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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.
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.
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.