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.
The Eco and EV modes help the driver to maximize fuel economy.
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.
The Camry loses most of its rear seat pass-through in the hybrid conversion. Only a small opening remains.
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.
Thanks to a quiet cabin and quiet power train, the JBL premium audio stereo doesn't have to work very hard.
The Camry is one of the first vehicles to feature integration with the automaker's Entune apps service. After registering with the service online and downloading the Entune app to a smartphone, users will locate the individual Entune services under the touch-screen interface's Info menu. In the case of Android smartphones you'll need to make sure that you also Bluetooth pair with the infotainment systems, iOS devices just need to be connected via their 30-pin dock connector. While we had connectivity issues during our last test of this system, this time it was mostly smooth sailing.
However, on the smartphone side, I was a bit annoyed that the Entune app for Android wouldn't stop notifying me of when it WASN'T running. Everytime I got out of the car or toggled Bluetooth connectivity, the app would pop up an "Entune Service state: STOPPED" or "Bluetooth unavailable" or "Entune not initialized" notification--a minor annoyance for sure, but there's no way to disable the notifications and the almost constant blinking of my phone's notification LED nearly led to a rage-uninstallation or two. Additionally, occasionally the Android app was inconsistent when connecting to the car. Later, I noticed that if the Entune app was running in the foreground, the connectivity issues seemed to disappear.
If I'm not in the vehicle, I don't need constant reminders that Entune isn't running.
For your trouble, Entune gives front-seat passengers access to a handful of useful apps. OpenTable, for example, allows users to search for restaurants and book reservations from within the touch-screen interface. MovieTickets gives you access to currently playing films in near by theaters and--if the theater is in MovieTickets.com's network--allows you to purchase tickets right from your dashboard. Pandora does what it's always done--stream custom-generated Internet radio stations through your car's speakers--and iHeartRadio works similarly, but with local radio stations from around the globe. Finally, Bing search allows users to find points of interest and quickly navigate to them or call via Bluetooth hands-free. Any destination found via Bing search on the handset can be saved as a favorite for later navigation, so you can do your trip planning before you get behind the wheel.
Annoying notifications aside, Entune gives users access to a variety of useful services, both in and out of the car.
Toyota also lists a handful of SiriusXM data services under the Entune umbrella, which is frankly a bit confusing. However you choose to define it, our Camry Hybrid XLE featured XM weather forecasts, fuel prices, stock quotes, sports scores, and XM NavTraffic. That last bit comes into play when getting from point A to B using Toyota's HDD navigation system. This 7-inch touch-screen unit performed well during our testing, with snappy performance, good-looking and fast-rendering maps, and an intuitive split-screen interface that can dedicate half of the display to an upcoming turn-list, a detailed live map, or historical fuel economy information. I found that last configuration useful for keeping my lead foot in check without missing my next turn.
Both the navigation and hands-free calling systems can be voice controlled with the touch of a button. Thanks to clear onscreen prompts and a robotic voice prompt that guides new users through using the system, I was able to quickly input street addresses, search for nearby POIs, and initiate calls to the friends in my phone book--at least those with easy to pronounce/spell names. Once you get used to using the system, the voice prompts can be disabled to quickly speed through inputs without waiting for the system to speak. However, I was a bit annoyed that although I could speak an address, I was not able to voice input an intersection or city center--many users will not care, but if you've ever tried to meet someone at "that burrito place near 24th and Mission Street" you'll appreciate having all destination options available via voice.
Toyota's voice command system was very easy to use while driving. We just wish it were more fully featured.
A rear-view camera made use of the large dashboard display for its video feed and an available blind spot monitoring system utilizes LEDs in the side mirrors to notify the driver of potential obstructions when changing lanes.
The last bit of the Toyota's infotainment systems that we'll discuss is the hybrid information system and fuel economy displays. Users can view a historical graph of fuel economy over the last few minutes or for the last few trips. There's also the same graphic representation of the HSD system that live updates the user of whether the vehicle is using gasoline, electric, or both forms of motivation, as well as the battery regeneration status and charge level.
In sum: The best Camry that money can buy?
A "regular" Toyota Camry XLE starts at $24,725. Stepping up to the Camry Hybrid XLE model bumps that MSRP up to $27,400. The extra $2,675 gets you three more highway mpg, but also a whopping 15 more mpg in the city. What's more, the hybrid doesn't make you work to reach those goals like a standard gasoline model would--you just drive and the mpgs sort of magically add up. Both models feature similar creature comforts and are pretty handsomely equipped as cars in their class go and when you consider that the standard four-cylinder Camry XLE isn't really much faster, nimble, or even much cheaper, why wouldn't you go ahead and drop the extra dough on the more efficient, more quiet, and more refined hybrid model? It may just be the best Camry for the buck in Toyota's lineup.
However, if you like checking option boxes, the Camry Hybrid XLE can get a bit pricey. For example, the Blind Spot monitoring system is a $500 option. The Convenience package that includes the back-up camera is another $695. Having leather seats with heated surfaces adds $1,160 to the bottom line and the Premium HDD Navigation with Entune and JBL package is, as I mentioned earlier, a $2,600 option! Our tester was also equipped with a moonroof ($915), Toyota's Safety Connect telematics system ($450), wheel locks ($67), and an emergency assistance kit ($70).
The Camry Hybrid is only a bit more expensive than the regular Camry, but is also considerably more fuel-efficient.
As tested, that comes to a total of $34,617 (including a $760 destination fee). I mentioned the as tested price to my father--a man who has owned every generation of Camry for the last 20 years, and is currently in the market for a 2012 model--his response an incredulous, "$35,000 for a Camry?! You may as well just buy a Lexus!" I'm sure that he's not alone in that sentiment.
Personally, at the end of my week with the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE, I was convinced that $35,000 for a car that comfortable, efficient, and well put together was an absolute steal. I found myself defending the hybrid to my enthusiast buddies. The words "eco-performance driving" may have slipped past my lips when describing the thrill of beating the efficiency score of my last trip and finessing a longer chunk of EV driving out of my commute. However, after settling behind the wheel of the next car I was tasked with reviewing and sliding out into traffic, I found myself stuck behind the slowest Prius ever for about 10 blocks.
"Blech, hybrids," I thought to myself. "They're the worst!" I guess old habits die hard.
|Model||2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid|
|Power train||2.5-liter direct-injected four-cylinder with Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system|
|EPA fuel economy||40 city, 38 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||34.2 mpg|
|Navigation||7-inch HDD navigation available|
|Bluetooth phone support||Hands-free, audio streaming|
|Disc player||Single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM satellite radio, HD radio tuner|
|Audio system||Optional 10-speaker JBL GreenEdge system equipped|
|Driver aids||Available rear-view camera, blind-spot monitoring|
|Price as tested||$34,617|