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First drive: Hybrid improves Toyota's Camry breed

Homegrown: Australian Camry Hybrid production begins in late 2009.

Toyota reveals details of its first Oz-built petrol-electric car, the Camry Hybid

20 Jan 2009

TOYOTA will offer its upcoming Camry Hybrid in a number of different trim grades when it is released in Australia in early 2010.

While Toyota has declined to provide an indication of price, it concedes the price gap will be greater than the $3000 difference that buyers are charged for some alternative fuel-saving cars, such as turbo-diesels sedans.

In the US, the Hybrid is about 30 per cent more expensive than the cheapest petrol-powered Camry. This would put the Australian-built Camry Hybrid in the $36,000 vicinity, compared to $28,490 for the base Camry Altise petrol.

As there will probably be a base, mid-range and even a luxury grade to mirror the Altise, Ateva and Grande models offered in the regular Camry range, the top-line Camry Hybrid version might end up stretching beyond the $50,000 mark.

Speaking in Los Angeles last week at the first public-road drive of the Camry Hybrid for Australian media, Toyota’s corporate manager of product planning Peter Evans said Toyota would try to minimise the price premium “and see what the government does in terms of incentivising customers to get into a hybrid vehicles”.

“Traditionally, hybrid technology has been more expensive than diesel. But then you don’t have to pay a premium for the fuel,” he said, highlighting the fact that the Camry Hybrid will happily run all day on 91 RON unleaded petrol.

“And my expectations are that it will also run on E10 (10 per cent ethanol/petrol),” Mr Evans revealed.

In America, the Camry Hybrid was released in the first quarter of 2006, powered by a 108kW/270Nm 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a 650-volt electric motor that draws current from a generator and a bank of 245-volt traction nickel-metal hydride batteries, adding 29kW of power to up the ante to 140kW.

Torque is transmitted to the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission.

While Toyota Australia produces an almost identical 2.4-litre unit for its regular Camry models in Melbourne, the Camry Hybrid’s entire powertrain – including the engine – will be imported from Japan, with no input from Australian suppliers.

This situation may change, however, as Australian Camry Hybrid production gets into its stride.

8 center image “All the normal Camry parts that also apply to the Hybrid will continue to be local, but the integration of the Hybrid components will come later. After we have had some experience, and identify what some of the opportunities are with the local suppliers’ capabilities, then we will be working with our local supplier bases to see what logical opportunities for reasonable volume (exist).” Mr Evans said the priority was to secure the Camry Hybrid for Australia first and then get it into production.

Toyota will build its full confirmation vehicles in December this year, with more serious volumes beginning from January 2010.

Volume production numbers have changed since approval was given in July, but Toyota is still to hit the 10,000 units per year mark with the Camry Hybrid.

“That’s a capped amount,” Mr Evans said.

“The Hybrid takes a little more time to build. It’s a little bit like a railway system, where the car that takes longer to build goes off to the side and has extra things added to it, and then it goes back onto the production line in a different place in the queue. It’s quite an elegant production solution (time wise) to build the Hybrid (off the existing Camry lines).”

Unlike the model sold in America since 2006, the 2010 Camry Hybrid will be easy to pick from its more mundane sibling, thanks to a slightly different nose that includes a unique grille and bumper, restyled fog lights and unique alloy wheels. Bold ‘Hybrid’ graphics are also fitted while the cabin has its own instrumentation cluster and seat material surfaces.

Mr Evans said the the Camry Hybrid facelift would be more extensive than the reworking of the non-Hybrid Camry.

“Customer feedback in the US said that they wanted the Camry Hybrid to stand out a bit more compared to the regular petrol-powered models, and be a little bit more different, and that will be the case with the Australian car,” he said.

“It will have different styling in terms of the grille, bumper and fog lamps, which be noticeably ‘hybrid-ish’ and it is the same with the tail lamps, in terms of LED lighting and other things that will distinguish the car.

