EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 12, 2012

Toyota Camry Hybrid fits bigger needs

Motor Mouth Jeffrey Zygmont
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Economy, thrift and frugality are reawakened American values. A lot of people now spend their cash more carefully, because we’ve all seen that, well, you never know.

So what do you do when your big-ticket luxury car goes gray? Marc Smith sees some shoppers replacing them with the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

“We see that all the time,” said Smith, general sales manager at Rockingham Toyota Scion Honda, in Salem, N.H. “People come in and say, ‘we’re not spending $70,000 for a car anymore.’”

They go for the Camry Hybrid because the mid-size, front-drive sedan provides cabin space for wide-ranging travel needs. As a hybrid, it’s far enough out of the ordinary to confer some cache and distinction. And the Camry Hybrid offers amenities they want even outside the luxury car class.

“They still want a full-sized sedan with room for the golf clubs, with the leather, the navigation, the sunroof,” Smith illustrated. “When they drive it, they wonder why they ever spent 70 grand for a car.”

Smith’s position at Rockingham Motors gives him special insight into consumers’ approach to hybrid-drive automobiles, but the Camry Hybrid is just part of the reason why. Rockingham also sells the Toyota Prius, the dominant gasoline/electric hybrid car by a very large margin. For the majority of American drivers, hybrid equals Prius, which is now a family of models that range from the original, scampering version that is styled like a slick space pod, to the new, smaller and more economical Prius c, and the family-sized Prius v.

Those Prius models are exclusively hybrids. You can’t buy all-gas versions. You can only buy a Prius with the combined, gasoline-and-electric drive system that travels farther on a gallon of gas than conventional, gas-alone cars.

You’ll run into a couple of other exclusive hybrids, most notably the Honda Insight and the Chevy Volt. But most other hybrids are derivatives of regular cars. Look at a Ford Fusion Hybrid or a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, for example, and you might not know that they’re any different from the the traditional, gas-only versions of those mid-size sedans.

The same goes for the Toyota Camry Hybrid. It looks nearly the same as its all-gas kin, with differences you don’t readily see.

It uses less gasoline than a regular Camry, with a fuel-economy rating of 43 mile-per-gallon in city driving, and 39 mpg on the highway, in its lowest-priced, LE trim level. The more fully laden, heavier XLE version has a fuel-economy rating of 40 mpg city, 38 mpg highway.

By comparison, a standard Camry with a four-cylinder engine is rated at 25 mpg city, 35 mpg highway. A V6 Camry goes 21 mpg city, 30 mpg highway. When you look at the combined, city/highway fuel performance, the Camry Hybrid exceeds the ratings of the regular versions by about 50 percent or more.

You pay more to get that better mileage. The extra gear to combine electric drive with gasoline power pushes the list price of the Camry Hybrid LE to $26,750, about $3,400 more than the starting list price for a standard Camry LE. The Hybrid XLE lists at $28,260, about $2,800 above a standard Camry XLE.

So the Camry Hybrid gives you more, while its price reflects that addition. Those are real distinctions, but they’re in fine print that you have to squint to notice. When you encounter a Camry Hybrid on the road, you still see a car that looks largely the same as the regular Camry it’s derived from.

I wondered why Toyota would make a derivative hybrid Camry, when it already sells the exclusive hybrid Prius that defines and strongly dominates the entire gas/electric field. Coming from the company selling the Prius, a Camry Hybrid seemed redundant to me.

That’s why Marc Smith of Rockingham told me about the luxury-car drivers now trading their showy up-market models for the Camry gas-electric. He explained that the Camry Hybrid meets a consumer desire for a fuel-thrifty car that is larger and more multifaceted than Prius models, which focus more firmly on economy.

“When they’re coming to a $32,000 or $33,000 Camry Hybrid (the price models can reach when loaded with options), they still want the amenities,” the manager reiterated. “They still want the complete-car feel.”

“The Camry Hybrid doesn’t feel hybrid-like,” Smith said. “It has as much of a complete-car feel as possible. You drive it without even knowing it’s a hybrid.”

In the model I evaluated, I felt the brakes bite assertively when I pressed them. That’s common in hybrids, which harness braking to re-use energy, by turning a generator that dumps electricity into the car’s batteries, helping to keep them charged. I also felt an occasional, slight shudder at very low speeds, when the gasoline engine automatically started because the Camry Hybrid, creeping under electric power alone, suddenly needed some assistance from the four-cylinder gas motor.

But those are minor idiosyncrasies that a car owner becomes accustomed to quickly. Overall, the Camry Hybrid presented a smooth and satisfying, complete-car experience. It was well powered. It handled freeway traffic assertively. The car was also lullingly comfortable. I tried out the spacious back seat during a 90-mile return drive from a Columbus Day get-together with friends. I slept solidly the whole way.

Outside of parking lots, I would not have known that I was driving under electric power alone at higher in-town speeds, except for a little “EV” indicator on the dash (for “electric vehicle”) that told me so. That’s because the transitions from battery-alone to battery-plus-gas were seamless. Toyota advertises that the car can run all electric at speeds up to about 25 mph, for a distance of 1.6 miles. With a little care, I exceeded that, running all electric to about 35 mph.

I also beat the hybrid’s advertised fuel-use estimate. I averaged 43 mpg through a week of ordinary, mixed driving in a Camry Hybrid XLE.

With the price of gasoline still threatening to hit $4 per gallon, the Camry Hybrid’s fuel-saving character naturally becomes more attractive. At Rockingham, Smith makes clear that more than just luxury shoppers get that.

“I’ve had couples fresh out of college, 26 or 27 years old, buying it as their first new car. And I’ve had people in their 70s buying it,” he said. “I’ve had people who have expanding families and need the room. The Camry can handle a couple of car seats comfortably.”

That’s why even Toyota, parent of the Prius, also makes a larger hybrid that behaves like an everyday car.

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Jeffrey Zygmont has written about automobiles since 1982. Based in Salem, N.H., he writes books and articles about innovation, technology and culture. He can be contacted through the website jeffreyzygmont.com

2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, mid-size hybrid sedan Price range: $26,750 to $28,260 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 8 years/100,000 miles hybrid-parts warranty; 2 years/25,000 miles free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance Gas engine: 2.5-liter I4 Power: 156 horsepower at 5,700 rpm; 156 lb.-ft. torque at 4,500 rpm Electric motor output: 105 kW; 199 lb.-ft. torque from 0-1,500 rpm Combined drive-system power: 200 horsepower Transmission: continuously variable automatic Fuel economy: 43 mpg city; 39 mpg highway Wheelbase: 109 inches Length: 189 inches Width: 72 inches Height: 58 inches Weight: 3,417 pounds Fuel capacity: 17.0 gallons Turning circle: 36.7 ft.