As a driving enthusiast, it's easy to hate on hybrids and hybrid owners. They're always in the way when I'm trying to hustle through traffic, and the schmoes in the driver's seats seem to be drowning in their own smugness.
"Blech, hybrids!" I spout at my car-guy buddies. "They're the worst!"
But then something interesting happens whenever I find myself sliding behind the wheel of one of Toyota's or Ford's hybrid vehicles: I start to enjoy myself. This week, I found myself behind the wheel of the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE. While it may not be the newest Toyota to wear the little blue Hybrid Synergy Drive badge (that honor belongs to the diminutive Prius C), it is probably the most fully loaded vehicle in the automaker's stable--this side of Lexus, at least.
Performance: Zen and the art of driving slowly
So, how did I--a speed freak and driving enthusiast--find myself enjoying a week with a Camry Hybrid? Toyota Camrys have been, at best, driving appliances for the last few generations and slapping a hybrid badge seems to imply that even more soul has been sucked out of the drive. If I'm honest, even I'm not sure. Perhaps it was the mental shift from measuring performance in mph to mpg. Perhaps it was the thrill of challenging myself to keep the car in EV mode for as long as possible. Maybe I subconsciously believed that the perfect storm of Camry practicality and hybrid eco-consciousness would make me irresistible to San Francisco ladies.
Most likely, it's because the Camry Hybrid doesn't suck as badly as I thought it would.
Powered by a combination of a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle, direct-injected gasoline engine and an electric motor, the Camry Hybrid sends a combined 200-horsepower through its planetary electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) and to the front wheels. Like all hybrid synergy drive (HSD) equipped vehicles, the Camry Hybrid is capable of propelling itself with pure electric power from its nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack, with only its gasoline engine's 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, or a combination of both. Usually the electric motor operates at low speeds and the gasoline engine takes over at highway speeds where it's most efficient, but that all depends on how you work the pedals.
The HSD system features special buttons for EV and Eco modes. The former forces the car to operate under full electric power for short ranges and at low-speeds and the later adjusts the throttle response and rates to help smooth out inputs and artificially lighten your lead foot. Here's where things get interesting, because even in its Eco mode, the 2012 Camry Hybrid never felt gutless.
Of course, it didn't feel fast either. The word that springs to mind is "subdued." Even with the Eco mode's dulling of my already light throttle inputs as I eased the hybrid through the commuter traffic clogging the San Francisco's Marina district approaching the Golden Gate Bridge bottleneck, the Camry never felt sluggish. Electric acceleration was good enough that I never felt like I was frustrating the drivers around me with my electric hyper-miling and a whole second motor's worth of power was always just a quick stab of the accelerator away when I needed it. While electric creeping, the hybrid impressed me with its trademark silent cabin, but even with the gasoline engine running and 70 mph worth of road and wind noise whipping around outside, the Camry Hybrid XLE is a remarkably quiet and very relaxing ride.
Interestingly, that's not the case outside of the car. From outside of the vehicle, the direct-injected gasoline engine sounded it was full of loose change when it fired up to, for example, prime the climate control system or warm the catalytic converter after a cold night. Likewise, I was occasionally able to hear the artificial pedestrian safety noise, a light whirring that sounded a bit like a UFO, when EV creeping near a wall with the windows down.
With the Eco mode deactivated, the Camry's power train is remarkable responsive despite the CVT's rubbery performance when asked to downshift for a pass. Acceleration comes on strong thanks to the electric motor's contribution to the available torque. However, things get a bit loud in the Camry's cabin when it's pushed--and not the good kind of loud either. Taking it slower and easier in the Camry seems to be the way to go.
Fuel economy is probably the most important spec for a vehicle like the Camry Hybrid XLE. The EPA estimates 38 highway mpg, 40 city mpg, and a combined 40 mpg for the hybrid. Try as I might, I was unable to get the trip computer to rise above a tank average of 35 mpg. (Although I was able to get readings for a few individual trips across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and back to venture into the high 40s.) On the bright side, when the Eco mode was shut off for the last few days of my testing, I was also unable to get the Camry to drop much further below that number either and we ended our testing at a reported 34.2 mpg, which is not too bad for a sedan as large in footprint as the Camry is.
Cabin tech: Getting in tune with Entune
The Camry's quiet cabin means that even the basic six-speaker audio system wouldn't need to work very hard to sound pretty good. However, our optional JBL GreenEdge premium audio system (part of the $2,600 Premium HDD Navigation with Entune and JBL package) brings 10 speakers, including a powered subwoofer, to the party and sounds rather good. Available audio sources include Bluetooth streamed audio (A2DP/AVRCP), hands-free calling, iPod/USB connectivity, SiriusXM satellite radio, an analog audio connection, a single CD slot, and an HD Radio tuner.