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Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Atara SL Hybrid

Our Opinion

We like
Superbly efficient and effective hybrid drivetrain, plenty of rear-seat room, durable cabin plastics, cheap servicing
Room for improvement
Ride quality lacks compliance expected of a high model grade, ponderous steering, cheap interior appointments

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Toyota logo10 May 2016

By DANIEL DEGASPERI

Price and equipment

STANDARD in the Camry is a 2.5-litre four-cylinder, however the addition of an electric motor to a variation of that petrol engine creates a hybrid alternative drivetrain that asks $4000 extra in the Altise model grade, and $3000 extra with Atara S and Atara SL. The pricetags for the hybrid versions amount to $30,490/$32,490/$40,440 respectively.

The role of the Camry Atara SL – and indeed every previous-generation high model grade – is to deliver the luxury equipment found in six-cylinder full-sized sedans, but for around $10,000 less.

For example, a Holden Calais V costs $47,990 with its standard 3.6-litre V6 engine, whereas the Camry Atara SL costs $37,440 with its standard petrol four-cylinder engine. The hybrid narrows the gap somewhat.

Standard equipment is extensive, starting with keyless auto/entry and full leather trim with front seat heating and six-way driver/four-way passenger electric adjustment. An auto-dimming rearview mirror complements the usual duo of auto on/off wipers and headlights, the latter of which adds an auto-dipping high-beam function.

A 7.0-inch colour touchscreen houses standard satellite navigation, rare-for-the-class digital radio, and app connectivity such as Pandora internet music streaming, and hooks up with a booming 10-speaker JBL sound system.

The only noteworthy exceptions to what is otherwise a highly specified medium sedan include the relegation of a sunroof to the options list (for $1950 extra), the lack of head-up display availability, and too-small 17-inch alloy wheels in a segment where competitors often feature 18s and even 19s.

Interior

Although the tenth-generation Camry launched locally in December 2011, it was given a major makeover in May 2015. In the United States this meant a thoroughly overhauled exterior and interior, but in Australia revisions were limited only to the former.

Even in this high Atara SL model grade, the Camry looks and feels cheap inside.

The shiny and hard plastics, toy-like switchgear and surprisingly average fit-and-finish are more acceptable in the pricing bracket under $30,000 – a position occupied by the entry Altise model grade.

Leather trim and chrome fittings attempt to coat luxury dressing over what is otherwise an ordinary cabin design. Success is, however, limited by both the Camry’s humble origins and the missed opportunity of an interior makeover with this mid-cycle update.

The touchscreen has low-resolution graphics and the system is slow to respond, which along with the oversized boat-like steering wheel, are the only ergonomic issues on a dashboard that otherwise keeps operation simple and easy.

Particularly in a medium sedan context, with families high on the purchase order list, there is arguably nothing wrong with pragmatism before opulence.

The Toyota is extremely roomy, with broad and comfortable front seats, and rear accommodation that delivers generous legroom especially for the centre passenger. An almost flat floor with barely any intrusion from the centre transmission tunnel or front centre console, on which two airvents are mounted, helps in this regard.

Shoulder room is similarly accommodating, as are the two bottle holders mounted in each wide rear door that permit easy entry and egress. However the bench itself is extremely flat and some passengers found themselves sliding around on the slippery leather.

Choosing the hybrid version of the Camry also means having batteries mounted behind the rear backrest, reducing boot volume from the petrol’s competitive 515 litres to a rather less competitive 421L. From a practicality perspective, the 60:40 split-fold rear backrest is also lost.

Engine and transmission

One of the only major downsides of choosing a hybrid Camry over a petrol-only Camry, other than the up-front cost, is its reduced towing capability.

The four-cylinder with a six-speed auto can tow 1500kg. When a similar 2.5-litre teams with an electric motor and continuously variable transmission (CVT), this figure drops to just 300kg.

The hybrid also lacks the revability and throttle response that contributes to the almost sporty feel of the petrol-only version, though this is less of an issue in a medium car context. The Atara SX with a dedicated sports suspension is available only with petrol power, probably for this reason.

The petrol’s 133kW/231Nm gets an upgrade to 151kW/270Nm when an electric motor is added. Not only does the hybrid drivetrain make the Camry feel faster than the standard engine when floored from standstill, but it is also more relaxed, smoother and quieter everywhere.

Combined with the CVT, this is a silken, if not sporty, engine and automatic pairing. At low speeds or when cruising the petrol engine turns off completely, and it does so without noticeable intrusion. The batteries are recharged every time braking is initiated, as is normal hybrid fare.

The result is simply outstanding economy. The hybrid claims to use 5.2 litres per 100 kilometres of regular unleaded during official combined cycle laboratory testing, versus 7.8L/100km for the petrol. We achieved 6.0L/100km, barely beyond the claim.

Ride and handling

With this mid-cycle update, engineers from the Toyota Technical Centre Australia (TTC-AU) delivered a sports steering and suspension tune for the Atara SX that successfully endowed the Camry with sporty handling, if not a soothing ride.

For the luxury-focused Atara SL, the company did not deem it appropriate to include it as standard, though on the petrol-only Atara SL the changes are available as a $2950 option bundled with 18-inch alloy wheels and a sunroof.

Interestingly, the option all but closes the pricing gap between the petrol and hybrid versions of the same model grade.

Riding on standard suspension and 55-aspect 17-inch tyres, the Camry should deliver the comfortable ride quality expected of a luxury model grade, but it doesn’t. Instead the Atara SL hybrid feels lumpy and unsettled, yet also rubbery and soggy.

Experience with the entry Altise, which rolls on 60-aspect 16-inch tyres, indicates that the suspension may have been engineered with that rubber in mind because that model grade delivers above average ride quality. Often changes in tyre size affect ride quality, but it is rare that a relatively small change between 16- and 17-inch tyres would affect the outcome to such a degree.

The steering in the Atara SL hybrid is also light on centre, and vague in the first movements either side of it, yet it turns heavy during parking manoeuvres. The sharper Atara SX set-up eliminates this trait entirely.

Rivals such as the Mazda6 and Kia Optima deliver sharper handling and steering, in addition to more soothing ride quality.

Safety and servicing

With pre-collision warning and autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot and lane-departure warning, active cruise control, electronic stability control, front and rear parking sensors and a rearview camera as standard, the Atara SL delivers convincing active safety technology to complement its six airbags. It also has a five-star ANCAP crash safety rating.

Servicing costs are a Toyota highlight, with the first six scheduled services capped at $140 each. The only downside is intervals every six months or 10,000km when annual or 15,000km servicing is now typical.

Verdict

The facelifted Toyota Camry remains a fantastically functional mid-size sedan for families. In terms of its low servicing costs, the low fuel usage of the hybrid drivetrain and its sizeable and durable cabin, it is primed for domestic duties more than many popular SUV models – small boot excepted.

Unfortunately the Atara SL is much less convincing than the affordable, unpretentious Altise. Although the features it offers are competitive, extra polish in terms of cabin furnishings and a more absorbent ride are basic expectations at this price, yet the flagship Camry fails to deliver on both counts.

The tardy steering and soggy handling only further allow rivals to trounce a model that is clearly out of its depth when priced beyond $40K.

Rivals

Mazda6 GT from $42,720 plus on-road costs
Second best-seller in the class boasts classy cabin and sweet driveability.

Kia Optima GT from $43,990 plus on-road costs
New kid on the block impresses with luxurious cabin and ride, but turbo engine is thirsty.

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