Counterpoint: Toyota Camry Hybrid
By Kevin Miller
In addition to my myriad responsibilities here at Autosavant, I’m also a corporate worker bee–flying off to America’s heartland, renting a car, and driving out to a large factory somewhere to contribute to my customers’ (and my employer’s) success. That gives me the opportunity to sample countless forgettable transportation appliances, usually assembled without many options and without much care, which have been sold to rental fleet operators at big discounts, which get the cars off of the manufacturers’ respective books.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I landed in the heart of California’s conservative Orange County and was handed the keys to a Toyota Camry Hybrid in exchange for my weeklong Category C reservation. Equipped with keyless entry/drive and Toyota’s famed Hybrid Synergy Drive, this was my first chance to experience a hybrid out in the real world.
Before I go any further, you need to know that I hate the Camry. Mainly, my strong feelings toward the car come from the fact that people in American society today who buy Camrys are generally terrible drivers. They wander between lanes without signaling, they don’t use their mirrors, they drive 20 percent below the speed limit. And most Camrys I see on the road, even newer ones, have scrapes, dents, and dings in them, proving that the drivers are so unskilled that they can’t manage to keep their cars unblemished. If you see a car being driven really badly, chances are it’s a Camry. Or a Corolla, but I digress.
Having rented non-hybrid Camrys recently, I know that their suspension is tuned to wallow and the steering wheel communicates virtually nothing; charging into a corner with any spirit only results in relentless howling from the appliance-grade tires. A meticulously engineered, conservatively styled cabin made from low-grade plastics rounds out the Camry’s repertoire.
I’ve never been a fan of hybrid cars, instead believing that an efficiently engineered car with a lower-displacement engine, efficient manual transmission, and reasonably low curb weight can attain similar (or better) fuel economy, especially if the fuel is diesel. The added weight and complexity of the batteries and electric propulsion system (not to mention the ecological consequences of the battery manufacturing) just seem a step too far. In particular, Toyota’s greener-than-thou marketing campaign, intimating that flowers and rainbows are the only tailpipe emissions, just rubs me the wrong way.
All of that being said, my predispositions against both hybrid cars and Camrys is a lot of baggage to carry, in addition to my suitcase and briefcase I brought with me on the trip. Too bad the Hybrid’s battery pack takes away a full 1/3 of the Camry’s otherwise large trunk. There is the first in-the-metal demerit for the Camry Hybrid.
My rental reservation was just for a car, not for a hybrid. I expect to get in a car, use the gas pedal to go, and the brake pedal to stop. I shouldn’t’ have to lower my expectations because my rental car is a hybrid. Unfortunately, the Camry Hybrid doesn’t drive like a normal car.
The IC engine in my Camry Hybrid shuts off when the car is at rest. When it is time to set off, the car creeps forward on battery power, but then subtly shudders as the IC engine comes to life. Until the IC engine is running, the accelerator pedal depressed fully doesn’t move you much beyond a crawl. If you chose the Camry Hybrid because of the rainbows and flowers in the advertisements, you probably don’t care about the delay, just accepting as your contribution to the rainbow.
I, on the other hand, do care. This car has not one, but two motors, and it is among the slowest cars off the line I’ve ever driven. The Camry Hybrid’s CVT provides additional constriction of the power getting to the ground. Fortunately, once underway and in the 2.4 liter 4-cylinder’s powerband, the Camry can achieve highway speeds. Of course, if you’ve lifted off the throttle for too long, like when going down a long grade, the IC engine will turn off, so you’re momentarily out of luck if you need to quickly accelerate for any reason.
Once underway, the hybrid Camry’s handling remains as uninspired as its petrol-powered version. Taking a turn at any speed above a crawl causes the front tires to howl from understeer- maybe that’s why those idiotic Camry drivers always slow down to a near stop when turning. The low-rolling-resistance tires on the hybrid version only accentuate the problem. I actually experienced such bad understeer going from one parkway to another that I plowed from the inside lane to the outside lane of a two-lane ramp, at what I would consider a normal cornering speed for this connector of two roads with 55 MPH speed limits.
The Camry Hybrid features two-stage braking, with regenerative brakes handling the light-duty stopping, and conventional hydraulic brakes handling the heavier work. That system works reasonably well in mundane commuter, stop-and-go driving. However, in heavier traffic, the transition from regen to hydraulic brakes is far from seamless- the hydraulics kick in with a bite that causes the softly-sprung Camry’s nose to dive. A panic stop actually resulted in the front wheels hopping when the hydraulic brakes kicked in, before the ABS took over and smoothed things out. That was a scary sensation. Perhaps the flowers-and-rainbows set doesn’t mind that kind of thing , but I do. I need brakes to provide feedback and consistent stopping force, which the Camry Hybrid’s don’t.
On the inside, the Camry Hybrid lived up to my rental car expectations, with an anonymous gray upholstery, the requisite cheap dashboard plastics, and a cheesy mouse-fur headliner. The Plasmacluster center-stack control surround reminded me of my 1986 Toyota truck’s climate controls after the silkscreened legends wore off. Only the keyless go, Bluetooth handsfree phone integration, and automatic climate control lifted the interior above standard rental car fare.
So here’s the thing: attempting to drive the Camry Hybrid like a regular car instead of like a Hybrid is a frustrating experience, because it doesn’t drive like a regular car. While people who purposely buy Hybrid cars can put up with such behavior from their cars (or, perhaps, even enjoy it), I don’t. While the Camry Hybrid has reliably transported me past the OC’s endless supply of strip malls and office parks, putting up with its shuddering starts and lurching stops grew tiresome. The icing on the cake is that driving the Camry as a car rather than hypermiling it as a hybrid, I’ve gotten an average of 27.5 MPG. Which is 3 MPG less than the 2010 VW Golf TDI’s city rating of 30 MPG.
So you’ve really got to drive the Camry Hybrid “like a hybrid” (instead of like a normal car) in order to achieve the rated fuel economy. Just driving it like a normal car, it uses gas like a normal car, at a higher rate than an efficiently engineered car with a single powertrain, making the whole hybrid system seem a bit pointless. The inherent inefficiency of toting along two powertrains, plus the odd sensations that one feels when the car switches between them, make me believe that I’ll never be someone who “gets” hybrids. And I’m OK with that.
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