Over the past couple of years, I had the opportunity to test most of the hybrid vehicles available today. There are a couple of differing opinion s of what constitutes a hybrid vehicle. Unlike other hybrid vehicles, Toyota’s Synergy system can use the engine in combination with the battery to drive the Camry, as well as use the electric motor/battery on its own – it’s a true hybrid. Ford’s system uses the electric motor/battery up to 30 mph and after that its 100% engine for all your propulsion. The battery/electric motor doesn’t come on at all if you use the A/C or heating system.
With the price of petrol constantly rising and no end in sight, I thought it would be a good time to review my favourite hybrid so far – the Toyota Camry. Why is it my favourite? Well, for one it’s the most practical for everyday use while being reasonably priced too. It’s also been at the top of the list for comfort and fuel economy too. The Honda Civic is a great hybrid, but the premium price you pay for the hybrid will take a while to recoup when you consider how fuel-efficient the regular Civic already is. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius are not even the same league as the Civic or Camry.
A lot has changed in the past two years with regards to the cost of fuel. Looking back to my last big trip in the Camry hybrid, the price of petrol was 82.9 cents/litre [Canadian]. As I write this, I’ve just gotten back from two road trips: one to New Jersey and the other to Quebec. In New York and New Jersey, gas was selling for around $4.25 U.S.gallon, with Quebec prices at $1.45/litre, and our local prices are $1.32 per litre. That’s double in only two years!!
If you’ve read my summer vacation report: Is It Worth Buying A Hybrid To Save Money On Fuel? You’ll have already gotten a good idea of the benefits of owning the Camry hybrid.
One of the reasons I chose the Camry for that journey was how comfortable the seats were on our trip to Wisconsin a couple of years ago. They were so comfortable we raved about them for weeks afterwards. Unfortunately this time I got the base model which consisted of cloth seats that in-turn changed it into a barely passable seat in the comfort department. It surprised me that Toyota had gotten the seats so wrong in the base model because that’s usually one place you can guarantee comfortable seats – Toyota.
The driver’s seatback was very comfortable – largely due to the power lumbar adjustment, but the cushion part was bum numbing. The driver gets a 6-way power seat, while the unfortunate front passenger has to make do with manual adjustments and no lumbar adjustment of any kind (the Premium Package gives the passenger 4-way power seats). It also comes with heated leather seats and a SatNav system – I’d highly recommend paying the few extra dollars for that model.
I didn’t hear any complaints from the three passengers that occupied the shotgun seat at various times during our trip to Mont-Tremblant. When I specifically asked how comfortable the seat was, I got a shrug and “I wouldn’t want to drive to Florida in that seat, but otherwise not bad.”
The back seat was roomy and reasonably comfortable for the trip, but one occupant complained that the cup holders in the armrest was a “dumb design” – especially if it’s a family car. With the drinks hovering over the fabric seats it’s definitely a mess waiting to happen. The angle of the seatback also became a contentious issue, with suggestions that the middle part of the seat would have been more comfortable because it protrudes just that bit more into the curve of the spine. With a flat floor, there’s plenty of room for three pairs of feet, and the outboard passengers have an abundance of foot space regardless of how far back the front seats are. Knee and legroom is very generous, with hip, head and elbow room also very good, although naturally with a third person it gets a little tighter.
The keyless entry on the Camry hybrid is both terrific and infuriating at different times. You don’t actually need to use the fob to lock or unlock the door, or even use the key to start the engine. With little black rubberized buttons on the front door handles, you just press those to lock/unlock the car while the key fob remains in your pocket or purse. Starting the car is just a matter of putting your foot on the brake and pressing the big button marked start/stop. Opening the trunk however requires that you use the key fob or go inside the car to pull the lever – you can’t open it even though the rest of the car is unlocked. When your arms are full of stuff that has to go into the trunk the choices are put it on the ground and fumble for the fob, or drop everything as you try to open the driver’s door to get to the lever. Arrrgh!!! Why can’t it unlock for you when you’re standing right there with the fob in your pocket?!
