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Toyota Camry hybridToyota Camry hybrid a surprisingly nice drive

By Jim Bray
January 12, 2017

It's been called an appliance, a vanilla vehicle, boring, whatever. But the fact remains that Toyota's Camry is a model of greatness in its own right - a car that'll deliver comfortable and efficient driving for many years without fuss or hassle.

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It's also one of the top-selling vehicles in North America and, though it may never quicken the pulse of driving enthusiasts, it delivers a better driving experience than those same enthusiasts might expect.

Even in its hybrid form, the topic of this piece. Oh, as a hybrid it's saddled with a noisy and whiny CVT and CVT's also generally sap a lot of the enjoyment out of the driving process, but even that couldn't kill my enjoyment during a recent week with the Camry hybrid SE.

Hybrids, of course, can deliver better fuel mileage than a comparable gasoline-fed version (all things being equal) but usually at a premium price of entry, too. For example, the 2017 Camry SE gas starts at  $26,580 CAD, while the hybrid SE starts at $31,930. You can buy a lot of gasoline for that four plus grand difference - though to be fair hybrid versions often come with some extra equipment over their Gaia-gagging stablemates - though with the Camry, on the other hand, you lose the paddle shifters that the gas version offers with its (conventional) automatic tranny.

The SE is the second from the bottom Camry trim level, but it's still pretty nice when it comes to stuff. Toyota says it features things like "unique dynamic suspension tuning, for an eco-fun driving experience" (whatever an eco-fun driving experience may be), and I have to comment that I liked this Camry's suspension - it's tight enough to be interesting yet not so tight that it would jar the sensibilities of those who don't want a sporty drive, an interesting and successful compromise.

Obviously, you aren't  going to mistake the Camry hybrid for a Porsche Panamera, but that should surprise no one.

The hybrid now comes with heated front seats as standard equipment, as well as leather-trimmed UltraSuede seating and a four-way power adjustable front passenger's seat (the driver's offers even more axes of movement). The front "sport" seats are quite comfortable and more supportive than my kids; the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob are nice touches, as are the aluminum scuff plates, unique 17 inch aluminum alloy wheels, sport grille, and rear spoiler.

I quite like the appearance, inside and out, of the current generation Camry - hybrid or not. It's attractive without drawing attention to itself, with clean lines and an interior that's comfortable and a model of efficiency. Instead of a finicky mouse-like or trackpad thingy on the centre console to control stuff on the centre stacks' LCD screen, instead you get a touch screen surrounded by a few big buttons that are marked clearly and are large enough to use while you're wearing gloves. Other marques could learn from this approach.

The Camry Hybrid gets its motivation from a 2.5 litre four cylinder Atkinson Cycle engine with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy drive. It's matched to the above-complained about CVT and powers the front wheels. Brakes are disc all around, with ABS and the usual aids, and the pedal feel and brake performance are fine.

Safety equipment is abundant, not surprisingly. It includes 10 airbags, a back-up camera, front seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters, anchor points for child seats, and child protector rear door locks, a lot of which is pretty well standard across the industry, though some - such as the backup camera - should be standard across the industry. Every Toyota also gets the "Star Safety System" that includes Antilock Brake System, Brake Assist, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control and Smart Stop Technology, most of which are also pretty standard and straightforward.

Another safety feature found on this Camry - and which should also be standard equipment across the industry - is Bluetooth for your phone and/or tunes. Toyota's Bluetooth, as found on the company's sample SE hybrid, was easy to pair and worked well. The audio system is still nothing to write home about, but it works fine.

Toyota's Camry SE hybrid, as configured on its sample (which had no options), listed at $31,930.00.

I've whined at length about hybrids and CVT's and how they may get you better fuel mileage (and maybe lower emissions than today's already low gasoline-only engines) but at the cost of extra initial cash outlay and, in many if not most cases, a lowered fun to drive factor - but over the years I've been forced to notice that at least some of the current generation of hybrids (including, surprisingly, the current Prius) don't suck to drive any more.

It's nice to see technology and design combining to up the enjoyment ante in a market niche that started years ago with the original Honda Insight, a cramped two seater that looked like a squashed bug and drove about as well as a kid's little red wagon. Since then I've had the good fortune to drive hybrids that (other than their initial price premium) don't require you to sacrifice any enjoyment for the privilege of saving money and the planet, which is exactly how it should be.

Funny thing about the free market. Sure, the move to greater fuel efficiency was driven by greenies in and out of government, but in order to sell enough vehicles for it to be worth their while making them, car makers have had to pull out all their creative stops so people who aren't eco-warriors will give them a fair chance.

And if you do give today's hybrids a fair chance, you may find one you can live with without wearing a paper bag over your head. This Camry is representative of that species.

I'd still rather have the V6 gas-only model, though the four cylinder gas version is darn good, too - but I must tip my trilby to Toyota for making a hybrid that's as nice - or nearly as nice - to drive as its Gaia gobbling stablemates.

Copyright 2017 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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