Editor's note: The review below was conducted on the Luxury version of the Camry Hybrid, which has more features but an indentical drivetrain to the standard Camry Hybrid.
Part of the Prius' success is that, being a hybrid-only car, it's obvious to all and sundry that you care about the environment and how much fuel your car consumes. To help people pick a hybrid Camry from a regular one, Toyota has fitted it with blue-tinted headlights, clear tail-light lenses, lovely satin chrome finishes on the boot and grille, and a rash of Hybrid badges.
The most obvious change, though, is the unique front bumper and grille, which not only imbues it with the best looks in the Camry family, but also, it's claimed, improves aerodynamic efficiency and therefore fuel economy. Standard exterior features across all Camry Hybrids include projector headlights (steerable xenon lights are, sadly, not on the agenda), chromed fog lights, LED tail-lights and 16-inch alloy wheels.
If the changes outside are subtle, they're even more so inside. There's hybrid-branded scuff plates and an Optitron-lit instrument pack that eschews the tachometer in favour of a giant instant fuel consumption gauge. With its pale blue backlighting and wannabe-metal silver paint the dashboard is pretty avant garde for a Camry, although the concave area on top that houses the digital clock can reflect horribly on the windscreen in strong daylight.
As with other Camrys there's ample space for five occupants, although utility is hampered by the hybrid drivetrain's battery pack that resides in the car's boot. Not only does it reduce boot space significantly, it also prevents drivers from carrying large items as it blocks much of the aperture afforded by the 60/40 split-folding rear seats. Also residing in the boot -- well, underneath it actually -- is a full-size spare wheel and the car's 12V battery.
Features and pricing
There are two Camry Hybrid trim levels, starting at AU$36,990 for the base-level Camry Hybrid. The AU$7k price hike over the entry-level petrol-only Camry Altise is due primarily to extra equipment -- according to reports, the price premium for the hybrid drivetrain itself is only around AU$2k.
In addition to the hybrid gear, the Camry Hybrid features stability control, reversing camera and rear-parking sensors, Optitron instrument lighting, dual-zone air-con with rear-seat vents, keyless entry and start, cruise control, power windows, auto-headlights. The AU$3000 option pack contains an eight-speaker stereo and sat nav.
Step up to the AU$39,990 Luxury model and you'll enjoy leather seats, power adjustments for the front seats (but there's no memory or heating/cooling option), rain-sensing wipers and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. The option pack for this model features an electric tilt-and-slide sunroof, as well as sat nav and eight-speaker stereo, for AU$4500.
Entertainment and navigation
Both Camry Hybrid models come fitted with a six-speaker audio system that features a 4.3-inch colour LCD screen, a 3.5mm auxiliary jack, an iPod-compatible USB port, Bluetooth hands-free, six-CD stacker and reversing camera; it's similar to the unit fitted to the Rukus Build 2. Steering wheel audio controls are handy, especially as they are lit at night.
The option pack, available for both variants and fitted to our review vehicle, is a series of wins and losses. On the plus side there's a sat nav system, extra speakers and a 7-inch touchscreen interface, but in the demerit ledger is loss of the standard system's USB port and two discs from the CD stacker.
Upping the speaker count to eight, including a subwoofer and two dual-cone speakers, improves sound quality considerably, although it falls short of being ear-poppingly brilliant. The sat nav system is the same AVN DVD-based unit that does duty in various Toyotas and Lexuses, and it's beginning to show its age, as screen resolution is low and the menus convoluted.
Anyone who's used a recent portable nav device will like niceties such as 3D view, text-to-speech and lane guidance. Bluetooth hands-free comes through nice and clear via the driver's side speakers, but voice control is limited to pre-recorded voice tags for phone book entries.
On the road
The hybrid drivetrain comprises of an electric motor, a nickel-metal hydride battery pack and a version of the standard Camry's 2.4-litre engine that's been tuned for fuel efficiency. Together they give Camry Hybrid drivers a total of 140kW of power at their disposal; more than the normal Camry's 117kW and the V6 Aurion's 200kW.
We consciously split our time with the car into two driving modes: lead foot and super-eco warrior. Liberating each of the 140 kilowatts at every chance and driving with a measure of elan that most Camry Hybrids will rarely see, the car gulped dino-juice at a rate of 12.2L/100km. On the flip-side when we accelerated gently and maximised time spent on cruise, the brakes and running solely on electric power, the Hybrid cut its intake to just 5.2L/100km; on some trips our fuel consumption was as low as 4.3L/100km.
Most won't want to drive as slowly and as patiently as we did, so fuel consumption should be somewhere between the official figure of 6L/100km and what we achieved on the highway (8L/100km).
With relaxed driving yielding the best economy it's unsurprising that the Camry Hybrid has been set-up to blot out road zits and speed humps rather than tackle Mount Panorama. The power steering is light at parking speeds, and resolutely filters all communication between the tyres and the steering wheel.
The 140kW hybrid drivetrain provides plenty of acceleration when required, but the drone from the petrol engine as the continuously variable transmission holds optimum revs when you put the pedal to the metal, which discourages spirited driving yet further.
Braking smoothly takes a bit of extra concentration as the regenerative braking system can be a bit too aggressive at times. And unlike other Toyota and Lexus hybrids we've driven, there's a slight judder when the petrol motor starts at low speeds.
If you can live with the small boot and hampered load space, and do without visceral driving thrills, the Camry Hybrid rewards patient drivers with good fuel economy and large car space.