Toyota Camry hybrid is attractive at the gas pump

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on July 27, 2012 at 9:34 AM

Updated Saturday, Jul 28 at 6:58 AM

Cars are all about numbers. Horsepower, torque, interior dimensions, weight braking distances, etc. But fuel economy figures are the digits car buyers are looking at hardest these days.  It seems the days of people rushing back to Sequoias and Suburbans when gas drops below $3.50 a gallon is over.  Finally.

The Toyota Camry hybrid is new for 2012 and though the sheetmetal is conservative, the MPG numbers are very attractive. On the base model LE the city figure is 43 miles per gallon according to the EPA, the highway rating is 39. That drops to 40 city, 38 highway for the top line XLE I’m testing.

Generally, automakers are pretty happy when they can raise fuel economy by 10 percent so a 30 percent improvement in the city cycle is impressive.  But before the Toyota engineers celebrate too hard, rumor has it the 2013 Ford Fusion hybrid has the same, if not better figures.  And who knows how far the upcoming Honda Accord hybrid will go on a gallon of gas?  

The Basics

Like all Toyota hybrids, Camry’s nickel-metal hydride battery is charged when coasting and braking, the gas engine shuts down at stops. It generally pulls away on electric power alone with the gas engine smoothly firing up once you get going.  There’s a graphic between the blue gauges that shows the driver what’s happening with the power flow and another with better graphics in the LCD display.

An “eco mode” noticeably reduces the throttle response and air-conditioning power. With a fully charged battery, EV mode can power the Camry electrically for up to a mile and a half when the pace is under 25 mph (really, closer to 20).  I’m not sure why you’d want to do this but hey, it’s there.


Under the hood is the dynamic duo of a 156 horsepower four-cylinder and a 141-horse electric drive motor that results in a total of 200 horsepower (and no I haven’t done my math wrong).  The transmission is a continuously variable unit, the battery pack is in the trunk.

A Quick Hybrid?

Remember, electric motors provide a lot of torque off the line and Camry Hybrid’s 0-60 time is a satisfying seven and half seconds. That of course will not get you maximum fuel economy Speed Racer.  Driving carefully I’ve found I can come close to the EPA numbers but motoring like a normal person gets me just over 33 MPG.  Heck, most compact cars don’t get that in city driving, and Camry is on the large side of midsized.

I like what Toyota has done to the Camry’s suspension.  It’s crisper than the previous generation.  It’s not a sport sedan and not meant to be one.  Camry’s mission is comfort, tuned for long road trips, and fairly quiet at cruising speed. When it comes to stopping, the regenerative brake pedal feel is pretty seamless for a hybrid.

Much Improved Inside

Inside, the look is what I can only describe as formal, quite different from competitors that lean toward a sporty attitude.  There are stitched instrument panel seams with soft touch materials.  While I find the cabin as a whole to be bit busy with details like insert stripes on the seats, Toyota has dramatically improved the look and feel from the last generation.  Materials are pleasing overall though the center stack and door armrests are clearly faux aluminum trim. One trim piece near the shift lever gets molded stitching that stands out against the real stuff.  Dual-zone climate, push button start, Bluetooth, and iPod integration are standard on all Camry hybrids.

The XLE I’m driving is loaded with options. The energy efficient JBL Green Edge premium audio system sounds decent.  There’s also navigation, back up camera, heated seats with suede panels and a blind spot warning system.  A spot for phones complete with power port is near the cup holder.

Gripes? The transmission lever operation is coarse and there’s a large controller on the steering wheel that looks like a piece of military gear.  It might look okay in a sportier Accord but it sticks out in a Camry.

Toyota has a new telematics system called Entune that connects to your smart phone.  It uses your data plan to run apps like Open Table, MovieTickets.com, and Bing search. Pandora streaming music can easily chew through gigs of data, keep an eye on it if you don’t have an unlimited data plan.  Pandora’s sound quality is odd, like a combination of AM and XM.  Entune is a free service for three years and Toyota is not really sure if they’ll start charging for it.

Passengers and Cargo

The back seat is very comfortable with generous leg, knee and foot room.  Both seatbacks get pockets, there’s a folding armrest with cupholders, and air vents allow passengers to direct flow. There’s even side torso airbags for folks in back.  No power port to charge electronics though, you’ll have to run a cable from up front.

Hybrid batteries are pretty big, about the only place you can put them is in the cargo area.  Camry’s is mounted up against the seat back, reducing the folding operation to a small pass through. That eliminates a handy function. Huzzah! There’s a real spare tire.  Not all cars get those these days.  Midsized sedans normally hold seven bundles of Kirkland brand bath tissue, Camry hybrid maxes out at six. If you look at the video some might think I could get another pack in.  Not really.  Stuff any more in and the hinge arms will scrunch your stuff.

Back To The Future

Lets move onto design. Camry is America’s best selling sedan and Toyota is not about to mess with the formula.  Others, like Fusion, Malibu, Optima, Sonata, and the upcoming Mazda6 get sleek designer sheetmetal. Camry stays conservative. It works for them.  In some ways this car looks like a crisper version of the model two generations back.  There are hybrid badges on the tail and front fenders, plus blue hued Toyota logos.  All in all it’s pretty discreet.

Price is an important number.  Camry Hybrid LE starts at $26,750 with destination. My loaded XLE tester is $34,580, a price premium of some $3,000 over a standard four-cylinder Camry. 

That always raises the discussion of whether it’s a good financial move to buy the hybrid or not.  The standard Camry is EPA rated at 35 MPG highway, so if the bulk of your driving is cruising the interstate, the investment might not be worth an additional 4-5 MPGs.   The difference in city driving between hybrid and gas models is 15 to 18 MPG, so urban sloggers will make up the difference pretty quick.

So, as always, it’s important took at your driving habits, check out the competition and do the numbers. Those three aspects are the best ways to find the one for you.
 

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