The leather-wrapped steering wheel is a little bit on the thin size, but comfortable. It both tilts and telescopes and has the stereo, telephone, cruise and climate controls on it with nice big legible buttons. The instrument panel has a large round speedometer in the middle, with a large “fuel economy” dial the sweeps the entire length of the left-hand side of the speedometer, giving you instant feedback on your mpg. I don’t much see the point of these types of gauges (other manufacturers use a similar set up), why not just a little digital number instead? Every time you gave the go-pedal a bit of welly, the needle would sweep up to its limit as the engine revved to confirm the dial, then it would settle down as the transmission shifted.
Other than the fuel economy dial and three hybrid badges, there’s no way to tell that this Camry is any different from a regular one. Even after a couple of years on the road, Toyota have a winner here in the looks department. The only other tell-tale sign that this is a different Camry is when you look in the trunk. The rear seat folds 60/40, but in truth it should be considered 40/0. The passenger side (the 40 part), folds forward to reveal a very small opening that would accommodate perhaps two or three sets of skis to pass through – nothing else. The other side folds forward – but offers no access to the trunk area at all. The only thing I could surmise is that it would be useful for putting a bulky or dirty item in the back without fear of damaging the seats. That being said, the trunk itself is 10.6 cu/ft. (the regular Camry’s is 15 cu/ft.) and is still extremely useful. If you didn’t know it was the hybrid battery that was eating up a little bit of space back there, you’d think it was a very normal trunk. We stuffed the trunk with suitcases and a cooler for our trip and it swallowed everything with ease. One thing that would help would be cantilever hinges that wouldn’t eat into valuable trunk space when stuffing it full – you always have to leave just a little bit of room to avoid crushing anything.
Driving a hybrid isn’t any different than driving a regular car. When you ‘start’ the car by putting your foot on the brake and pushing the start/stop button – nothing happens. You hear the odd clicking or whirring, but that’s it. Because there is no tachometer and it’s running on the battery upon startup, you have no idea if you can drive off or not. A couple of times I pushed the start button only to switch the car off. Once I got used to the silence, I knew it was okay to drive away because I could see the speedometer (the dash is black when everything is shut off). By the same token turning it off became a bit of a conundrum – was it off, or was it still on? Yes, the dashboard was still lit up, but I wanted to leave the radio on for my passengers while I ran into the store. A couple of times when we stopped at a rest stop for coffee at night I couldn’t get the headlights to switch off even though they were set to “automatic.” The only way to tell if it was switched off was to lock the car and get the confirmation beep.
Stepping on the gas pedal to get the hybrid moving is uneventful, with a tiny bit of hesitation before setting off. Once the speed picks up you barely hear the 4-cylinder engine kick in to assist the electric motor. Toyota claim the HSD Powertrain is “an impressive V6-equivalent performance of 192 hp” (the 2.4 litre 4-cylinder is 147 hp, then add in the electric), yet when actually behind the wheel it doesn’t feel anywhere near that potent. I would estimate it felt more like 150 hp total. Considering we spent a lot of time with the Camry loaded up with vacation suitcases etc., the hybrid was more than up to the task of racing away from traffic lights.
The Camry Hybrid is very quiet – no matter whether you’re travelling at 70 km/h or 160 km/h – it’s almost Lexus-quiet. The Camry’s CVT transmission is very smooth and seamless of course because it has no gears. If you suddenly want a bit giddy-up, you have to allow for the bit of pedal travel and the information to be sent to the engine. For the leisurely driver that pulls out in front of that tractor-trailer without caring about the laws of physics – this is your car!! Acceleration isn’t on the brisk side, but it’s certainly adequate for every day driving. Once up to highway speeds, the hybrid can run with everything on the road – you can easily run with the fastest of cars.
