2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid: First Drive


This time around, the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid isn\’t an afterthought.

That\’s what a Toyota official circuitously said at a product presentation for the new Camry, and it was a point driven home as we spent a couple of hours with a 2012 Camry Hybrid. The new Hybrid sedan is so well sorted, so completely seamless and remarkably well packaged, that from the driver\’s seat we might actually call it part of the Prius family.

It wasn\’t quite that way with the former Camry Hybrid. While it did get better gas mileage than the base Camry four-cylinder models, it was a few steps behind in drivability. Specifically, the throttle could have a dead spot, the brakes were somewhat grabby, and the battery arguably took up too much space back in the trunk.

In short, this time Toyota applied all its smarts from the latest generation of the Prius, early in the development cycle, so the Camry this time was developed from the very start with a Hybrid model in mind—as an important, popular part of the product mix this time, not just a niche model.

43 mpg city, from an honest-to-goodness Camry

But that\’s getting ahead of ourselves a bit. The big news is on the window sticker:

The all-new 2012 Camry Hybrid gets excellent gas mileage, of up to 43 mpg city, 39 highway. That\’s better than the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which up until this point we\’d grown to like better than the Camry Hybrid because of its better drivability, more responsive steering, and of course its better EPA rating for 2011.

To get there, Toyota dropped the former 2.4-liter engine in favor of a special Atkinson-cycle version of the base Camry\’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder.

The engine\’s compression ratio was bumped from 10.4:1 up to 12.5:1, variable valve timing for the exhaust valves was eliminated, and all accessory drive belts have been replaced with electrically driven accessories—including the A/C compressor and water pump. Total output for the gasoline engine is now 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet, while total power output of the hybrid powertrain is 200 hp—13 hp more than last year.

The inverter has been repositioned to make the battery pack smaller, while the air intake for the battery pack has been moved to the far left side rear seat, next to the seatback and the back of the doorline. Along with that, the entire battery assembly has been moved forward about 5.5 inches, which increases trunk space significantly, from 10.6 cubic feet to 13.1. Altogether, the battery pack is a bit lighter, too, totaling about 150 pounds.

EV Mode, Eco Mode just like Prius

Just as in the Prius, Toyota has added EV Mode and Eco Mode to the Camry. Under some situations, given proper charge, the lack of steep hills, and light throttle application, the Camry Hybrid can go about a half-mile or more on electricity alone.

In addition to the power-flow screens and the histograms for mileage in time increments, the Camry Hybrid gets a screen readout for real-time mileage and its own power-flow display.

Step lightly or moderately on the gas, and revs are kept a lower than before; the whine of the electric-motor system is also better-hushed.

And the perkiness and agreeability of the powertrain holds true even when you step more aggressively on the gas; although Eco Mode introduces a more sluggish response, if that mode is off the electric motors help provide punchiness while the planetary drive systems work their mechanical magic.

In a drive of pre-production prototypes, we noted that ride and handling of the Hybrid are still just a little bit inferior to that of the base four-cylinder Camry. Steering is light and detached, while there\’s just slightly more impact in the Hybrid.

Altogether, the Camry Hybrid gets all the suspension-geometry improvements of the rest of the lineup, though—meaning that it simply rides better than previous versions, with less dive/squat during hard braking. Refinement is now on par with the Fusion Hybrid; the engine feels less coarse than before, even under hard acceleration.

Still a \’stealth\’ hybrid

There\’s still not all that much that distinguishes the Hybrid from other Camry models. From the front, the models get a Toyota badge with a blueish background, plus special underbody fairing panels to improve highway aerodynamics.

In very non-scientific testing, on a 55-mile loop that included some lightfooted driving on a two-lane road at first, followed up 75-mph Interstate driving up a low mountain pass, then back driving more aggressively on a two-laner, we averaged more than 38 mpg. Later, on a smaller loop, driving gently but more closely replicating city or suburban-style driving, we saw a 42-mpg average on the trip computer.

For the first time, the Camry Hybrid is being offered in two trims. LE models can be spotted by their steel wheels, while XLE models include 17-inch alloys, plus extra chrome trim for the trunk and exhaust tips, heated mirrors, and fog lamps, plus other goodies like rear vents, a power driver\’s seat, an upgraded Display Audio system with iPod connectivity and Bluetooth audio streaming, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. All Hybrids get dual-zone climate control, cruise control, and Bluetooth hands-free.

The new, top-of-the-line Camry Hybrid XLE also has one other unintended consequence: It makes the Lexus HS 250h sedan completely irrelevant in our opinion. In well-optioned XLE trim, the 2012 Camry Hybrid feels just as luxurious, and more spacious and comfortable.

Toyota is guessing they\’ll sell a lot more Camrys as Hybrids this time, and we\’re sure they will. At $26,660 (including destination) for the Hybrid LE and $28,160 for the Hybrid XLE—undercutting the base $29,395 price for the 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid—the Hybrid remains a very strong value and priced below the Camry V-6.

If you\’re a couple or small family looking for a green, high-mileage sedan that\’s especially good in today\’s traffic-congestion reality, it\’s hard to overlook this one. 


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