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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Joe Wiesenfelder
December 30, 2008
The 2009 Camry Hybrid is unchanged from the 2008, but the hybrid sedan landscape is definitely not. The Camry may have vanquished the Honda Accord Hybrid in its first year, but it now faces a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid and 2009 Honda Insight along with returning hybrid versions of the Saturn Aura, Chevrolet Malibu and Nissan Altima. Until GM can get a "2-Mode" hybrid system into a car, the Chevy and Saturn hybrids are so-called mild hybrids, which bring modest efficiency gains at a modest price increase. Though it's an efficient, "full" hybrid, the Altima employs a drivetrain licensed directly from Toyota, and it's available only in a handful of states. The Fusion Hybrid, which we look forward to testing soon, looks like stiff competition. A midsize sedan like the Camry, its EPA rating is an impressive 41/36 mpg city/highway. The Camry Hybrid's EPA estimate is 33/34 mpg.
How can this Ford beat Toyota, the ostensible hybrid king, at its own game? One reason is that it emphasizes efficiency over acceleration more than the Camry does, though Ford says the Fusion Hybrid is plenty quick. Hybrid manufacturers have experimented with the balance between efficiency and power all along; for its price and class, the Prius has exceeded expectations. On the other extreme, the Accord Hybrid erred on the side of power, leaving shoppers to wonder what the point behind this hybrid was. (Ultimately, Honda accepted that there wasn't one.) The Camry Hybrid has done well by striking a decent balance, and it was the Cars.com Best New Car for Green Drivers in 2008 specifically because it combines the best of all worlds. Would it have sold in higher numbers if its mileage were higher? I strongly suspect it would have.
Also, unlike the bargain-priced Prius, the Camry Hybrid isn't cheap. It follows the most common formula for hybrid versions of gas-only models, equivalent to the Camry's higher trim levels. So first you have to pony up the cash for a higher-priced equipment level, then pay whatever premium is on top of that for the hybrid aspect. Though the original, 2007 Camry Hybrid was closer to the top, XLE trim level, Toyota quietly downgraded in 2008 from alloy to steel wheels, a leather steering wheel and shift knob to vinyl, a six-CD changer to a single-CD player and removed some other premium features, including an electrochromatic auto-dimming rearview mirror, HomeLink, a compass and a couple extra stereo speakers. Compared to the regular Camry's CE, LE, SE and XLE trims, the Camry Hybrid now falls somewhere between the SE's and XLE's standard equipment. Just Like a Regular Camry The Camry Hybrid is virtually indistinguishable from most other Camrys, and not just in terms of its exterior, which is distinguished only by a full chrome grille and tasteful "Hybrid" and "Hybrid Synergy Drive" badging. Its accommodations and refinement are as impressive here as they are in the top-selling gas-only model. It makes no sacrifice in terms of comfort or road noise, for which the Prius loses marks. As important, the Camry feels more like a non-hybrid than most of its kind. The braking is more natural, the acceleration more fluid and the engine's auto-stop feature less conspicuous than in the Prius or Altima Hybrid.
The Camry Hybrid's version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive is similar to that of the more affordable Prius hybrid in that it uses a four-cylinder, not a V-6, along with an electric motor. Toyota says the car accelerates to 60 mph in less than 9 seconds. I think they're selling it short by at least a full second. Electric motors have lots of torque starting from 0 rpm, so in actual use, the Camry Hybrid leaves little to be desired where you use it most — at low speeds and in stop-and-go driving. The only aspect I'd like to see improved is the same I've found on all other hybrids with Toyota's type of drivetrain, which includes all Toyota, Lexus, Ford and Mercury hybrids: The car reacts reasonably quickly to the accelerator pedal, but it often takes longer than a conventional transmission to build up speed. This is a characteristic of the "power-split device," which is what the drivetrain uses in place of a conventional transmission or CVT.
The Camry Hybrid comes with an additional eight-year/100,000-mile warranty that covers all hybrid components, including the high-voltage battery. There's still much concern about the longevity of hybrid systems and their batteries. Doomsayers abound. For what it's worth, we've been waiting for the other shoe to drop for years now, and there's still no shoe. Safety Like all Camry trim levels, the hybrid has four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution. It also has traction control and an electronic stability system. Standard airbags include dual-stage frontal bags, front seat-mounted side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag, the latter intended to keep the occupant from sliding down and forward (submarining) in a collision. The seats are designed to mitigate whiplash injuries, though the Camry scores Marginal (below Good and Acceptable) in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's rear crash tests. Its score is Good in frontal and side-impact crash tests. Shortcomings Apart from the higher price, the Camry Hybrid's downsides are few. Most notable is the trunk volume, which is 10.6 cubic feet compared to the non-hybrid's already modest 15 cu. ft. It also loses the folding backseat found in low-level Camrys to a relatively small pass-thru. Though it's wider, it's shorter than the average opening found behind the center armrest in some cars' backseats.
For what it's worth, this is a universal drawback of hybrid cars. As a hatchback, the Prius is an exception with fully folding seats, but some loss of functionality has come along with hybridization in existing models. As for the Fusion Hybrid, it has no pass-thru, and its 16.5 cu. ft. becomes 11.8 cu. ft. in the hybrid — both of which are marginally larger than their Camry counterparts. Camry Hybrid in the Market The Camry Hybrid is still a desirable, exceptionally reliable and highly viable hybrid sedan. That the Fusion Hybrid bests it in terms of mileage could be a fleeting distinction. The first-generation Camry Hybrid is in its third model year, and Toyota has a habit of improving efficiency (and sometimes power as well) with each generation. It happened between the original Prius and the current blockbuster model, and we expect the next-gen Prius, due out in 2009, to be still more efficient.