The only other complaint I have about the Camry is with the automatic climate control. I usually hate them at the best of times, but this one is infuriating. No matter what the setting were before you turned the car off, they have to be re-set when you start it up again. This may not seem like a big deal, but think about this. The car has been sitting in a 35C degree sun for several hours. You start the car and the climate control starts blasting the hot air that’s been trapped inside the car for the past couple of hours!! The recirculation part of the A/C system ALWAYS comes on whenever you start the car. Unlike the seating issue, I don’t know if there is a way around this problem other than just having to live with it. Considering I could only come up with a couple of complaints, you have to consider the Camry hybrid a fantastic car.
The dashboard layout of the Camry is pleasant enough with everything clearly marked and easy to reach. Aesthetically the pale-green backlight HVAC/Audio system is nice to look at and I can’t think of any other vehicle that incorporates anything similar. The unit is called a “Plasmacluster” ionizer, which is integrated into the climate control system, reducing harmful airborne substances, such as microbes, fungi, odours and germs that may linger inside the passenger cabin. On the plus side, it was a dual-zone system – and that is always a good thing when a woman is in the passenger seat! The Camry Hybrid also comes with an Econo A/C that helps reduce the power that the electric motor would use to cool the cabin. Strangely, the button was down by my left knee, so it wasn’t exactly convenient or easy to remember it actually existed. The large locking glove box was a size as you’d expect of a vehicle this size, but that we don’t always get.
The last time I drove the Camry hybrid I was blown away at how affordable it was. I was expecting a price in the $40,000 Cdn [$32,000 U.S.] range, but it came in at $31,900 Cdn [$26,520 U.S.]. For the 2009 model the prices have changed a little: the base price is $30,660 Cdn [$25,650 U.S.], so that means the price has actually gone down. The model with Option ‘B’ rings in at $34,780 Cdn [$30,710 U.S.].
I still wanted to tackle the fuel economy question – would it even come close to the EPA numbers, or would real-world driving make it just another novelty for the tree-huggers among us? To that end I set myself a self-imposed target of getting the possible fuel economy while I had the keys to this hybrid. At the same time I wasn’t going to be stupid about it and impede traffic just to get better fuel economy.
For some people, this test would be easy, but for me it required changing my driving habits. For one, I usually travel at 130+ kph on the highway – that would have to change. Since most families puttering around my area on vacation are usually clogging up the freeways doing 100 km/h or less, I wasn’t going to be one of them for this experiment. In the U.S. interstates that we would be driving the speed limit is 65mph, which is very close to Ontario at 100 km/h. I set my goal of travelling at or near 110 km/h using the cruise control and resisting the urge to overtake at all possible incidents that would require going much over that limit.
While in my possession, we really put the hybrid through its paces. With 2 separate long-distance trips planned, this was going to give us a very good indication of what the hybrid will do in real-world driving.
On our first expedition, I got a very commendable 847 kms and we still had just under a ¼ of a tank of fuel left!! The return leg of the trip wasn’t going to be possible on that same tank, so I filled up and did my calculations. The fill-up cost us $50 and we got 12.7 (U.S.) gallons for that amount, making our journey an average of 5.8 L/100 kms!!! That’s much better than I’d imagined because we spent a lot of time going through the Pocono Mountains – not exactly conducive to getting the best possible fuel economy. The return trip was shorter (it didn’t include the trip into Toronto to pick up the car) at 734.7 kms and worked out to be 6.8 L/100 kms. One caveat though: I abandoned my self-imposed 115 km/h and we returned as fast as possible – my usual driving style. Although we hit a lot of road construction, we did travel at my usual 130+ km/h for extended periods.
Our second trip was just as long, but had less time in the mountains as well as a less strenuous climb into them. The vast majority of the trip would be quite flat, but we would be carrying an extra body and luggage for three – plus a dog. The trunk was filled to capacity and the spare seat in the back was also fully utilized. This would be a good indication of a family heading off on their summer holiday. So how’d we do in the fuel department? The first fill-up totalled 7.0 L/100 km and the second came in at – wait for it….6.3 L/100 km. What the??? How could that be? I was being very good with my right foot!!! We drove a total of 1,885 kms round trip including some stop and go driving nevertheless it all averaged out to 6.7 L/100km. (More impressive however was the overall total fuel number – see the conclusion).
