The Prius may stand out as the iconic hybrid, but for those not needing to broadcast their green credentials to such a degree, Toyota also has the Camry Hybrid. Other than hybrid badges on sides and rear, the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid looks just like any other Camry. In other words, a nondescript midsize sedan.
With its larger size and engine, it doesn't reach the fuel economy heights of the Prius, but still brought in a respectable 35 mpg in our testing while providing a more comfortable ride. As for the cabin tech, the Camry Hybrid features basic navigation and Bluetooth phone support, but music lovers will be disappointed with the stereo.
On the road
Like other full hybrids, the Toyota Camry Hybrid doesn't start when you hit the power button so much as boot up. The instrument panel lights up, gauge needles turn, and the center LCD comes to life. But, unless the battery is low, the engine remains quiet.
Pushing the start button lights up the instrument panel but leaves the engine quiet.
And maneuvering out of our parking garage, the engine stays quiet, as an electric motor powers the drivetrain. However, once on the street, moderate pressure on the accelerator pedal makes the software that controls the power sources kick in the 2.4-liter engine. The transition from pure electric to gas is noticeable, but very smooth.
The Camry Hybrid encourages tech geeks like us to play with the power train, in our case trying to keep it running under electric power for as long as possible. But that is not practical in a well-trafficked urban setting, where impatient drivers behind aren't going to tolerate the slow acceleration or 20 mph speeds it takes to keep the gas engine off. Because of the regenerative braking, we find that using the brakes leads to a certain satisfaction, as the battery gets recharged.
Going back to our standard driving habits, the Camry Hybrid proved very capable and comfortable on city streets. The ride is surprisingly soft for a nonluxury car and the cabin design is unobtrusive. It helps that our test car is decked out in the leather seating package and has all the available tech. The maps and the destination screens in the navigation system all look good, but we're not pleased that the only port for an MP3 player is an auxiliary input. Of course, we don't really want to hear our favorite music mangled by the muddy audio system.
This power animation lets you see when the engine or electric motor is at work.
Freeway entrances work great for testing real-world acceleration, and in this setting the Camry Hybrid shows some weakness. Although producing a combined 187 horsepower with its hybrid system, we don't feel much oomph, just a gradual wind up from the gas engine and electric motor. It's enough to get the car safely onto the freeway, but not the exhilarating rush we want when the accelerator is all the way to the floor.
Out on the freeway, we start to wish we actually had a daily commute with heavy traffic, because the Camry Hybrid seems like it would be very comfortable for that type of driving. It has no problem running at speed, a mode in which we can relax and check out the fuel economy display and power animation.
Normally we put cars through their paces in the hills, seeing how they handle hard cornering. But the Camry Hybrid didn't feel suitable for that type of driving. It may not feel as tippy as the Prius, but it's definitely not tuned for sport.
In the cabin
Toyota keeps the cabin of the 2009 Camry Hybrid free of clutter. Unlike the button-happy Acura TSX, the Camry Hybrid relies on a touch-screen LCD surrounded by select buttons for navigation and audio functions. The steering wheel has smoothly integrated buttons on its spokes for the phone, audio systems, and climate control--the latter being something we particularly like about Toyota, as you can adjust the temperature while keeping your hands on the wheel.
The navigation system covers the basics but lacks advanced features such as traffic.