2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid review:

2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid

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The Camry Hybrid's navigation system comes as a package with an upgraded JBL audio system. DVD-based, the navigation system is reasonably quick, although if you want to set a destination more than a few states away, you have to first choose a new region. You can enter destinations by a wide variety of methods, including phone number and GPS coordinates, but all of these inputs are locked out when the car is in motion, an annoyance if a passenger wants to set a destination. The voice command system recognizes a destination command, but merely refers you to the touch screen.

Voice command offers better functionality with the Bluetooth phone system, letting you voice dial. We had no trouble pairing an iPhone to the car's system, and found the call quality reasonable. To load the car's phonebook, you have to manually push entries from a phone, a function that not all phones support.

The stereo is a little goofy, with a slot for the four-disc changer hidden behind the LCD. This changer can read MP3 CDs, and we found the onscreen interface for choosing music easy to use. An auxiliary input is conveniently placed in a storage compartment at the bottom of the stack. Satellite radio is also supported by the stereo.

The LCD powers open to reveal the four-disc changer. We would prefer a more easily accessible slot on the stack.

As for the audio system, if this is premium, we can't imagine how bad the stock unit must be. This JBL system uses a 440-watt amp that completely overwhelms its eight speakers. The highs were nice and distinct, but everything else was a wreck, with a muddy sound in mid and low ranges. Worse, tracks with a modicum of bass seriously rattled the speakers. The amp puts out a lot of power, but that's no substitute for fidelity.

Under the hood
The heart of the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid is the Synergy hybrid system, which can selectively drive the wheels with an electric motor, gas engine, or both, depending on what the driver is asking of the car. However, the system used in the Camry Hybrid isn't the latest generation. Toyota is bringing out a new, more efficient version of its Synergy system in the 2010 Prius and the 2010 Lexus RX 450h this year.

The orange lines in the engine bay indicate high-voltage components.

Configured for the Camry Hybrid, Synergy uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 147 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. The Camry Hybrid complements that engine with a 105-kilowatt electric motor, drawing electricity from a 150-pound nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The battery pack gets recharged by the gas engine and the regenerative brakes. Toyota calculates the combined horsepower of this system at 187.

EPA ratings for the Camry Hybrid are 33 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, but without much effort we saw fuel economy top 35 mpg. That kind of fuel economy will certainly allow fewer trips to the gas pump, but the AT-PZEV emissions rating from the California Air Resources Board is also impressive. AT-PZEV is the best emissions rating you can get short of a pure electric vehicle.

The transmission in the car serves as a good example of the type of driving intended for the Camry Hybrid--it only has drive, reverse, and an engine braking mode. There isn't much driver control over this virtual gearbox.

To minimize use of the gas engine, both the power-steering system and air conditioning are electric. Toyota did a good job of tuning the steering to give some feedback. The Camry Hybrid includes an Eco button in the cabin, which limits the power drawn by the air conditioning. We drove extensively with the Eco button on, and noticed no discomfort from underpowered climate control, but that might not be the case in truly hot climates.

In sum
The 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid comes in at a base price of $26,150. Ours came equipped with a number of packages, the most tech-oriented of which combining navigation, JBL sound system, Bluetooth, and 18-inch wheels for $2,350. Other packages included power-adjustable heated leather seats and a sunroof, for an additional $2,710. Along with the $720 destination charge, our total came up to $31,930.

Although not a sports car, the efficiency and smoothness of the Toyota Camry Hybrid's power train earns it an outstanding score for performance in our ratings. It also earns a fairly high score for design, despite its milquetoast appearance, as we like its practical interior and convenient interface for cabin electronics. The only sour note is on cabin electronics: although it covers some of the basics, it doesn't offer advanced features such as traffic or iPod support.

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