Review: 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid
By Roger Boylan
The world is divided into two kinds of drivers: real drivers—let’s call them “real drivers”–and the rest. Usually, I’m the first kind, a “real driver,” who, even on the way to the supermarket, or on a boring commute, is aware of what he’s driving, how it looks, and what it’s capable of. Occasionally, however, when I’m fed up, hungover or ill, I’m one of the rest. I care as little as possible about the shell around me and the mechanics underfoot and just want the sight of home and bed. Most drivers fall into the latter category all the time; they’re the ones driving the old Buicks with masking tape on their windows and the oxidized Honda Civics with Obamanos bumper stickers: the “just get me from A to B” types.
But for those who have a foot in both camps, there’s the Toyota Camry, the ideal compromise car, America’s top-selling vehicle for 9 of the past 10 years despite Toyota’s recent reliability woes (now pretty much put to rest). Readers of these pages will recall my fondness for the SE V6 version, which I tested last March. Last week I had a chance to test the Camry Hybrid. I was familiar with Toyota’s hybrid offerings, having reviewed a variety of them, from the Plug-In Prius, to the Lexus CT, and fine vehicles they are, by and large. But they do tend to be a tad overpriced and unmistakably hybrids. Enter the Camry iteration, a midsized, “normal” family car at a reasonable price, starting at around $27K. You can stay south of $30K unless you go for all the accessories my test vehicle had. It stickered at $33k, a bit high for my blood, but we all know no one actually pays sticker price these days, not even for a hybrid.
My sky-blue Hybrid looked great, with gleaming chromed alloy wheels and that vaguely feline crouch common to all current-generation Camrys and faintly reminiscent to us Jag owners of…you guessed it. Anyway, it’s a good-looking car. To distinguish it from its gas-powered cousins, the Camry Hybrid has a slightly more aggressive front end, with a single bar bisecting the grille and a large center air dam. Small, discreet badges on the flanks and the tail proclaim Hybrid, but otherwise there’s no telling, until you get behind the wheel, sink into the supremely comfy driver’s seat, and admire the display in front of you that announces HYBRID SYNERGY DRIVE when you press the start button (ignition keys having pretty much gone the way of the CD player, except on low-level trims). Ice-blue Miami Beach-style backlighting, nearly but not quite tacky, limns the gauges; especially at night, one half-expects an angelfish to swim into view.
Directly ahead, in the driver’s info center, readouts keep you up-to-date about your mileage, battery charge, extent of all-electric power, economically appropriate driving style, the ambient temperature, and so on. Overall, the car feels familiar inside, spacious and comfortable, with the usual easy-to-use HVAC and audio controls—and, happily, evidence that Toyota’s once-legendary build quality has returned. Not even over the most jarring road surfaces could I elicit a rattle or buzz, despite a hefty expanse of hard gray dashboard plastic that presents a less than sumptuous prospect.
But aft of that, all is comfort–even luxury, depending which option boxes you tick. The base Hybrid comes with such niceties as keyless ignition and entry, driver-and-passenger automatic climate control, a 60/40-split rear seat, an eight-way power driver seat, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Higher levels of couture, such as that in my tester, throw in a power sunroof, a sat-nav system, leather seats (heated in front–not vital in 100-deg. Texas heat), 4-way power passenger seat, JBL 6-CD sound system, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB jack, and good old satellite radio. As far as safety goes, everything’s present and accounted for: multitudinous airbags, ABS, and Toyota’s “Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management” setup, which maintains joint surveillance over the stability and traction control systems. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the Camry “Good,” their highest accolade. All in all, a car you’d willingly spend time in, even coast-to-coast. But you might have to forego that extra suitcase, because the Hybrid’s trunk is about 30% smaller than that of the gas-powered versions, thanks to the batteries and various electrics that have taken up residence there. However, the rear seats are vast, sufficient for a couple of porkers and their stuff.
Of course, the powertrain in this car is where the action is. It consists of a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine making 147 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque joined to an electric motor that pumps out an additional 40, producing a combined 187 horses (as against 169 for the regular 4-cylinder model). This would have once been an impressive figure for any car, but no longer, with 200+ hp engines being the rule rather than the exception. Still, I’m pleased to report that each and every one of those 187 ponies gallops ahead at top speed when the driver’s foot is firmly pressed on the accelerator. There’s something about the extra thrust you get when the electric motor joins the gas engine, as it does on steep grades or under hard acceleration, that reminds me of a turbocharger. I’ve noticed this in other hybrids with reasonably powerful powertrains (i.e., not the Prius); it’s ideal for merging onto busy highways ahead of lumbering semis. So I was pleased, on three separate occasions, to record, via my antique-but-reliable Swiss chronometer, 0-60 sprints of under 8 seconds: call it 7.8, on average. The Hybrid’s not as quick as the V6 Camry, which hustles to 60 in under 6 seconds, but it beats its 4-cylinder brethren, and a host of other highway gadflies, too. So even though you’re getting 34 miles to the gallon in combined driving on regular gas (33 city, 34 highway per EPA estimates), and going nearly 700 miles between visits to the pump, you’re not giving up any oomph under the hood.
Mind you, the enormous single gear (or infinite tiny gears, depending on your point of view) of the Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT) causes the engine to roar a bit too loudly until the r.p.m.s catch up, but they do so in a mercifully short time, and by then you’re really moving, and in virtual silence. And the Hybrid doesn’t just haul the freight in a straight line when required. It also corners ably and offers a surprising amount of driver feedback, essential to having a good time on twisty back roads, and what “real driver” doesn’t want to do that? Brake feel, frequently an issue in hybrids, seemed fine to me, if occasionally a bit grabby. The car’s ability to marry performance and economy comes as a pleasant surprise. In short, should you be one of those sticklers who actually abide by the 70 m.p.h. limit, you’ll cruise along fine in traditional Camry style and find yourself getting an honest 40 mpg, with judicious application of the cruise control (accessible via the usual Toyota steering-wheel stalk). But should you be a rebel without a cause, indifferent to fuel economy, who just wants to magically conjure up a black-and-white patrol car in the rearview mirror, no problem. You’ll find yourself cruising at three-digit speeds in no time and bingo! There be Smokey. (And you’ll still probably be getting over 30 mpg.)
There are other hybrids, of course. Not just Toyota’s iconic Prius, and the (more-costly) others in the Toyota family line-up, but Ford’s Fusion, too, which has garnered heaps of praise, and gets a full 10 mpg better economy than the Camry Hybrid; but this advantage is offset by a less roomy interior and a $1K+ price premium at base price levels. There are the new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and its Kia Optima cousin, too, and they promise much. In some states you can get an Altima Hybrid, and aren’t the Fusion and the Altima nimbler cars, better suited to the “real driver” in you? Maybe. But both sides of your personality will be well served by the Camry Hybrid.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.