2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid: Smarter, more efficient

Toyota's best-selling Camry receives a host of evolutionary changes for the 2012 model year. We take the Hybrid model for a spin.

2012 Toyota Camry XLE
Toyota's best-selling Camry receives a host of evolutionary changes for the 2012 model year. Toyota

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That must have been Toyota's mantra when approaching the redesigned 2012 Camry, because the broad strokes haven't changed much for this generation. However, for prospective Camry owners, that's a good thing. The Camry's strong points--comfort, safety, and reliability--appear to have been left intact. But the areas in which the previous generation of the Camry could use a bit of improvement--cabin technology, fuel economy, and that awful interior design--have been massaged and tweaked.

We took a ride in the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE to get an idea of just how much these small changes matter.

Hybrid Synergy Drive
For 2012, the Camry's Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) gets more powerful at both ends. The electric motor now outputs 105kW (up from 30kW) and the gasoline engine gets a bump to 2.5 liters of displacement, now outputting 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque (up from 147 ponies and 138 pound-feet). Total system output for the HSD is 200 horsepower, 13 more ponies than the previous model year.

Hybrid Synergy Drive
Toyota gets more power and more efficiency out of the Camry Hybrid's engine room. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

You'd be hard-pressed to notice the increased power from behind the wheel. This is a Camry Hybrid after all. Though the vehicle feels capable, the object of the game is not to knock your socks off with its acceleration. The hybrid didn't struggle as we pushed the heavy sedan up the Hollywood Hills toward the Griffith Observatory. However, the continuously variable transmission added a rubbery feel to the Hybrid's acceleration, padding in a moment or two of hesitation between the gas pedal being mashed and a change in speed.

Where you may notice a change is at the pump. The Camry Hybrid's EPA fuel economy estimates are up to 41 mpg city and 38 highway for our XLE tester. The lighter LE, with its narrower tires, does even better with estimates of 43 city and 39 highway mpg. Of course, we weren't able to test this claim during our short ride.

Handling isn't what we'd call amazing either, with road manners that tend toward safe and predictable understeer. The power steering is still too overboosted for feeling what's happening beneath the tires, but that same light steering makes the Camry easy to pilot within its well-defined handling limits--and, let's be honest, most Camry drivers won't be getting anywhere near those limits.

Tuning in to Entune
Taking center stage in the dashboard is Toyota's new Entune infotainment option, which brings popular smartphone apps into the dashboard through your handset's data connection. Entune differs from systems like Pioneer's AppRadio and Ford's Sync AppLink in that it doesn't require the user to install third-party applications on the connected smartphone. Users will need to install an Entune app on their handset--we were provided with a Motorola Droid X--but this app only enables the car to communicate with the Internet via the phone's Bluetooth connection. The third-party apps themselves are installed on the Entune receiver.

Entune app
The Entune system connects to the Internet through your smartphone via an Entune app. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Available apps include OpenTable, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, and Bing search. However, our preproduction tester only had Pandora Internet Radio installed. From the Pandora app, we were able access the standard suite of controls: browsing stations, creating new stations, and rating songs with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. There's even a two-level option for selecting the quality of the audio stream to balance sound quality with download speed. Album artwork is displayed on the color touch screen, as is song metadata.

The interface, as we were able to experience it, was simple enough that we were able to easily navigate from Pandora to Bing search to, well, navigation, without taking our eyes off of the road for too long. Other core Entune functions include sports, stocks, traffic, weather, and fuel prices.

There are actually three cabin technology packages available that include Entune. The first is the Display Audio with Navigation and Entune package, which is what we were able to test. This is built around a 6.1-inch display and features basic navigation, Bluetooth calling, audio streaming, HD Radio, USB/iPod connectivity, and six speakers. This same package is available with a 10-speaker JBL audio system with a subwoofer. The third package builds on this feature set with a premium HDD-based navigation system with a larger 7-inch screen.

XLE trim-level cabin comfort
From the driver's seat, we noted that the Camry's interior design has improved tremendously since the last generation. Gone is the goofy transparent green plastic; it's been replaced with a tasteful charcoal-colored plastic. The dashboard features a good mix of materials and textures that are pleasing to both the eye and to the touch. For example, the upper dash is covered with a soft-touch leather with attractive stitching. The XLE's steering wheel is wrapped in leather standard, but our vehicle wasn't equipped with the optional leather seating surfaces.

Camry dashboard
The Camry's dashboard has been simplified with a new clean look and larger buttons. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When equipped with the optional power moon roof, the Camry seemed to be lacking in headroom. Our co-driver, a gentleman of average height, noted that his head touched the ceiling while seated in the front passenger seat. The driver can get a bit more headroom thanks to the eight-way powered driver's seat's height adjustment.

Toyota has done a good job of isolating the driver from road and wind noise. However, engine noise was another story. Perhaps it was the stark contrast with the silence of the hybrid system when stopped or operating under electric power, but when the gasoline engine kicked over, we noticed it audibly. And during hard acceleration, the engine noise is downright obnoxious. Perhaps this is Toyota's way of discouraging lead-footed drivers. Treat the go pedal like an eggshell and you'll be rewarded with a smooth, near-silent ride. It's no Lexus LS , but it's still quite good.

The Camry evolved
As is the trend these days, the all-new 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid doesn't take the marquee through any revolutionary changes. As it is, it's an evolution over the previous generation. The changes that we were able to note during our short test were welcome additions to the Camry's bag of tricks. It's slightly stronger, a bit more efficient, and just a bit better-looking.

Entune, in particular, is a welcome addition to Toyota's cabin tech suite. We like that the system enables you to add connected services to your car with the data connection that already exists on your smartphone.

The 2012 Toyota Camry starts at $21,995 for the base-model Camry L, but our Camry Hybrid XLE tops the model range at $27,400. Toyota tells us that this still represents an $800 decrease compared with a similarly equipped 2011 model. The 2012 Toyota Camry will hit dealerships starting in October.

 

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