Humans achieved manned supersonic flight less than 50 years after the Wright Brothers first went aloft in 1903 at a mere 6.8 mph.
In light of that, the 2015 Toyota Camry is a disappointment.
We may not be creating sonic booms on our commutes to the office just yet, but the march of automotive progress over the past 50 years is undeniable. Owning a classic car like our long-term 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray lets you put it all into perspective, especially the mythology surrounding its speed.
But how far have we really come? Can an iconic classic American sports car out-pace a typical family sedan 50 years its junior — say, a 2015 Toyota Camry?
An American Icon
Our long-term 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray is not original, but it's about as representative of the era of its birth as a reasonable person could ask. Keep that in mind when you ask. Mechanically it's not been modernized in any way. We even kept the original-style bias-ply tires on it. Sure, installing radial tires would increase the car's performance in every quantifiable way, but to do so would be to miss the point. The point is to experience this car in its most honest form, just as it was in 1966.
The C2, as our Corvette's generation is known, was one of the fastest performance cars of its day. Its lowly, base 327-cubic-inch V8 engine notwithstanding, it left anything British and much of what came from the Old World in its dust.
Rated at 300 horsepower using the optimistic "SAE gross" yardstick of yore, its iron-block-and-heads pushrod V8 would muster something closer to 240 hp by modern measurements. An independent rear suspension, four-speed manual transmission, disc brakes all around and good inherent weight distribution elevated the Corvette into genuine sports car territory.
Optional 427s of the day belted out as much as 425 hp (gross) and would post significantly faster acceleration, but wouldn't corner or brake better than our car. Those big-block Vettes certainly weren't any lighter than our Stingray's 3,159-pound as-tested curb weight, either.
Most 50-year-old cars are driven carefully once a month or so. Not ours. We've been shaking out the Corvette over the past couple of months by street-driving it almost daily. Commuting, picking up groceries, taking the kid to school; our Vette has been posted to everyday tasks as if it were...a Camry.
Speaking of the Camry
Say "it drives like a Camry" to an enthusiast and you've instantly communicated a tome's worth of pejoratives. But it's an unfair trope. The Camry — that archetypal middle-of-the-road, perfectly sensible midsize family sedan without a sporting pretense in a single one of its vanilla-flavored bolts — has a secret: its engine.
To the uninitiated, our 2015 Toyota Camry XLE test car's optional 3.5-liter V6 isn't anything worthy of note. Nearly every auto manufacturer has been slotting similar-appearing 60-degree, all-aluminum 3-point-something-liter DOHC V6s into bread-and-butter sedans for some time now.
But the Camry's 2GR-FE V6 delivers a freakish amount of punch. That is, the mill seems curiously gutsier than its ratings of 268 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque suggest. Even on dry pavement the V6 wants to burn the Camry's tires when you lay into the gas from a standstill, and when accelerating from freeway speeds the 3,448-pound Camry just plain rips forward with eyebrow-raising ease. It's a bottle of Sriracha in a brown paper sack.
Under the Stingray's hood is a member of GM's small-block engine family that became one of — if not the — most ubiquitous power plants in the history of personal motoring. The GM small-block brought V8 power to the masses.
Toyota's GR-series V6 is in diapers by comparison, but consider that it's been plopped into countless sedans, pickups, performance cars, SUVs, luxury cars, minivans and hybrids the world over for nearly a decade and a half. In the democratization of power, our 1966 Corvette and the modern Camry are more alike than they are different.
Running the Numbers
By the stopwatch, it's a different story. We clocked the Camry to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds (6.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and through the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds at 99.0 mph. This courtesy of an engine that is unceremoniously stamped out by the factory a shipload at a time and asks for nothing more exotic than a diet of 87 octane and the barest minimum of maintenance over its entire life. No wonder Lotus buys this engine from Toyota for use in its Evora sports car.
The Camry's straight-line performance pummels the Corvette's 7.9-second dash to 60 mph (7.5 seconds with rollout) and its quarter-mile run of 16.0 seconds at 83.5 mph. If that doesn't sound rapid to you, it's because you're living in 2015. In 1966 that was uncommonly quick. By today's standards the Corvette's tall gearing and lackadaisical traction from its period tires conspire against the V8's hustle.
Same goes for braking and handling numbers. The Camry comes to a halt from 60 mph in 127 feet and hits 0.75g on the skid pad. It also manages 62.5 mph through the slalom. It will do this day in and day out and ask nothing of its driver in the bargain except to fill the tank when it runs dry.
The Corvette? It stopped from 60 mph to zero in 165 feet, circulated the skid pad with 0.70g of grip and ran through the slalom cones at 55.4 mph. There's actually some feel to the brakes but the old-school tires relent easily, so much so that you'll lock them up at 60 mph with the proper touch. Same goes for the car's handling. The Corvette is soft and vague in a different way than the Camry in that the Corvette will kill you if you're not paying attention.
