Michael Schumacher Doesn’t Drive a Camry #travel

April 29, 2015. 11:15am. Chandler, AZ.

I think the 2015 Toyota Camry I rented has issues. They’re known as “Pavlov’s Shifters.” But I can’t worry about that now, since I may be late for my flight home.

You would think I’d be happier flying out of Phoenix since they replaced that awful carpet. It’s not a terrible airport, but it’s cursed with an off-site car fortresses. It’s technically a “car rental center,” bringing multiple vendors into a single building under the guise of a centralized customer service experience.

Frequent flyers hate these places. Rental car centers are where the extra minutes budgeted into your return trip to airport go to die. Smaller airports like Portland manage to build these facilities into the airport, so you can walk to the terminal in a reasonable number of minutes. Larger airports like Phoenix build these fortresses miles off-site, beyond the vacant husks of rental car centers displaced by the promise of a sleek, uniform complex. Getting to the terminal from the rental car center requires a ten minute bus ride, plus time spent waiting the bus and rental car agents processing your vehicle’s safe return to their loving arms.

There’s also the subject of municipal fees to offset the cost of such facilities, but that’s an entirely different subject.

Rental car companies must love their cars, based on the process of actually getting a car out of the center. It’s a twisty set of turns through mazes of parked cars that all look-alike, followed by a license check and a set of synchronized barriers straight out of Myst. The car return process and its reliance on bus travel to bridge the gap between highways and skyways will devour a similar amount of my limited lifespan. This is why I’m contemplating deploying the Toyota Camry’s paddle-shifters on my drive back to the airport.

Yes, paddle shifters. The 2015 Toyota Camry I rented has steering-wheel mounted gear shifters, reminiscent of tire-smoking turbo-charged buffoonery from Top Gear. The Toyota Camry is still a sedan, so the need for Formula 1 inspired interfaces is a bit baffling. The engine and six-speed automatic gearbox are fairly responsive, which I discover proceeding to I-10 with a newfound sense of urgency. I am going to get to the rental car center 60-75 minutes before my flight’s departure, but will I make it to the gate before they start boarding?

I do have time to consider the ridiculousness of my conveyance as I breeze down the interstate. I drive a lot of rental cars, which means I get to sample a variety of vehicles in the compact and mid-sized category. Bluetooth-enabled radios, side-impact airbags and six-speed transmissions are standard fare in today’s budget sedan, replacing accursed terms like “built-in cassette deck” and “three speed plus overdrive”. Those were dark days indeed. Even the compact SUVs I occasionally get as an ironic upgrade when the hybrid I reserved is out-of-stock are safe and easy to drive, if not a bit of overkill for the lone traveler trekking from Portland to the wilds of Hillsboro. Modern cars have come a long way from the hollow econo-boxes I used to drive in the name of shareholder value. Even true economy cars like the Toyota Yaris are nice.

It’s rare I get anything awful. But I do end up with a lot of irony.

No, I’m not talking about the ironic class upgrade from “the hybrid you asked for” to “an oversized station-wagon masquerading as an off-road vehicle.” This Toyota Camry has paddle shifters.

Paddle shifters?

I’m not a good enough driver to be mistaken for Michael Schumacher, too tall to be mistaken for Richard Hammond, and too employed to be mistaken for Jeremy Clarkson … but even they would be mystified by this nonsense. Even if I do need to put the rubber-coated pedal to the plush grey carpet covering the metal, two levers behind the steering wheel don’t make this a sports car. They’re just buttons telling a mass manufactured automatic transmission to change gears in a more inefficient manner.

Does Toyota think they need to make the Camry look sportier? Did someone in marketing think this very popular car was too sensible? Will someone looking for an actual performance car be satisfied with two buttons that promise to make 45 minutes in traffic more like 24 Hours at Le Mans? This is a well-equipped car that’s comfortable to drive at reasonable speeds, it doesn’t need a homeopathic sport pedigree to feel good about itself.

Fortunately, I did not have to deploy Pavlov’s Shifters. I pull into the rental car center and make it on the shuttle bus with plenty of time to spare. I breeze through TSA Pre-Check, giving me time to spend $13 on a sandwich and drink. I also had time to check my car reservation for Wednesday’s trip to Santa Clara. Hopefully I’ll get the hybrid I asked for … it may not be very fast off the line, but it’s definitely secure with its identity.

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