It is no easy thing going from a 500 horsepower Challenger R/T to a no-horsepower Toyota Camry hybrid.
Well, ok, that’s not fair. The Camry hybrid does have horsepower. But only about a third as much as the Challenger R/T I reviewed last week.
Then again, the Challenger only gives you about a third of the mileage. You get to 60 a lot faster, of course. But forget about going 731 miles on a tank — which the Toyota can.
Of course, comparing a hybrid Camry with a V8 muscle car is like comparing Jennifer Lawrence with Hillary Clinton. It’s not really fair.
Horses for courses.
A more apt comparison is Camry hybrid vs. the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata hybrids.
How now, brown cow?
WHAT IT IS
The hybrid Camry is the gas-electric version of the popular mid-sized Camry sedan.
Everyone knows about the good gas mileage. But did you know the hybrid Camry is also quicker than the four-cylinder/non-hybrid Camry?
Be aware, though, that with gas prices at pretty reasonable levels, it’s become harder to make a strong economic case for spending the extra money on any hybrid vs. the conventional/gas-engined version of the car in question.
The Camry hybrid, for example, starts at $26,790 — vs. $22,970 for the same basic car in non-hybrid form.
So, about $3,820 more up front.
That’ll take a few years, at least, to work off in fuel savings.
On the other hand, if the cost of gas goes back up to $4 a gallon — which is not at all improbable — you’d make that back in no time at all.
And right now — with gas prices low — is just the time to shop for a hybrid.
You’ll also want to cross-shop rivals like the Ford Fusion — which gets even better mileage (but is much less quick) and the Honda Accord hybrid (which is very quick but also very expensive).
The Fusion hybrid’s base price is $25,675.
An Accord hybrid starts at $29,305.
A third option is the hybrid version of the Hyundai Sonata sedan — just updated for 2016 and the “newest” of the three. It’s not as quick as the Camry — or the Accord — but it is capable of operating as fast as 75 MPH on just its batteries and gets better mileage (43 highway) as a result.
Base price is $26,000.
All Camrys get an updated bodywork, including a front clip that’s more Lexus-like (and less Mrs. Doubtfire-esque).
The hybrid’s powertrain carries over from last year unchanged but Toyota has sharpened up the car’s handling to go with the no-longer post-menopausal visuals.
The hybrid is sold in the same SE, LE and XLE (luxury) trims as the non-hybrid Camry but being hybrids, they all come with a different instrument cluster and hybrid-specific readouts, including real-time monitoring of the efficiency of the hybrid powertrain.
It’s the safe bet.
The Camry hybrid may not get the absolute best mileage or be the least expensive to buy hybrid — but it has the bluest-chip rep for long-haul reliability and high resale value.
Quicker acceleration than non-hybrid/four-cylinder Camry — and much better mileage, too.
Much less expensive than Accord hybrid.
More than a second quicker to 60 than Ford Fusion hybrid (which is — by far — the slowest of the bunch).
Tremendous backseat legroom (almost 39 inches; Sonata has a little more than 35).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Accord hybrid’s mileage is higher.
Hybrid Fusion’s price is lower (and its mileage is higher, too).
Hyundai Sonata hybrid is a good-looker and splits the difference, mileage/performance/price-wise, between the three.
Trunk is smaller than non-hybrid Camry’s (13.1 cubes vs. 15.4 cubes).
UNDER THE HOOD
The hybrid Camry’s drivetrain consist of a 2.5 liter gas engine supplemented by an electric motor and battery pack — the battery pack getting its charge from a combination of the engine (which acts as an onboard generator) and the “free” electricity produced during deceleration via regenerative braking. “Free” in air quotes because it isn’t really free. You used energy to get the car moving in the first place.
But anyhow, the brakes recover some of the energy used to get the car going.
The combo produces a total peak output of 200 hp — which is 22 hp more than the non-hybrid, four-cylinder Camry LE (178 hp) and bit more than the Hyundai Sonata hybrid (193 hp).
You’ll get to 60 in about 7.4 seconds vs. 8.3 for the non-hybrid/four-cylinder Camry — while also enjoying 43 MPG city, 39 highway vs. 25 city, 35 highway.
According to the computer, I averaged 32.6 MPG during my weeklong test drive — with a daily best of 41.2 MPG.
