at the front very well. You can feel the steering load up in the corners, there’s plenty to be felt through the seat of your pants and it allows you to understand and get to grips with the Camry very quickly. I feel at home within three laps. And I am flagged in on my fourth. Arjun Balu is here.
Then he does it again. And once again. And with three flying laps done, he pulls into the pits, setting the new hybrid lap record at the Kari Motor Speedway. Though if motorsport is any indication, where energy recovery systems working on similar regenerative principles as the Camry Hybrid’s are employed in everything from Formula 1 to the World Rally and World Endurance championships, this is unlikely to be the last hybrid lap time on the track.
You can watch our full video of the lap record run here!
A new record!
Getting out of the car, Arjun has plenty of praise for the Camry Hybrid. “Being a luxury car, and for the purpose that it is made, it surprised me. Yes, it is soft and once you enter the corner it leans, but what is nice is that it doesn’t pitch. It gets loaded and stays on the line,” he says when asked about the handling. “Traction is good, and for first time driving a CVT, I am pleasantly surprised. It does a good job of maintaining momentum,” he adds and then quickly points out the brakes that he was most impressed by. “To have brakes that don’t fade on a standard road car which is this heavy — and when you look at it, it isn’t running any massive brakes either — I think they have done a very, very good job.” Arjun drives racecars all the time, and for the Camry to impress him around the track is no mean feat. Just goes to show the brilliant duality of this car — uncompromising luxury but generous with its performance. Being the race car driver that he is, he cut us short and got to the thick of it. What are the times, he asks. Arjun put in three laps in the Toyota Camry Hybrid. 1:28.43, 1:29.08 and 1:48.66 where the tyres had obviously over-heated and he tells us to disregard it. On further analysis of the VBOX data it shows a faster Split 2 on the second lap and that would have made for an ideal lap time of 1:28.31, but that’s theoretical. What we have is the new lap record for a hybrid car on the Kari Motor Speedway. 1 minute 28.43 seconds. And with that done we jump into the back, recline the seats, roll up the blinds, and bask in the oasis of calm as we head back for some TLC at the Residency Towers.