“As well as that there will be a blue tinge on the headlights, tail-lights, badging, scuff plates and other things … a blue theme flowing through to the Hybrid, as we are doing on the new HS 250h and new-generation Prius.”

They are part of the 2010 Camry range refresh, due in the last quarter of 2009, which also includes small changes to the front, rear and interior.

“The model we start building from December this year in Australia will incorporate all of the changes shown in the (US) Camry facelift,” Mr Evans said.

Besides the obvious hybrid-related mechanical differences to the regular Camry, the Hybrid also uses a full electric power steering system and a completely revamped VDIM stability and traction control set-up that is specifically tuned for the vehicle.

Nevertheless, Toyota hopes most buyers will not even notice that they are in a hybrid Camry.

“Because when you drive it you don’t have to really know, or acknowledge, or change any of your driving habits, because it is a hybrid,” he said.

“It is a seamless hybrid, so you could drive it like a normal Camry, or take on the economy challenge and try to get maximum economy as you do when you drive a Prius… via little green leafy cars that stacked up (on the central display monitor) showing how much energy has been recovered.

“You don’t have to drive it like it is the Starship Enterprise – you can put anybody into it.”

Drive impressions:

WITH a gulf in the price between petrol and diesel, it seems that Toyota’s decision to start Australian manufacture of the Camry Hybrid is a smart one, as consumers worldwide continue to shun large, thirsty vehicles in favour of economical and more environmentally acceptable alternatives.

But will the middle-Australian new-car buyer it is aimed at really embrace such a radically different Camry?Camry has become a byword for normality a safe motoring bet if the transportation of up to five people comfortably and reliably ranks at the top of your automotive priorities.

Compared to the regular model, however, the Camry Hybrid is like an android from the future, with seemingly scary high-tech gadgets and gizmos lurking beneath an affordable Myer or Grace Bros suit.

Yet, with a million-plus Toyota petrol-electric hybrids sold worldwide since the original Prius wowed audiences at the 1997 Tokyo motor show, the company has had plenty of time and experience to get the technology right.

So right, in fact, that Toyota reckons that most drivers won’t even be able to pick the differences between a normal Camry and its more economical hybrid twin – except when it comes to saving fuel and lowering carbon emissions.

However, after a brief but enlightening driving route around Los Angeles, we beg to differ.

The unbelievable truth is… the Camry Hybrid does feel better to drive than the regular petrol version.

Yes, it weighs significantly more due to the heavy battery pack and additional electric motor, and this mass is felt as the car changes direction.

But the powertrain feels more responsive and is super-smooth as it delivers its torque seamlessly to the front wheels. This car whirrs along quietly and confidently, with a level of refinement that most Camry owners will not recognise.

Being in America, we were unable to find any meaningful corners or curves to test the electric power steering system’s reaction response, but it appears to work with sufficient poise, while the ride quality suited the road surfaces we were driving on.

This is a hybrid, so Toyota fits a unique instrument display for drivers and passengers to see how their newfangled hybrid motorcar works.

We feel that there is enough surprise and delight in this alone, as well as the expected fuel consumption gains, for many people out there to feel good about parting with the extra $6000 or so required to drive a Camry Hybrid.

About the only downside is the boot, which is nowhere near as commodious as the regular petrol-powered versions, since much of the battery related hardware resides within.

But the rest of the packaging is as you would expect from a mid-sized Toyota, and this is what will appeal most to people whom – although keen on the idea of saving fuel and going green – are too afraid to take the big step into something as radical-looking as the Prius.

It doesn’t look like a sports sedan, and certainly doesn’t steer or handle like one, but the Camry Hybrid might just bring critical mass to a technology that – if nothing else – gets people thinking about being more responsible in what they drive.

Now that’s the right sort of gulf worth bridging.

Read more:

2010 Camry facelift revealed

Part makers miss hybrid

Toyota cool on hybrid

PM, Toyota chief endorse Camry Hybrid plan

The Road to Recovery podcast series

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