The Camry hybrid’s numbers are slightly lower (40 city, 38 highway) if you go with the SE or XLE trims, which come with a larger 17-inch wheel/tire package vs. the 16-inch steel wheels that are fitted to the base LE trim.
Still, these numbers are very good.
Whether they’re good enough to justify the $3,800 or so price bump is another question.
The Accord hybrid is quicker than the Camry hybrid — and gets significantly better mileage, without any MPG penalty for going with a higher trim.
It does, however, cost more to buy the thing.
The Fusion hybrid is a lot less quick than either. Best case is 0 to 60 in about 8.6 seconds. But it is without question the deal of three. You can pick one up for $1,115 less than a hybrid Camry LE (and $3,630 less than an Accord hybrid) and its mileage is slightly better than the Toyota’s and not too far behind the Honda’s.
Ford and Honda also sell plug-in versions of their hybrids — while Toyota does not offer that feature with the Camry hybrid. The advantage of being able to plug the car in to an external power source is that it’s not necessary to run the engine (and burn gas) to charge up the battery pack. Your household current does that job instead.
Also, the plug-ins have more powerful batteries — and (typically) can operate at higher speeds (and for longer) on just the batteries, without assistance from the gas engine. This makes it possible for some drivers — depending on the length of their trip — to use no gasoline at all.
Or less, at any rate.
The downside is the cost to buy in.
The plug-in Accord’s base price is $39,780. A plug-in Fusion “energi” starts at $33,900.
They have not sold well.
Which is probably why Toyota decided not to sell a plug-in version of the Camry hybrid.
The new Hyundai Sonata hybrid is closest to the Camry hybrid in terms of power (193 hp) and mileage (40 city, 44 highway, slightly better than the Camry) and performance (7.5 seconds to 60, nearly the same as the Camry).
It’s also about $700 less to start.
But it has a much less roomy back seat — and that could be a deal breaker for some.
ON THE ROAD
The main quality that sets the hybrid Camry (and Accord and Sonata and Fusion hybrids) apart from hybrids like the Prius is their hybridness is not obvious.
These cars look like normal cars and — mostly — drive like them, too.
One difference is that when you push the ignition button, there’s no ignition.
Because there’s no combustion.
Instead, you get lights coming on… like when you tap your phone or iPod to life.
It’s like turning the key to “accessory” in a conventional car except that in addition to being able to listen to the radio and roll down the windows, you can also drive the car.
It moves — but silently.
The gas engine may kick on at if the battery’s charge is below a certain threshold or it’s cold outside (and you need heat, which is provided by a warm — and necessarily, running — engine). But assuming it’s warm outside and the battery is fully charged, you’ll be able to creep down the road on the batteries and electric motor for about a mile or so — and up to about 30 MPH — before the gas engine does kick in.
Which it will do equally silently.
There’s no tachometer in the Camry hybrid, so your main clue that gas is being burned is the LCD display that shows the power split — which part of the hybrid powertrain (the gas engine, the battery/motors… or some combination) is working at any given moment.
The standard continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission is controlled by a conventional-looking, center console-mounted gear selector that feels like it’s connected to something, unlike the dashboard-mounted toggle thing in the Prius.
The Camry also moves when you need it to… unlike the Prius.
In fact, if you cross-compare the numbers, the hybrid Camry is only about 1.3 seconds less quick to 60 than the V6 powered Camry, which is capable of a 6.1 second run.
But the V6 Camry doesn’t get 43 (or even 40) MPG.
Not unless it’s being pulled by the hybrid Camry.
The downside, though, is that the hybrid Camry sounds as though it’s struggling at times. Chiefly, it’s because of the operating characteristics of the CVT automatic. Which is the type of transmission you’ll find in most current hybrids (an exception being the hybrid Sonata) because CVTs are more efficient. And that’s what hybrids are all about.
Or at least, mostly all about.
The thing with CVTs is they’re thrashy.
When you tromp on the accelerator, the CVT’s gearless/shiftless (basically there’s just one speed — forward) design causes the engine to spin right up to (or very near to) redline; it then stays there — if you keep your foot down — because there’s no next gear to shift up (or down) to. The effect is the sound of an engine (plus batteries and electric motor) given’ er all she’s got cap’n.
You can almost hear Scotty’s voice coming through the speaker.
I dinnah know how long she’ll hold together!