Obviously driving conservatively saves fuel – that much we proved during the first journey, but in the case of the Camry hybrid you don’t get unduly punished at the pumps if you get carried away with your right foot. When was the last time you heard that ANY vehicle could get remotely close to the government mpg ratings? The Camry hybrid is rated at 5.7 L/100 kms, but I got 5.8 L/100 km on a trip that included a lot of driving in the Pocono Mountains! BUT….
The added weight of another adult, the cooler and all the additional luggage – took its toll on the fuel economy on our second trip. Have a look in your own vehicle – do you have anything in the trunk that doesn’t have to be there? If so, how about leaving it out – it all adds up over the course of a year – less weight, better kilometers per litre.
As a highway car Camry hybrid was very good, soaking up all of the road imperfections and construction variations along the way with ease. The quiet interior made the long tedious hours pass by with relative ease. The steering and suspension is as best as can be expected of the Camry – it’s not a sports sedan – so don’t expect it to drive and ride like a BMW. It’s an extremely comfortable long-distance cruiser and more than holds it’s own in and around town. I was very surprised with the 0 – 100 km/h time of 7.9 seconds – you just don’t expect a hybrid to be quite so swift out of the gate.
Another stand-out in the Camry hybrid was the JBL Synthesis audio system. The 6-disc in-dash AM/FM stereo with MP3/WMA player with 8-speakers was simply superb. The sound quality was crystal clear and you can crank it up till your ears bleed! The buttons on the unit and on the steering wheel are easy to use and very logical. Plugging in my MP3 player was a difficult job because the auxiliary plug was so far back in the compartment – you couldn’t see it once your hand was in there, so you have to feel around to get to the jack.
As a 4-door sedan – at any price-point – this is one very tough car to beat. It’s large and comfortable and you don’t sacrifice anything to the regular Camry. Its price and fuel mileage are superb. Its suspension is compliant but not so softly sprung you’d regret your purchase for the sake of fuel economy. The price of gas is continually going to rise and the hybrid will help pay for itself in a short time if you’re doing a lot of driving. Considering the Camry hybrid is at least $1,000 cheaper than it was 2 years ago, plus it has added content (moonroof for one) and various governments are now kicking in rebates – how can you go wrong?
Fuel Bill: For my entire 2-week road test we travelled a grand total of 3,611 kms) (2,244 miles), used 233 litres 960 gallons) of fuel shelling out $293.40 in the process. That works out to an average of 6.4 L/100 kms (38 mpg).
Extremely quiet at all speeds
Outstanding fuel economy
With or without rebates – this is one fine sedan for its price!
Won’t win any drag races
Make sure you upgrade to the leather seats.
Immediate Competition (Hybrid):
Ford Fusion & Escape, Honda Civic & Insight, Mazda Tribute, Toyota Prius & Highlander
By The Numbers…
Please visit your local dealer for the latest prices and incentives.
Powertrain: 2.4 Litre, Hybrid System, 4-Cylinder, DOHC, 16-Valve, Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i); Electronic Throttle Control System with Intelligence (ETCS-i); Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD); Permanent magnet AC synchronous motor
Horsepower: Net: 187 [147 @ 6,000 rpm engine]
Torque: 138 @ 4,400 rpm – gas engine / Electric motor: 199 lb-ft @ 0-1,500 rpm
Fuel Consumption: [Regular/Electric]
City and Highway: 5.7 L/100 kms
My best average was 5.8 L/100 kms and my worst average was 7.0 L/100km.
Comparison: The 4-cylinder is rated at 11.5 L/100kms City / 7.8 L/100kms Highway, and the 3.5 litre V-6 is rated at 12.8 L/100kms City / 8.7 L/100kms Highway
The reason we went to New Jersey…
Copyright © 2009 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text / Images: Iain Shankland
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