Car reviews - Toyota - Camry - Hybrid SL
Hybrid drivetrain delivers great real-world efficiency and decent performance, cabin comfort, fresh cabin design
Room for improvement
Media system lets the side down, ride and handling lack polish on rough roads, engine vibration, creaky sunroof
Toyota’s Camry SL Hybrid is a compelling blend of real-world efficiency and comfort
17 Jun 2019
MID-SIZED passenger car sales are more than slumping, they’re plummeting. But the Toyota Camry still has an ironclad grip on this segment with more than 60 per cent market share.
Around five Camrys are sold in Australia for every one of its closest competitor, the Mazda6, which itself is outsold by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class from the pricing category above.
The Camry has a unique powertrain proposition in the shape of its petrol-electric hybrid, which we’re testing here in top-spec SL trim.
While the value sweet spot may lie lower in the Camry line-up, we reckon the efficient, punchy and proven hybrid system is the one to go for. And the latest Camry is finally good enough to justify the nameplate’s market dominance.
Price and equipment
Despite the move from Australian to Japanese sourcing, it is still possible to snaffle a new Camry for around $30,000 driveaway, although the SL Hybrid variant tested here is $41,090 plus on-road costs.
SL is the highest Camry trim level, and to get this spec with purely petrol power costs $40,090 (plus ORC) for the four-cylinder or $44,090 (plus ORC) for the V6, but we reckon the fuel-sipping Hybrid is hits a sweet spot of performance, efficiency and value.
All Camrys come with auto-levelling LED headlights, LED tail-lights and daytime running lights, air-conditioning, driver’s seat power lumbar adjustment, DAB+ digital radio, a drive mode selector, an electric park brake and 60/40 split-fold rear seats. Only the base Ascent has a full-size spare wheel, with all others having a space-saver that liberates an extra 31 litres of luggage space.
Standard driver-assist and safety equipment comprises adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist, sway warning system, auto high beam, a reversing camera, hill-start assist, a pre-collision safety system and seven airbags.
The Ascent Sport upgrades the multimedia unit by an inch to 8.0 inches with in-built satellite navigation, while the multifunction instrument panel grows from 4.2 inches to 7.0 inches. The manual air-con is supplanted by dual-zone climate control. Also added are electric driver’s seat adjustment, front and rear parking sensors, keyless entry with push-button start, a premium steering wheel and gear shifter, a bodykit, stainless steel scuff plates and LED glovebox illumination.
Hybrid buyers are denied the performance-oriented SX trim level that comes with sports suspension, 19-inch wheels (up from 17s on the Ascent and Ascent Sport), bucket seats, leather trim, paddle-shifters and a boot spoiler plus higher-grade LED headlights, a pair of USB ports for rear passengers and wireless phone charging in the centre console.
The more luxury-focussed SL as tested here has all the SX gadgets but rides on 18-inch alloy wheels and has comfort-oriented leather trim plus a colour head-up display, ventilated and electrically adjusted driver and front passenger seats (with driver’s side position memory), electric steering-column adjustment, a self-dimming interior mirror, ambient lighting and rain-sensing wipers. Hybrids get an electric tilt and slide moonroof, while the petrol versions have a panoramic glass roof.
Safety is also upgraded on the SL with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
Seven of the eight colours on offer are a $460 premium paint option, including the ambitiously titled “Steel Blonde” of our test car. It’s a modern take on that classic Camry colour otherwise known as metallic beige.
To these eyes, the imported Camry is like a child whose looks skipped a generation. It resembles Atara SX variants of the pre-facelift version of the final Australian-made model.
Inside, though, it is all very modern. People trading in a previous-gen Camry will feel as though they have fast-forwarded in time and stepped a rung or two up the socio-economic ladder.
There’s a swoopy, multi-layered design, plenty of upmarket-looking and -feeling contrast-stitched trim on the dash and doors, supple perforated leather and a logical, uncluttered arrangement of switchgear. There are some cheap-feeling, unpleasantly textured hard plastics and it’s not quite up to the quasi-luxury environment of the latest Mazda6, but it’s still a pleasant place to spend time.
A low seating position and quite high centre console with a stubby little gear selector create a cockpit-like environment for the driver. We found it easy to achieve a comfortable driving position and four of the five seats were great on long journeys. The controls feel good and have a positive action. It’s interesting that Toyota fitted ventilated rather than heated seats but this made perfect sense in the warm springtime conditions of our test.
