When driving a car like the Jaguar F-Type, I want to be involved in the experience, hearing the exhaust note at every launch and feeling how it grips the road in hard cornering. But sometimes, I've got other things on my mind while traveling, like what's for dinner or an upcoming vacation, with as little intrusion from the driving experience as possible.
For completely carefree driving, the 2016 Toyota Camry Hybrid cocoons me, making my mode of transportation the last thing I need to think about.
The Camry Hybrid operates silently, with naturally quiet electric propulsion and a gasoline engine that only sounds off under full throttle. The gearless transmission makes acceleration smooth and linear, while the cockpit presents an uncluttered, ergonomic design with intuitive placement of controls. Considering its 40 mpg average fuel economy and 17-gallon tank, stops for gasoline come few and far between.
Amidst all the intentioned blandness, I was amused that the shifter, really just another electronic control, looked worthy of a manual-transmission sport coupe.
Camry is, of course, Toyota's midsize sedan, and as the most popular passenger car in the US for many years running, most people have been in one at some point in their lives. For the Camry Hybrid, Toyota takes the same gasoline-hybrid drivetrain technology it developed for the Prius, gives it a bigger engine, and puts it into play.
That means a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, similar to that found in the base level Camry, putting its 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque to work. In concert with the engine, a 105-kilowatt motor and nickel-metal hydride battery pack bring total output up to 200 horsepower, ample for a midsize like the Camry Hybrid.
Even with that power and its sporty shifter, the Camry Hybrid doesn't offer much in the way of engagement with the road. Suspension and steering all feel tuned for comfort, making for an easy driving experience. That's not to say the steering wasn't precise, it just wasn't tuned to communicate any road feel.
The Camry Hybrid mixes power from its gasoline and electric sources seamlessly. If I wanted to know what was going on with the hybrid drivetrain, I could watch a power animation on its dashboard LCD, or just check if the green EV icon was lit on the dashboard. Impressively, that green EV light showed up even when I was cruising along at freeway speeds.
I find braking in the Camry Hybrid, and most hybrids for that matter, rewarding. Instead of burning up brake pads and bringing the car closer to an expensive maintenance appointment, I knew that the car was actually saving its friction brake and largely relying on regenerative braking, recharging its battery pack to give it more electric boost. Every stop is like a mini fill-up.
During my testing period, I got to put the Camry Hybrid up against the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid in a half-mile drag race. Flooring it off the line, the Camry Hybrid took a moment figuring out that I wanted all its power, losing valuable time, but then picked up speed. Its 200 horsepower gave it an edge over the competition, beating the other hybrids across the finish line. A little better programming on the throttle for a better start and its victory would have been much more devastating.
However, those competitors beat the Camry Hybrid handily on fuel economy. Where I managed about 42 mpg on a test loop, the others achieved numbers in the high 40s.
The comfortable and roomy cabin is part of what makes the Camry model the big seller that it is. For the Camry Hybrid, the only interior sacrifice is a lack of pass-through from rear seats to the trunk, due to the battery pack. However, 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space is still ample.
Toyota packages its infotainment features on a 7-inch touchscreen in the center of the dashboard, and like much in the Camry Hybrid, this system emphasizes the practical without treading a high-tech edge. Big buttons to the left advertise Audio, Apps and Home, the latter of these bringing up a composite screen showing navigation and audio. Tapping the navigation or audio side of the screen digs deeper into those respective functions.
The Apps screen brings forward all the system's functions, from Bluetooth hands-free phone to third-party apps such as OpenTable.
Maps show up on navigation in plan and perspective views, with traffic incidents and flow information, of course. And while the usual destination inputs, such as address, points-of-interest and voice command, work well, I really like Toyota's integration with Entune Apps. Running the Entune App on my phone, connected to the Camry Hybrid through Bluetooth or USB port, powered up a diverse array of third-party apps for audio and destinations. I could do an online destination search by keyword or bring up Yelp, as two examples.
This app integration works very well, although you might not find your favorite audio or location app. And Toyota does not yet support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which can provide an even more seamless experience between car and smartphone.
Toyota bundles its Entune navigation system with a series of packages that bring driver-assistance features to the Camry Hybrid. A midtier package adds a blind-spot monitor system, lighting up icons in either side mirror to let you know of traffic to either side of the car. A package above that adds adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning. I relied on adaptive cruise control extensively while on the freeway, as it let me set the speed, then automatically slowed for traffic ahead. It's one of those features that, once you've used it, you won't want to do without it.
In its seventh generation, the 2016 Toyota Camry represents a car with a long history and a lot of legacy. With a hybrid drivetrain, the Camry becomes even more economical than its gasoline-only siblings, and hits a sweet spot for power. Its dashboard electronics and driver-assistance features prove very useful, as well.
But this generation of Camry was launched in 2011, and the 2016 Camry Hybrid shows its age. The newly launched Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid comes in with significantly better fuel economy. The Ford Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid both join the Chevy in offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with a few more sophisticated driver assistance features.
Against this competition, the Camry Hybrid boasts slightly more power, but in too many other areas just seems average. However, it still retains an advantage over non-hybrid midsize sedans.