Now, to be fair to the Camry — and hybrids, generally — this issue only (or mostly) arises when you are demanding maximum effort thrust. If you’re not, the CVT is quiet and — by its nature — smooth as Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
Remember, no shifts — so even when you’ve got it floored, there are no transitions in between gear changes.
Because the CVT has no gears to change.
In stop and go traffic, the Camry’s hybrid powertrain transitions from electric to gas to some of both even more smoothly than Frank Underwood.
Last item: Toyota has butched-up the Camry’s handling (regular models and the hybrid) to go with the butched-up looks.
That does not mean it’s Bruce Jenner, circa 1976.
But it’s also not Caitlyn, circa 2016.
It is somewhere in — you knew this was coming — transition. Not quite as athletic as the Accord, which is the decathlete of the three. But much more athletic than it used to be. And definitely more athletic than the slow-motion Fusion hybrid.
Toyota’s intent was to not antagonize the traditional buyers — most of whom are older and have little, if any, need for speed — while also not disappointing the younger crowd, drawn in (Toyota hopes) by the more vigorous looking bodywork.
So, notwithstanding its main mission — to save on gas — Toyota offers the same sport-themed SE package that’s available with the regular Camry. It includes a larger (17 inch) wheel and tire package (55 series Michelin Primacy MX4Vs), firmer suspension calibrations, a trunk spoiler, blackout trim for the headlights, sport seats and SE-specific interior accents.
Just be aware — per the above — that going with the larger wheel/tire package will cost you a few MPGs.
AT THE CURB
Toyota knows that it cannot drive forever on the fumes of its Blue Chip reputation.
Not that Toyota cars aren’t as good now as they used to be. The problem — for Toyota — is that others are just as good.
Or nearly so. And offer more than just reliability and resale value.
People expect more than just a very good appliance.
Hence the new good looks — or at least, more distinctive (and less doughty) looks. The Camry — hybrid and standard-issue — get the “sweeper” front end treatment that debuted with Lexus and has filtered down the line to Toyotas — even including the Corolla.
The interior has been Lexus-upped in both form and materials, too.
The dashpad’s cantilevered shape is similar to what you’d find in a Lexus IS. Add the available LED headlights and you’re almost there.
The Camry is now a member of the club, properly inducted.
Some small but very clap-worthy changes include relocation of the USB charge port to the cubby ahead of the shift lever — where you can easily see (and reach it) as opposed to its previous location in the center console, where you could not see (much less reach it).
Right next to the USB port is the Qi wireless cell phone charger. It’s optional, but worth the money.
Standard in every Camry are large buttons and knobs for most of the major secondary functions. They are twice the size of the typical button/knob and so much easier to touch (or turn) accurately with the vehicle moving.
The hybrid’s gauge cluster has a large analog Power/Charge/Eco readout in place of the standard Camry’s tachometer, with an also hybrid-specific Energy Monitor LCD display that tells you how much gas you’re using at the moment as well as how much gas you’ve used — on average — over a given period of time (days, several days, a week — etc.).
Interior roominess is a Camry very-strong-suit. Especially in the back, where you’ll find 38.9 inches of legroom (vs. 35.6 in the Sonata). The Accord is also roomy (38.5 inches) but it’s pricey. The Fusion has room (38.3 inches) but lacks power/performance.
Hybrids are a harder sell right now than they were just a year or so ago. Because gas prices are about a third less than they were a year ago (and about half what they were just a couple of years ago).
It makes it harder to justify the hybrid’s higher up-front costs.
In the Camry’s case, you’ll need to work off about $4,000 before you reach break-even vs. a non-hybrid/four cylinder Camry.
But, will gas prices remain low?
If they don’t — if they double — it’ll take a lot less time to work off that $4,000 extra you spent up front to buy the hybrid.
Also, you stand a better chance of haggling down the MSRP of a new Camry hybrid — of any hybrid — while gas prices are still reasonable. If they uptick — forget it. You’ll be paying more than MSRP to get your hands on one.
Diesel-powered cars like the Jetta TDI — which you could buy for about $22k — were another option. But Uncle has taken that option off the table. As of early May (when this review was written) VW has been forbidden from selling any diesel-powered cars, so you’re out of luck until further notice.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It might not be the obvious time to buy a hybrid — but it might be the right time.