It’s pretty roomy in the Camry, with good legroom in the back and adequate headroom, although the central position is hard and hump-like, making it restrictive for taller passengers and shoulder-room is only just good enough for three adults abreast.
Compared with the more coupe-like roofline of competitors, entry and egress is a Camry strong point, including for loading kids into their bulky restraints, but the low-slung Camry means this is still a back-breaking chore if used to a higher-riding SUV.
We’re fans of the excellent new multi-function trip computer between the instruments with its permanently visible digital speed readout, clear, attractive graphics and ease-of-use. The big head-up display is great, too, and the steering-wheel controls are Toyota’s best yet.
Toyota has finally figured out how to do adaptive cruise control properly. It now holds its speed much more accurately down hills, doesn’t display a massive disclaimer once you activate it and no longer hijacks the dashboard display every time it detects a vehicle in front. The steering wheel mounted controls are also much easier to use than the old stalk setup.
And so we come to the multimedia unit, which is the Camry’s weakest link. The voice control system is much improved and almost conversational now, but the menu that appears when tapping the voice control button suggests the same limited range of commands as previously.
Its graphics may have been refreshed and the system is now much more attractive, butt the same obstructive menu layout, clunky operation and low-resolution image quality remains. And there’s still no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay connectivity.
Cabin storage is great, though, and something oft-overlooked in sedans. The glovebox is big, as is the compartment beneath the central armrest and there is a smaller glovebox by the driver’s right knee. In the centre console is a phone storage tray – with wireless charging in our SL – that slides forward to reveal a deep cubby.
The cupholders are generously sized up front, which is just as well as the bottle holders in the tiny door bins are only suitable for small vessels. There’s also no sunglasses holder in the ceiling, although there are map pockets in the seat-backs and two more cupholders – albeit oddly shaped – in the rear central armrest to supplement another pair of small door bins back there.
By moving the Camry’s hybrid battery pack under the rear seats, boot space remains an uncompromised 524 litres regardless of drivetrain (30L more than the previous Camry Hybrid). There are remote rear-seat releases in the boot, but the backrests must then be manually pushed flat and there is a steep ramp between the boot’s load floor and the carpeted seatbacks when they are folded. For all other times the boot is well-shaped and includes handy shopping-bag hooks.
On the move, the Camry is pretty hushed. Coarse-chip country roads do introduce a fair bit of rumble and there is noticeable vibration and noise when the petrol engine kicks in. We also found there was rushing wind noise above 90km/h. Thankfully, the audio system sounds great and easily drowns most of this out.
More untoward was the constant creaking coming from our test car’s headlining, which we suspected was caused by the sunroof. In an otherwise solidly constructed cabin, this was a quality quirk we were not expecting from a Japanese-built Camry.
Engine and transmission
The imported Camry debuted a new hybrid drivetrain combining a more powerful 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 131kW and 221Nm (11kW/4Nm more than the old Australian-made one) and an 88kW/202Nm electric motor.
Official combined-cycle fuel consumption is down from 5.2 litres per 100km to 4.5L/100km for the SL Hybrid (lower-spec hybrids officially do 4.2L/100km), while we got 5.7L/100km during our week of suburban errand-running, dynamic testing on twisty roads and motorway trips.
Why anyone would go for the pricier, thirstier V6 over this is anyone’s guess. Responsiveness of the hybrid is great, it accelerates well, transitions pretty seamlessly between electric-only and electric-assist modes and gliding silently on electricity alone around carparks, through 40km/h zones and in heavy traffic is a peaceful pleasure.
Being parked up with the air-con going on a hot day is also far less guilt-inducing when you aren’t creating a cloud of local air and noise pollution.
Compare the above with diesel options available that promise similar fuel consumption figures. For a start, their particulate filters present compromises in Australia’s environment of urban islands where long, high-speed journeys are few and far between. For urban and suburban work, the hybrid makes absolute sense, and we even found during our test that the petrol-electric Camry’s motorway efficiency was similarly excellent.
Our only real gripe with this drivetrain was that Toyota could have done more to suppress vibration when the petrol engine is in use, as it can be felt through the accelerator pedal and makes some pretty gruff noises at low speeds. It takes away from the round-town experience a little.
