Believe it or not, there are some people in the world who do not care for chocolate. This never ceases to stun us when we witness it, but our children often choose a starburst mint over a small chocolate bar. Even as a card-carrying fan of chocolate, when I am presented with a choice between chocolate or vanilla birthday cake, sometimes I’ll choose vanilla. (Birthday cake is all about the icing, anyway). For those who lean toward the vanilla side of the spectrum more often than not, your dream car is here: the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE.
In a recent piece posted on Autosavant, James Wong looked into some of the cultural reasons for Japanese companies such as Toyota and Honda becoming so risk-averse and trailing their competitors in the rollout of new technology and innovations. Let’s face it: most of what is new about the Camry is an incremental improvement over the old (2007-2011) car. Comparing a 2007 to a 2012 Camry is not as dramatic as comparing a 2007 Sonata against the current model. Don’t get me wrong: there are improvements in nearly every aspect of this new-generation Camry, but the car’s personality has not fundamentally changed with the 2012 model.
The Camry’s shape has changed, but it’s still quite easily identifiable as a Camry. Though it’s not true, it appears at first glance that you could swap the doors and greenhouse from the previous Camry with the new one’s (or even the prior generation’s, circa 2002). The car’s corners are a bit more squared off, there’s a bit more visual interest around the rocker panels, and the wheels fill the fenders a bit better, but you’ll likely never receive a “cool car” complement from anyone in the Camry’s vicinity.
That being said, one advantage of the anonymity of the Camry (and in particular, one in silver) is that you really blend in. One day, I used the Camry Hybrid to take some coworkers out for lunch at a local strip mall, and (I swear I’m not exaggerating) I couldn’t find the car for 15 or 20 seconds. I looked in the vicinity of where I parked it, but just didn’t see the car. The top-of-the-line XLE gives you larger wheels and some extra chrome adornments that lend the car a conservative, upscale appearance.
Inside, it’s clear that the Camry’s designers took criticism of the last car to heart. In place of the weird green plexiglass-look center stack is a more conventional, upscale design featuring large LCD screen that offers navigation, radio display, and phone functionality. The upper dash is padded vinyl with French stitching on its face, which does a decent job of looking expensive, but nearly everything in light gray in the photos is hard plastic. The steering wheel is thick and has a number of buttons on its spokes for controlling various audio and trip computer functions, and the gauges are large, clear, and legible.
This particular Camry was equipped with Toyota’s new Entune infotainment system, which uses a Bluetooth-paired cell phone (an iPhone 4S in my case) to provide Internet radio from iHeartRadio and Pandora, plus OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, Bing search, sports scores, stock prices, weather, and traffic. In my tests, the services all worked pretty well, though there is a definite lag as data (be it weather information or streaming Internet radio) loads to the car over your data connection. In order to use Entune, you have to install the app on your smartphone and register for the service. You then have to open the app on your phone, which creates the data-sharing connection between it and your Toyota. Once initiated, Entune can run in the background (so you can make a phone call, for instance), but it’s a little cumbersome to require the app to be open in order to use it.
GM’s IntelliLink solves the problem a bit differently. IntelliLink also allows you to listen to Internet radio, but does not allow wireless Bluetooth streaming as Entune does. However, IntelliLink does not require a standalone app to run; instead, you open Pandora (for example) on the phone, then choose Pandora on the car’s “apps” screen, and the car assumes control over Pandora’s functionality. Both approaches have their positives and negatives, but at the end of the day, you can do thing like giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down to particular songs and you can access your Pandora stations from the navigation display, which is pretty cool. With a “4G” (non-LTE) data connection from AT&T, sound quailty was also quite good; on par with satellite radio, better than FM, worse than CD. The Camry XLE’s JBL-fortified system sounds really good, with strong, mostly distortion-free bass and fairly accurate trebles.
Toyota chose to use faux suede in the XLE’s seating surfaces, which struck me as an interesting choice. I’ve sat on seats with real suede before (a 1986 Pontiac 6000 STE) and they felt nothing like the Camry’s thrones. Frankly, I would have preferred plain leather, but the faux-suede does hold your butt in place better and has superior heat resistance compared to leather or vinyl. The seats are fairly flat (as would be expected in a car of this class) but didn’t cause any numbness or discomfort after a long stint behind the wheel. The interior is spacious; this is not a small car, despite Toyota also offering the larger, near-luxury Avalon. My family of four (including two kids in big booster seats) fit into it without any issues at all.
