Review and photos by
Paul Williams, CanadianDriver.com
When the price of fuel rises to unacceptable levels, sales of hybrid vehicles rise too. Obviously, consumers believe that hybrid vehicles will lower their costs at the pump.
Well, consumers are right about that, as hybrids do use less fuel than equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles, especially in city driving. And now that the price of hybrid vehicles has dropped to within shouting distance of similarly equipped non-hybrid vehicles, the long-term economic case can also be made.
Take the 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid, for instance. At $31,310, this generously proportioned, front-wheel drive midsize car comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, a continuously variable (automatic) transmission, auto up/down power windows, XM satellite radio, USB connectivity, dual automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth, Smartkey remote entry, electronic gauges with multifunction display, automatic headlamps, two accessory outlets, tilt/telescoping steering with remote controls and pushbutton start and auto dimming rear-view mirror with compass, among other features.
Leather interior, moonroof and navigation system are available at extra cost, but the “base” vehicle is sufficiently equipped that buyers won’t feel they’ve short-changed themselves.
Our test vehicle, however, was priced at $32,400, due to the presence of the Moonroof package, which also included fog lights, illuminated vanity mirrors and rear reading lamps.
If you want the voice-activated Navigation system, it arrives bundled with leather seating surfaces, heated power seats and four-disc CD player, along with the Moonroof package, and brings the price of a fully loaded Camry Hybrid to $36,535. Still, in my opinion, feature-competitive with non-hybrid equivalent vehicles.
Under the hood you’ll find a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine that operates in conjunction with a 105-kilowatt electric motor. The output of the engine alone is 147 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. In combination with the electric motor the output is 187 hp and 199 lb-ft torque. The system also uses a nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery to power the motor, which is charged when braking and decelerating (there is an eight-year warranty on the hybrid components, by the way).
The operation of these two sources of motive power is managed by software and requires no special skills or practices by the driver. It is rarely noticeable on the road once you are underway.
Nor is the Camry Hybrid particularly identifiable as an alternative-powered vehicle, wearing only a couple of special badges and a revised grille to separate it from other Camry models.
The exterior design is pleasant, but not exciting. It’s middle-of-the-road, sharing standard Toyota/Lexus family cues.
The interior is likewise familiar and functional. It’s roomy, easy to enter and exit, has several useful storage areas and comfortable seats. Visibility is excellent; headroom is generous, and with the seat and steering column adjustability, the vast majority of drivers will find a satisfactory and safe position behind the wheel.
However, trunk space is compromised by the presence of the Ni-MH battery, and the operation of the split-folding rear seats is likewise constrained. The reduction in cargo capacity is about 25 per cent when compared with the non-hybrid Camry (300 litres versus 425).
The Camry Hybrid does not require a key to unlock and start it. Instead, its intelligent keyfob allows you to open the locked doors at a press of a button on the door handle, while starting is effected by pressing a button on the dash. This is a very convenient feature. You think you can’t live without power locks and remote entry? Well, once you’ve used a Smart Key System, you won’t want to give that up, either.
Once you have settled in and started the car, you’re typically greeted by silence as the Optitron Electronic Gauges light up and the electric motor readies to get you underway. The gasoline engine joins in when additional acceleration is required, but the Camry Hybrid will operate in electric mode for several kilometres if conditions warrant.
While saving money in this manner (especially in stop-and-go traffic) owners surely must feel validated by the purchase of a Camry Hybrid. There they are, driving along, enjoying their satellite radio in coolly conditioned air, without using a drop of gasoline. Even I felt pleased with myself, and it wasn’t my car!
In fact, you can drive the Camry Hybrid in full EV (Electric Vehicle) mode up to about 40 km/h, so it’s not only stop-and-go situations where you’ll run on the battery. And while you are driving, an analog eco-gauge indicates your fuel consumption, enabling you to tailor your driving style for increased efficiency by staying in the “green” zone.
There is no tachometer, by the way, just the speedometer, eco-gauge, fuel and temperature gauges and multi-function array. It’s all you need.
No matter what the speed, the CVT transmission does not shift from one gear to another, but rather adjusts along continuous spectrum of ratios, depending on the torque you require. Once you reach your desired speed, the transmission enables the engine speed to drop way down, thus further saving fuel. CVT transmissions have been criticized for a tendency to moan when accelerating, but my experience was that the Camry Hybrid’s transmission pretty much worked in the background. It didn’t draw attention to itself.
The Camry Hybrid accelerates well, and while it is certainly no purpose-designed sports sedan, you absolutely won’t get left behind in traffic, and are unlikely to ever need more power than is available.
Similarly, the Camry Hybrid is not a performance handling machine, but the steering is responsive and the suspension is firm enough to provide a feeling of agility, while still offering a smooth and comfortable ride. Brakes are four-wheel discs, and the steering is electric power assist.
The Camry Hybrid does tend to stop more abruptly than you might expect, and this takes a little getting used to. It’s the regenerative braking at work, recharging the battery. You might feel the brakes “grab” a little. All hybrids exhibit this behaviour, some more than others.
Fuel consumption is officially rated at 5.7 L/100 km, city and highway. My experience over a week of mixed driving was 6.0-7.0 L/100 km, which is what you can expect from a compact or subcompact car on the highway. In other words, 6.0-7.0 L/100km in a much larger vehicle (without particularly trying to be fuel efficient) is commendable indeed. Regular grade fuel is specified.
What would be nice, in my opinion, is a little more flair. There is the special grille for the Camry Hybrid, but I don’t care for that big Toyota escutcheon as the central feature. And the interior cloth fabrics seem too velour-like and plain. There are six exterior colours, with four of them represented by black, white, grey and silver. The other two — green and blue — are delicate pastels. All in all, it’s a very conservative palette against a monotone interior.
Not particularly inspiring, especially when you consider that there’s some serious midsize hybrid competition now, from the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and a very stylish new Hyundai Sonata. Surely Toyota hybrid buyers deserve at least the option of some pizzazz.
How about a red one, with 17-inch alloys, tinted windows and a two-tone interior? It would still be cheap to run!
Pricing: 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid
Base price: $31,310
Options: $1,090 (Moonroof Package )
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $33,820
Crash test results
Paul Williams is an Ottawa-based automotive writer and senior editor for CanadianDriver. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).