Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Hybrid sedan range
Fuel-sipping economy, smooth and quiet operation, extra power over the standard Camry, sound dynamics, better value, Toyota robustness
Room for improvement
Over-light steering, messy dash layout, spot-the-difference exterior styling
14 Mar 2012
UNTIL now, only about a quarter of Toyota Camry buyers in Australia have opted for the hybrid powertrain over the standard petrol engine, and many of those have been government fleet buyers.
A premium price and the understandable reticence of car buyers to adopt unproven new technology seem to be the main culprits standing in the way of a larger penetration of the petrol-electric Hybrid Synergy Drive in the first generation of the locally built hybrid car that arrived on the Australian market in 2010, well after the introduction of the standard petrol model.
Now, a $2000 price cut for the base Camry H – stands for Hybrid – has put the all-new electric-assisted model, at $34,990, within just $1500 of the mainstream Camry Atara S.
After spending time in the new hybrid version, we wonder why anybody would begrudge the extra dosh to move up to the hybrid vehicle that is superior in so many ways.
For a start, the car owner would get their money back at the petrol pump in a year or two. From there, it is all bonus – a quieter, faster, smoother ride, with feel-good, planet-saving temperance.
Whether you would buy it over natural rivals such as the Ford Mondeo diesel or similar Mazda6 diesel, well, that's a harder question.
But in its own backyard, the Camry Hybrid, which also comes in a premium Camry HL (Hybrid Luxury) guise with more fruit, stands out as the pick.
This car sets the benchmark for fuel economy in its class – a claimed 5.7 ltres per 100km – even though it is 100kg heavier than the standard petrol-only model, as it has to lug a large slab of batteries, motors, inverters and converters around, as well as the 2.5-litre petrol engine.
As everyone knows, weight is the enemy of fuel economy, but such is the efficiency of the powertrain that it can overcome this obstacle and then some.
In our first short spin in the Camry H, we selected the most frugal 'Eco' mode – an electronic override nanny that winds back the throttle, air-conditioning and other fuel-sucking functions – and drove with a feather-weight foot, managing a remarkable 5.9L/100km, thanks to frequent automatic and seamless electric-motor assistance.
In our second drive, we threw caution to the wind and drove on the sporty side of normal, with the fuel consumption average rising to 7.5L/100km.
More time behind the wheel is required for a definitive judgement, but we would guess that the hybrid Camry is at least 25 per cent more efficient than its petrol sibling in real-world driving.
Funnily enough, the heavier mass of the hybrid car is a blessing in disguise in another way. With the weighty battery over the back axle and electric motors and other paraphernalia up front, this added mass acts as a damper, endowing the hybrid Camry with a even, large-car ride on choppy roads.
Another potential cloud with a silver lining is the added insulation applied to the cabin to mask an electro-mechanical high-frequency whine from the high-tech drivetrain. As luck would have it, these measures – including a thicker acoustic windscreen – not only weed out the whine but also shield the Camry H occupants from wind and road noise at highway speeds.
Unfortunately, the solitude helps to accentuate the wind noise from the exterior mirrors through the side windows, but we can forgive that.
The biggest benefit of the hybrid Camry over its conventional stable-mate is something that is not usually associated with thrifty cars: grunt.
Packing 151kW of power from a mix of petrol and electric power, the hybrid powertrain whirrs away from traffic lights with substantial, if not dramatic, urge, thanks to the assistance of the electric motors.
The thrust of the hybrid powertrain is partly disguised by Toyota's unique gear-driven continuously variable transmission (CVT) that holds engine revolutions steady, with no frantic red-line valve bouncing as the speed piles up.
Instead, acceleration feels understated in a Camry sort of way, but quick enough to overtake on the highway with suitable velocity and leave the standard Camry – which is no fireball by any standard – behind.
So, tick the box for performance, and suddenly the case for the petrol car looks slim.
The hybrid car once had electric power steering to itself, with the previous standard Camry using a conventional hydraulic assistance system, but now both cars share the electric system. However, the hybrid car gets its own locally-developed electronic steering “tune”, due to the extra weight over the front wheels.
It feels lighter to the touch than the standard Camry's system, but we would need to drive them back to back to know for sure. Either way, it is a bit light for our taste, but for the target market, it will probably just feel easy and relaxed.
Steering turn-in is sharper than for any Camry we can remember, but by mid-corner, the heavy front end ploughs a little, turning up understeer street – the usual route for such a nose-heavy front-drive car.
The body rides pleasantly flat through direction changes, and and we have no complaints about road noise from course-chip bitumen roads, even with wheels shod with hard, low-rolling-resistence tyres designed to maximise fuel economy in this hybrid version.
Inside, the tacho has gone missing, replaced by fuel-economy gauges designed to shame the driver into saving the planet, one litre at a time.
The driver can see when the car is charging the batteries under deceleration and braking, just cruising on the smell of an oily rag or – shame on you – chugging down half the world's scarce resources in the power band.
It becomes a game of 'how low can we go', helped by two buttons on the console. One selects the new EV mode, under which the car drives purely on electricity for a kilometre or two, as long as the speed is kept under 45km/h and as long as the battery has sufficient charge.
We tried this and, yep, it works, just like an electric car, for a while. Toyota gives the example of an indoor car-park as the type of environment where you might be tempted to use this mode, and we can see that. No use polluting any more than you have to.
The more useful button turns on the aforementioned Eco mode, helping to rein in any wild Camry driver excesses.
Yes, it has a noticeable impact on acceleration eagerness, but also on fuel consumption. Twice we pressed the button and watched as the average fuel economy for journey dipped, in one case from 7.8L/100km to 7.3L/100km in a matter of a few kilometres.
We would like to see this button front and centre on the steering wheel – like a Formula One driver's KERS button – so the driver can go for the extra power without having to reach down to the lower reaches of the console when, for example, a passing opportunity presents itself.
One of the biggest improvements in the latest Camry Hybrid over its predecessor is boot space, which has been noticeably enlarged by moving the battery further forward behind the rear seat and shifting some of the electronic wizardry up front, under the bonnet.
It is now a more usable space, although lacks the cavernous dimensions of the standard car's boot.
Apart from that and the hybrid-denoting touches (blue-tinged headlights, badges and instrument dials, and a chrome grille), the Camry Hybrid is pretty much the same as the standard car, which is good and not so good. The good parts are that its is spacious inside, comfortable, solid as steel can be and, judging on past performance, ever so reliable.
The not so good bits concern the styling, inside and out. If you love the look of it, please skip this bit, but to our eye, the latest Camry is just an evolution of the previous model, and not even a particularly good one.
Inside, the designers have made valiant attempts to give the car some character, with stitched dashboard upper surfaces and various character lines to break up the previous acres of plastic.
But, to us, it is just too messy, and spoiled by the hard, shiny plastic lid where the console meets the dash.
And those beefy buttons on the steering wheel would shame controls for a supertanker subtle, not.
These are mere quibbles, however, and if you like/can live with the design, then the rest of the car makes a compelling case.
If you are worried about the reliability or cost of repair to the high-tech powertrain, let us put your mind at rest: the batteries will last the life of the car and electric motors just keep on keeping on.
It will be interesting to see if the one-in-four sales rate of the Camry Hybrid in the previous generation shifts up a gear this time, but it should.
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