With lopsided performance such as this, it's hard to see how the Corvette can possibly top the Camry at The Streets of Willow Springs Raceway.
Tracking a Camry
On the 1.6-mile Streets of Willow Springs Raceway, which is categorically not the Camry's native habitat, the sedan is predictably predictable. Its nose-heavy front-wheel-drive layout delivers no surprises, good or bad. This latest generation of Camry finally has some heft in its steering, though there's only an inkling of what the front end is up to, gripwise.
Little nuance is conferred to the driver as the Camry goes around in a workaday fashion, sloshing from apex to apex with equal parts understeer and indifference. The car's cornering performance is ultimately given a swift kick in the nether regions by its feeble all-season tires, which protest audibly well before their modest grip runs out.
This milquetoast handling character makes the Toyota's silly V6 stand out in even sharper relief. It's really the star of the show here, punting the sedan between corners with impunity. The six-speed automatic's Manual mode is slow to react to a pull of the console lever and upshifts automatically when the revs touch the redline, but the engine plows on through without a care. We're not sure how this engine ended up in this chassis, but we're glad it did.
There are good bones here. We reckon a Camry retrofitted with nothing more than summer rubber, starchier dampers and a set of track-worthy brake pads would be one shockingly effective (and unexpected, to other participants) track-day assassin.
Best lap time for the Camry was 1:37.4.
Just Don't Break It
We started out gingerly circulating the vintage sports car around the circuit. There's a certain element of risk inherent in exercising a machine that's existed on this planet years longer than have most of our editorial staff. Even if you know the provenance of every wheel bearing and ball joint in the suspension, time permeates everything. Age, the invisible marinade of mechanical devices. This Corvette is the product of a bygone era, but it's also just plain old.
Besides, we were chicken. Nobody wants to be the guy who breaks the car on its first track outing.
So the Stingray's pace was ratcheted up incrementally over the first few laps. First feeling out the car, getting a sense of its general durability and willingness to play. Then a cool-down lap. The initial flying lap had us nibbling at the edges of the tires' available grip in each corner, our eyes scanning the gauges, while the report from the side pipes intermittently rippled through the still desert air.
These preliminary laps did not inspire confidence. Big-feeling, with comically slow, ponderous steering and tepid brakes, the car felt alien. Not recalcitrant, just bizarre, as if we were thumb-wrestling a narwhal.
Setting a Hot Lap
If you've ever watched a period race from the '60s, you'll notice an awful of lot of sliding, midcorner steering corrections and wild-looking sawing at the wheel. It's because of the tires.
Old-school bias ply tires like the ones on our Stingray prefer a lot of slip angle. Correction: They really prefer a lot of slip angle. The more lurid the slide, the more they grip. We had been keeping things relatively tidy during the familiarization laps of the Corvette's track outing, which would be necessary and sufficient were the Stingray equipped with the tires of today. The notion of "sliding is slow" is only true in a modern context.
Confident in the old girl's basic integrity, the kid gloves came off. We began to fling the Corvette into corners, freeing it from the confines of the meager adhesion of its tires and then balancing its attitude with the throttle and steering to try to keep both ends of the car sliding all the way through the apex, and then rolling into the gas to exit with the tail out. No "hands at 9 and 3" here — the slow steering ratio required lots of hand-over-hand action on the comically large steering wheel.
It was a revelation. In this state of big inputs and bigger slides, the Corvette was anything but precise. But was it ever involving. And throttle-steerable. And fun.
Faster Isn't Necessarily Better
Soft but not sloppy, capable but joyless: The Camry is not a sports car, nor does it purport to be one. It's unabashedly the archetypal transportation appliance, just one that happens to tear big gaping holes in one of the luminary sports cars of days past. It also delivers a driving experience that you forget about before the transmission selector can reach "P" at the end of a drive.
Then you mat the throttle and the husky V6 torque injects some tire-spinning hilarity into the proceedings. Viewed through the lens of history, this Camry is a more faithful interpretation of the muscle car that existed in the Corvette's day. Its consequence as a confluence of circumstances will undoubtedly be subjected to its own distorted history 50 years from now.
In the end, the Corvette's best lap time was 1.44.8. Nobody who drove the Corvette cared. Hard work is required to go this slow. And that's the point. The Corvette was alive, and extracting its best was a demanding and rewarding exercise. It doesn't matter that the Camry spanked it by 7.5 seconds around a short track. We got out of the Stingray with sweat-soaked drawers and a 10-foot grin. No stopwatch required.
Still, the next time you see Joe Vanilla in his V6 Camry, show some respect. That thing is a certified Corvette killer.