Driving a Toyota trio along the beaches of North Florida

By Russ Heaps
Clanging Bell

(October 30, 2014)  I'm not the kind of guy who is often overwhelmed by sensory overload. I can multitask with the best of them. Well, I'd much rather attack one thing at a time, but, when push comes to shove, I've been known to keep a few balls in the air. All of my juggling skills came into play at the recent Toyota media event for the 2015 Sienna, Camry and Yaris in Ponte Vedra, just outside Jacksonville, Fla.

As is typical of regional Toyota events, we arrived around noon of Day 1 and were back on airplanes heading home by late afternoon of Day 2. Factor in time for meals, formal presentations and scheduled goofing off — oh, and I did squeeze in a shower and some sleep — and there isn't a heck of a lot of time left over to drive three core models and their several variations.

Toyota bedded us down at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. This is an old-Florida lodging with a main building and lobby on one side of the ocean-view street and a ribbon of guest-room buildings on the other side on the beach. I basically stepped out of my room, walked across a narrow sidewalk and a little grass, and was on the beach. Not that the beach access did me much good: When in the hell was I going to have time to enjoy it? But the view out my back door was stunning.

In addition to the area where guests check in, the main building is a maze of lounges and assorted rooms. Most of our functions were on the beach side of the property in a complex called, the Surf Club, despite the fact that the east coast of Florida is notoriously absent of any significant surf. However, “Surf Club” does have a nice beachy ring to it.

None of the three models featured at this event underwent a major redesign for 2015, but Toyota did a significant amount of tinkering to all three. Because the overhauls weren't major, don't look for any real change in the engines or transmissions. These stayed pretty much the same in all three models.

As Toyota's (and America's, really) best selling car, any change to Camry is a big deal. Toyota made some fairly widespread enhancements inside and out. Roughly 2,000 parts were replaced or changed. All the exterior sheetmetal is new except for the roof. With more character than last year's Camry, the exterior styling is sharp and modern. Not overlooked, the dashboard, center stack and instrumentation all benefit from some degree of tweaking. Simply stated, the passenger experience has moved up market.

Toyota also added a new, sportier trim called XSE with bigger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension.

During our four or five behind-the-wheel hours, my driving partner and I piloted around in a V6 and a four-cylinder Camry, as well as an example of the XSE and a hybrid. I'm pretty satisfied with the performance of the 178-horsepower four-banger and its 35 mpg highway fuel economy.

Of course, we were dealing mostly with surface roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less. Still, it has plenty of get-up-and-go and a more wallet-friendly price tag: Base price is $23,795, and that's with a six-speed automatic transmission. Jumping up to the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, bumps the base price to $32,195, while dropping fuel economy to 31 mpg highway.

Willing to open myself to some ridicule, I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a big fan of minivans. And, I'm saying that as someone that doesn't have a family to cart around. They are simply the most functional vehicles on the road. It was in this spirit that I was curious about improvements in the Sienna. I've done a couple of fairly serious roadtrips to South Florida with several friends in Siennas and was completely blown away by this people hauler's fuel economy, efficiency of space and plain comfort. There is even an all-wheel-drive version of most trim levels.

Toyota didn't perform anywhere near the same sweeping changes to Sienna's exterior, but did spend some time making interior enhancements. Better materials and higher-end, soft-touch treatments abound. There's lots of technology, too. If you liked last year's Sienna, you'll love the 2015. We spent an hour or so on the road in the new Sienna and were knocked out by its quiet, competent performance.

All Siennas are powered by Toyota's 3.5-liter V6. Here it delivers 266 horsepower. A six-speed automatic transmission ushers output to either the front or all wheels. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 25 mpg for FWD versions in highway driving. Pricing starts at $28,600, and runs up to a whopping $46,150.

It probably won't come as a complete surprise that we saved the Yaris for last in this drive-what-you-have-time-to, multi-model event. There is certainly a place among budget-conscious shoppers for Yaris, but as a “car guy,” I'm going to drive everything else first. Pricing for Yaris begins at $15,670 for a three-door. This is a tiny hatchback that delivers 37 mpg on the highway from its 106-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. We drove the manual, rather than a Yaris armed with the four-speed automatic. It was fairly lively and somewhat fun.

With my head spinning with stats and driving experiences, I boarded the plane in Jacksonville to wing my way back to South Carolina — with the obligatory layover and plane change in Atlanta, of course. I think I may have spent more waking hours on this trip in the Atlanta airport than I did my hotel room.

My takeaway: Toyota continues to turn up the heat where it counts, keeping pressure on the competition.

Clanging Bell