That said, it’s absolutely refined at motorway speeds and a surprising pleasure to use with vigour, revving smoothly and providing flexible, predictable and plentiful propulsion due to the torquey characteristics of the electric motor.
The transmission is so neatly integrated with how the hybrid system works that it is hard to fault, other than the manual mode being almost pointless as a result and disappointing enough in operation that we soon learned to ignore its presence.
Selecting Sport mode is more than enough to ensure the best point-and-squirt acceleration experience out of corners when faced with a twisty road. But that’s not the Camry’s raison d’etre.
Ride and handling
Hybrid Camrys such as tested here are tuned for comfort rather than speed, with the sportier SX trim remaining petrol-only. Our car did comfort very well in most everyday driving scenarios, unless faced with big hits that caused an alarming slam as the suspension bottomed out abruptly.
There’s also a general lack of polish about how the Camry copes with Australia’s poorly maintained roads compared with competitors from Mazda, Hyundai, Kia and Holden, especially when tackling rough corner surfaces at speed, which can cause the steering to buck and fight in the driver’s hands.
We are, admittedly, being picky. Around town and on the motorway, our SL was a relaxing companion that soaked up imperfections and many kilometres with ease.
After several hours behind the wheel we’d step out feeling refreshed and keeping pace with other traffic on sweeping country roads could be done with both confidence minimal infliction of head-tossing discomfort on our passengers due to the Camry’s decent body control.
We didn’t get on with Sport mode’s unnecessarily heavy steering setting, with the Normal mode feeling much more natural if not filled with feel or feedback.
Braking performance is excellent and pedal feel is good for a hybrid. However, decelerating from high speeds introduces an unnatural and non-linear transition from regenerative braking to rather grabby friction braking that we never quite got used to that during our week with the car.
Grip and traction from the 18-inch Bridgestone tyres were strong in the damp conditions of our dynamic test and apart from the aforementioned reaction to poor corner surfaces, the Camry was generally vice-free on challenging twisty roads.
Overall, the Camry hybrid puts in a reasonable twisty road performance, but it’s not particularly fun, engaging or comfortable subjecting this car to a type of driving that clearly isn’t playing to its strengths.
It’s far more rewarding to sit back, relax and cruise about under effortless petrol-electric torque.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP awarded the entire Toyota Camry line-up a full five stars for crash-test safety in 2017, where it scored 36.16 out of 37 points overall, with 15.16 out of 16 in the frontal offset test and perfect results in the side impact and pole tests. Whiplash and pedestrian protection were respectively rated ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’.
The Camry comes with seven airbags (dual-front, front-side, curtain and driver’s knee), ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and autonomous emergency braking (AEB).
Toyota now offers a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty for Camry, although the hybrid’s battery pack is covered for eight years and 160,000km.
We can imagine a world in which there is only the hybrid Camry, and quite soon because Toyota’s petrol-electric powertrain represents a genuinely worthwhile point of difference in a market segment that is shedding sales at an alarming pace.
It works so well in real-world conditions, from the perspectives of genuine fuel-efficiency and relaxed driving enjoyment. And there’s no longer a boot capacity compromise.
The basic 2.5-litre engine is a bit underpowered and the weighty, more expensive V6 easily overcomes the front-drive Camry’s ability to put power down. Both are thirsty, the former because it has to be worked hard and the latter due to its displacement.
So, the hybrid it is, then, and it just so happens to be wrapped in what is by far the best Camry yet in terms of cabin comfort, technology and half-decent dynamics. It’s not class-leading, but the petrol-electric drivetrain helps put it higher up our consideration list.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to the SL, there is arguably more value – and even better fuel efficiency – to be had lower in the Camry range. But whichever variant you go for, paying a little extra for the Hybrid is a no-brainer in our eyes.
Holden Commodore Calais diesel ($43,990 plus on-road costs)
A masterclass in soaking up Australia’s rutted roads and a generally lovely car to drive, but the first diesel Commodore is thirstier than you’d hope, even though it goes well.
Ford Mondeo Trend TDCi ($40,990 plus on-road costs)
We expected more dynamically and a better interior finish from Ford’s stylish mid-sizer, which is now getting on a bit and looks a bit expensive in Trend spec against the Camry’s top-rung SL.
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Model release date: 1 November 2017
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