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Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Hybrid Luxury sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Real-world urban economy, keen pricing, long features list, roomy back seat, easy controls, light steering, excellent reverse parking camera
Room for improvement
Firm ride, road noise, drab dash, reduced boot capacity, leaden handling, ponderous dirt road driving, ageing design

Toyota logo20 Apr 2010

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

MONDAY February 8 2010 was a milestone in the Australian automobile industry, thanks to the release of the first locally built petrol-electric car – the Toyota Hybrid Camry.

Until then, nobody had produced any passenger vehicle of volume in this country that had not been completely fossil-fuelled.

The Hybrid Camry, then, is the groundbreaking transitional step to electric vehicles for Australian manufacturers. More are sure to follow.

Significantly, fleet sales are the primary target for the petrol-electric Toyota.

As a tool of trade, fleet cars make up a sizeable portion of peak-hour congestion, so offering low-speed zero emissions capability while crawling through heavy traffic to cut emissions and noise pollution is extremely laudable.

Or, put another way, fleet buyers now have an Australian-made five-seater medium-sized four-door sedan that can sip fuel like a Yaris yet costs less than a Holden Commodore Omega.

Throw in Toyota quality, reliability, durability and servicing costs, in a safe and family-friendly package, and the Hybrid Camry begins to seem like a compelling offering. If the notion of a hybrid appeals but the Prius is too wacky and the Honda Civic Hybrid too small, then get your fleet manager on to it quick smart.

High economy and low emissions, with proper low-speed electric drive, regenerative braking battery charging, and engine cut-out at idle, will make you feel like you are driving the future.

We have every reason to expect Toyota’s 10,000 annual sales forecast to be easily eclipsed. This car deserves to succeed on principle alone.

However, there are some unexpected compromises with the Hybrid Camry that will test many drivers’ resolve.

For starters, the boot is an anti-Tardis – smaller than it looks on the inside. Nothing near as capacious as a regular Camry’s, a massive chunk of it is now home to hybrid-related gear such as the battery pack. The actual volume drop from 460 litres to 389 litres does not reflect the oddly stepped floor, although since the 60/40 split fold backrest is retained, some long thin objects can still be carried in there. But there is no way a medium-sized bicycle will fit.

It’s also worth noting that there is no towing ability since the hybrid drivetrain precludes a tow bar … and the Hybrid Camry won’t toe the line as a driver’s car either.

If the well-sorted steering and handling characteristics of the regular petrol-powered Camry (and its V6-engined Aurion twin) have struck a chord, then we are afraid you will be disappointed because this is quite stodgy from behind the wheel.

The Hybrid Camry-exclusive electric powered steering feels completely disconnected from the front wheels, with virtually no road feedback.

Around corners even at modest speed the Toyota seems heavy, bulky and clumsy, and turns-in increasingly wide as you power through, shamelessly displaying classic front-drive understeer tendencies. You soon back right off because there is no joy to be garnered from the car’s handling.

On smooth roads there is plenty of grip and the ride is pliant enough. But our cities’ roads can be patchy at best, and so the Hybrid Camry’s extra kilos seem to affect ride comfort adversely, with the suspension pounding into potholes and its bump stops hitting speed humps all too readily. Busy, tetchy and quite loud, the whole absorption thing is compromised.

Certainly a normal Camry or Aurion is much better sorted dynamically.

We’re also a little concerned about braking distances. While it hauls up hastily on regular roads, on gravel at 90km/h, the hybrid took a lot longer to pull up. Combined with a fair amount of loose-surface skittishness it doesn’t feel at home at all on dirt.

Finally, the hybrid drivetrain whirring when slowing down becomes tiresome, like an old Falcon taxi’s gearbox whine. Along with some road roar on certain types of bitumen and the thumpy suspension noise, it makes the Toyota quite a vocal car. And wind noise suppression wasn’t that crash hot in our test vehicle either.

All these potentially deal-breaking issues are not common in the regular Camry and Aurion, and detract from what – in many other respects – is a great family car alternative.

Take fuel economy, for instance. The 7.1L/100km average we managed in a mix of urban and highway driving is just terrific. And we weren’t even really trying to be teetotal either. The nifty little trip computer display that rewards the frugal driver with an EXCELLENT message is a marvellous incentive to keep on doing so.

As with other Toyota hybrids, the start is eerily silent unless it’s a cold one, when the engine kicks in for a little bit and then extinguishes again. There is an almost seamless transition from electric to petrol, even when whirring to a stop, with just the moment’s delay at restart time telling you that there is more than just one power source at play here.

Step-off acceleration is brisker than you might imagine too, but not – ahem – electrifying, with the CVT gearbox (another unique Hybrid item) metering out drive to the front wheels in a smooth and measured – rather than in a hurried – manner.

Flex your right foot on the move and there is ample overtaking power on tap and once cruising along,the excellent aerodynamics (0.27Cd) give the car a feeling of slicing through the air with little resistance. Toyota claims a 0-100km/h sprint-time of 8.9 seconds, though subjectively the petrol-electric Camry does feel faster than this.

Yet, after the latest Prius’ exemplary dynamics and even subtler high-tech powertrain integration, the Hybrid Camry just doesn’t feel that cutting edge. While hardly grandfather’s axel, knowing that it has been on sale in the United States for about four years now takes the shine of the Toyota’s freshness.

And nor does the five-year-ld cabin feel like the latest word in interior design, despite the implementation of a special instrument cluster featuring an economy gauge, specific trip computer function displays and incredibly clear graphics.

Honestly, there is nothing jarring about the Toyota’s ‘T’ shaped dashboard and general interior presentation, except that it is awash in charmless monochromatic plastic trim save for the light blue console surround for the Luxury test car’s satellite navigation, audio system, and climate control interface.

The latter’s (special electric) dual-zone climate control air-con set-up – complete with an ECO setting – is icy cold and effective you couldn’t hope for more storage spaces the excellent driving position is aided by a steering column that tilts and telescopes the front seats are supportive and forward vision is acceptable.

But be aware of the sunroof option if you’re tall – it really does eat away at headroom.

The rear’s best part are the outboard seats, which you sink into immediately, while the middle pew is OK for an average sized adult and fine for kids. There are grab handles, a pair of air vents and coat hooks, shallow map pockets and cupholders, and overhead reading lamps but no door bins for odds and ends. From back here you’d never guess you are in a Hybrid. It’s just everyday Camry all over.

Until you get into that unevenly shaped boot. Toyota says four golf bags will fit, and we managed a full-sized suitcase with some soft luggage squeezed in too. But it is singularly this car’s biggest flaw as a family car proposition. Here is where a Hybrid Camry wagon would have made much more sense.

So, for all its high-tech solutions and history-making engineering for an Aussie-built car, the Hybrid Camry feels compromised.

If you’re an undemanding driver who spends a lot of time in city/urban traffic jams and a small boot is no big deal, it works a treat.

Stray away from the ‘burbs, though, and the hybrid advantages turn into disadvantages. Here we would be much more inclined to consider a diesel such as a Mondeo TDCi, or buy a regular Camry or Aurion instead.

And, if you really want a hybrid, the new third-generation Prius is a much more convincing solution, and a far better drive to boot.

The locally made Hybrid Camry is a classic example of a car that ticks all the right boxes on paper but is somewhat too compromised in the real world.

But it’s an intriguing piece of Australian motoring history anyway.

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