Camry hybrid: a good car that's green
By Jim Bray
The Toyota Camry, a car I've seen referred to in the past as "an appliance," is a world class family sedan that's comfortable and efficient and undoubtedly as reliable as a wood burning stove. And this current version is even quite attractive and decent to drive. For what more could anyone ask?
(Click here or on the image to open a slideshow in a new tab or window.)
Well, if you're trying to assuage your eco guilt enough to put a few grand extra of your hard-earned after-tax income to get a gosh darn Gaia greener hybrid, the Camry is a darn fine choice there, too - and unlike some of the other hybrids in Toyota's large stable, it's still a pretty darn fine car to drive, too.
I've never bought into the hybrid hype and the first examples of the species - including some current examples - are really lousy driving experiences. Some even insult your intelligence by beeping at you when you shift into reverse, as if you're too dumb to realize you're actually going, er, BACKWARDS. But there's none of that here. The Camry hybrid feels just like a Camry, except that it features a CVT transmission instead of the gas models' conventional automatic.
CVT's, or "continuously variable transmissions" don't use gears and so they don't shift. That makes them feel a bit weird as you drive them because the revs just keep climbing until you ease off the gas, instead of the car shifting to a higher gear, causing the revs to drop down again. That isn't a deal breaker by any means - and some CVT's are offered with manual modes that are pretty darn good - but CVT's also often tend to be really loud and annoying, howling as you drive like a liberal caught in the headlights of the truth. They don't all serenade you like that, but far too many do - and not all of them are limited to being in hybrids.
None of that with the Camry hybrid, though. Whether it's because the larger and heavier car gives Toyota the chance to stick some sound deadening material into the Camry or whether it's a different and better CVT than in, say, the Prius or the average Nissan, this CVT is unobtrusive and you can only tell what it is by that strange lack of shifting.
Talk about being shiftless!
And really, that CVT non-shift is the only thing (besides badging etc. - and that initial fiscal hit) that tells you the Camry you're driving is the hybrid. Other than that, it feels like a Camry - and despite the car's reputation for blandness I mean that as a compliment. Heck, the car isn't even particularly bland any more.
It's a fine vehicle, in fact, and while I might not buy one if I were looking in this niche, it's not because the Camry's a snoozefest; it isn't. It's surprisingly nice - as if Toyota has heard the whining about their cars being boring and are hitting back with vehicles that continue the company's tradition of offering excellent vehicles, but which now up the smiles per gallon ante as well. This doesn't only apply to the current Camry, either; the new Corolla and Avalon also exhibit this phenomenon and it's very welcome.
Now how about bringing back the old Supra?
Anyway, the Camry hybrid gets its hybrid power from a combination of a 156 horsepower four cylinder engine that works with two electric motors to put out a combined output of 200 horses. That's competitive though hardly spectacular; heck, the V6 Camry puts out 268 horses, though on the other hand the non-hybrid four banger is rated at only 178 ponies, so the hybrid at least splits the difference while saving you gasoline over both other iterations according to Toyota's estimates of 34/51/40 (gas four cylinder - city/highway/combined), 29/43/34 (gas V6, same parameters) and 60/55/58 for Toyota Canada's hybrid XLE-trimmed sample.
The company claims the "base" Camry hyrid gets an even better 63/58/60. I never get close to the estimates, hybrid or not, but the hybrid XLE gave me a week of city and highway driving for what I would estimate was about half of what I expect to spend on gas normally. Without suffering!
The CVT doesn't offer a particularly interesting manual mode, let alone the paddles you can get on the SE trim levels (gas version), but I suspect most customers aren't as anal about such things as I. And, really, the car drives just fine. The front drive sedan (no awd option is available) features MacPherson struts with gas-filled shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar up front, with a rear suspension consisting of a dual-link independent, MacPherson strut (with gas-filled shock absorbers and stabilizer bar) arrangement.
As you'd expect from a hybrid, the brakes, which are discs on all four wheels, feature energy regeneration. Pedal feel and brake performance are fine, though when you slow down you can hear a funny whine that's typical of hybrids. It isn't particularly obtrusive; it's just there. The steering is power-assisted rack and pinion, and while it doesn't feel hardwired into your brain like, say a Porsche or Mazda, it's weighted nicely and works just fine.
The exterior still may be a tad vanilla, but the interior is terrific. Toyota has given all Camrys an attractive and well thought out cabin that features good quality materials and a nice design. It all works well, too, and of course you get the usual tools and toys such as automatic headlights and Bluetooth for phone and streaming.
As is usual with mainstream hybrids, you also get various driving modes including an all-electric one that's pretty useless in real world traffic unless you want to elicit gestures from people behind you or people passing you - including pedestrians.
Toyota says the base Camry hybrid LE starts at $27,745, which is about a four grand premium over the base gas Camry LE - though the trim levels aren't exactly the same (the hybrid comes standard with dual zone climate control and a push button start/stop, smart key system, for example) so it isn't a completely apples-to-apples comparison.
Toyota's XLE hybrid sample (starting price of $29,235) also came equipped with the Leather and Premium Audio Package, which adds $6,085 to the tally but which also gives you the Premium JBL Audio system (with 10 speakers), seven inch LCD monitor, a blind spot monitor, heated leather-trimmed "ultrasuede" front seats, integrated garage door opener, navigation system, power moon roof, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a glass breakage sensor. It came in at a total of $35,320, before taxes and other kilos of meat. Compare that to the gas XLE's $30,560 and you get the idea. On the other hand, the XLE hybrid is only a couple of grand dearer than the loaded gas V6 XLE's price of $33,625 - though you should also add in the extra gas you'll use with the larger engine over your time with the car.
There's a reason why the Camry has been a top seller traditionally and this new version is the best one I've driven. Hybrid or not, it's an excellent car that will undoubtedly serve its owners well and then serve someone else well after that. And in the case of the hybrid, it's an example of the species that doesn't make you suffer - beyond the initial investment - for the privilege of kissing up to David Suzuki, Algore and their ilk.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
We welcome your comments!