The reason to buy a Camry Hybrid over a conventional Camry is, of course, fuel economy. This car delivers it in spades. With an EPA rating of 40 mpg city/38 mpg highway/40 mpg combined, it tops the regular Camry 2.5 liter by a large margin (25/35/28) and even tops the Fusion Hybrid for the time being (41/39/36). Compared to the 2011 Camry Hybrid (rated 31/35/33), that’s a serious 21 percent improvement. When the 2013 Fusion Hybrid hits the streets in a few months, it will likely reclaim the hybrid sedan fuel economy crown from the Camry with an expected 47/44/46 window sticker. One important thing to note: the Camry Hybird LE is rated at a better 43/39/41 (3 mpg better in the city, 1 mpg better on the highway, 1 mpg better combined), likely due to the XLE’s 215/55 17″ tires against the LE’s 205/65 16″ shoes.
The fuel economy improvement I witnessed in the 2012 Camry Hybrid against the 2008 Camry Hybrid that I tested several years ago was real: in the older car, I observed about 31 miles per gallon. In this 2012 model-year tester, I saw about 37 miles per gallon. In fact, on one drive to work, I got a bona-fide 42.2 mpg in my 24-mile commute. Unlike many cars, the Camry Hybrid returns excellent mileage almost in spite of your driving style; credit the fact that the city and highway economy numbers are nearly identical for that. You can expect to top 700 miles of range on a single 17-gallon tank of regular unleaded in this car; that’s more than double what I get from the similarly-sized tank in my personal 2008 Cadillac CTS.
Nearly all hybrids, including the Camry Hybrid, have a special version of a conventional gasoline engine called an Atkinson cycle engine. The Atkinson cycle, named for its inventor, James Atkinson (who invented it in 1882), delays intake-valve closing for an expansion ratio greater than compression ratio). This allows an Atkinson cycle engine to achieve maximum efficiency, at the expense of power density. (The 2.5 liter Atkinson cycle engine in the Camry Hybrid produces 156 horsepower, while its non-Atkinson 2.5 liter cousin produces 178 horsepower).
The Camry Hybrid’s impressive fuel economy does not come without sacrifice. First, the Camry Hybrid costs more than a regular Camry XLE. To be specific, the Hybrid model costs $2,475 more than the non-hybrid when adjusting for features, according to TrueDelta.com. Using the EPA’s fuel-cost estimator, the Camry Hybrid would cost $1,300 to drive 15,000 miles (55% city/45% highway), while a Camry 2.5 liter would cost $1,850. That means the hybrid would save $550 per year, so the payback period to recover the upfront hybrid premium is 4.5 years. If gas prices rise, the payback period gets shorter, and if they fall, it gets longer.
Another “cost” of the hybrid system is reduced cargo capacity. While the regular Camry does not have to store batteries in its trunk, and boasts 15.4 cubic feet of trunk space, the Camry Hybrid sacrifices some space at the front of the trunk against the rear seatback for its hybrid batteries and delivers 13.1 cubic feet of cargo space. You also lose most, but not all, of the regular Camry’s trunk pass-through.
Finally, the Camry Hybrid offers its driver a penalty in driving feel. Though it’s actually fairly quick (the robust Hybrid Synergy Drive electric motor produces a supplemental 199 lb-ft of torque to aid the 156 hp gasoline engine), there’s a certain robotic, disconnected feel when you step on the gas. Sounds don’t match what your right foot is doing, and responses are sometimes delayed. Driven at a normal 3/10ths commuting-type level of aggressiveness, the Camry Hybrid is powerful enough to jump into traffic openings. There’s also a sacrifice of braking linearity because there are two braking systems (regenerative braking via the electric motor for gentle applications, and the traditional friction brakes for more assertive stops) that have to work together. This has gotten much better than in older hybrids, but there’s still a different feel when the regen brakes hand off to the friction brakes.
For a $34,596 MSRP, is this car a good value? Looking to TrueDelta again to discern the pricing comparison, the Camry Hybrid XLE and Sonata Hybrid are less than $50 apart. Against the Fusion Hybrid, the Ford enjoys a $1,020 feature-adjusted price advantage. It’s probably a better car than the 2012 Fusion Hybrid, but it may have a challenge against that all-new Fusion Hybrid. Plus, the Fusion will have a plug-in version and an all-electric version, along with two EcoBoost engines and one naturally-aspirated one. The Camry Hybrid will most likely provide years of efficient, comfortable, trouble-free vanilla motoring. For some folks, that’s exactly the flavor they are looking for.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.