Toyota Hybrid Camry On Track and dynamically sound
Location: State Motorcycle facility at Broadford, Victoria.
I’ve got Australian Rally Guru Neal Bates riding shotgun with me (Rick Bates is here too), and my instructions for this braking test are to flatten the throttle in the Hybrid Toyota Camry from a standing start, hold it to the firewall until the car reaches 110km/h, then hit the brakes with as much force as I can possibly muster, bringing the car to a complete stop.
It’s all over in just 11.24 seconds, and that’s a full 1.55 seconds quicker than the next best performing car, the Honda Accord VTi-L, which took all of 12.79 seconds to complete the 0-100km/h-0 run.
It’s an eye opener and certainly not the result I was expecting, given the Hybrid Camry is the heaviest out of the four car test group, which also includes the Mazda6 Diesel Sports and Subaru Liberty 2.5i, all outstanding vehicles in the medium/large car segment.
This is all part of Toyota’s ongoing research and development program, which it runs across each and every model in its range, to help ensure that their vehicles measure up to what is some very stiff competition in the Australian market.
It’s also the first time that a group of motoring journalists have been permitted to get behind the wheel in what are seen as critical on-track proficiency tests, to ensure Hybrid Camry offers the best possible performance and safety for buyers.
Normally, these procedures are undertaken by experienced test drivers and in-house engineers, who’s job it is to drive the cars consistently over countless laps, which may or may not, reveal any strengths or weaknesses in a specific system or operation in the car.
The test services for this occasion were also outsourced to an independent automotive testing company called Gambold Testing Services, which is run by the highly experienced Graeme Gambold, who also does work for Mercedes-Benz and several other automotive clients besides Toyota and his role with the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds in New Zealand.
The timing is about right too given Hybrid Camry was launched back in February this year, and you would expect any tweaks, to any number of on board systems, to be installed towards the end of year one of a model’s five year average life-cycle.
Take the Camry’s electric power steering unit for example, it has a staggering 20,000 possible variations, so you can appreciate the job of professional test driver and the product development team, who might spend months calibrating the perfect steering set up, for any number of driver situations.
It’s also no secret that Hybrid Camry has come under fire from a number of sources that have questioned the car’s overall performance against similarly priced competitors, and the sizeable investment in the car itself, by the Australian government.
Hybrid Camry is also the only locally built car from this group of four test vehicles. The Mazda 6 and Subaru Liberty are both built in Japan, while the Honda Accord is built in Thailand.
So what better way for Toyota to set the record straight, than by including the motoring press in a number of critical performance/safety tests against the crème of the mid-size segment in Australia.
Incidentally, sales of Camry Hybrid so far this year from the car's February launch date are around 3200 units, but Toyota PR boss Mike Breen, told us that they still expect to reach their 10,000 car target for the year. Apparently, fleet sales make up 75 percent of sales and private buyers have accounted for the remaining 25 percent.
Truth be told, up against the super smooth Honda Accord, the All-Wheel Drive Subaru Liberty, and the 400Nm torque rich Mazda 6 Diesel Sports, I don’t think any of the journalists would have rated Toyota’s Hybrid entrant ahead of any of these rival cars, at least at the start of the day’s proceedings.
The program for the day was to drive each car, back-to-back, through a series of four test procedures on track and through three rotations. This pattern would produce the most consistent results due to minimal driver-induced variance.
First up, the slalom run, which required the driver to hit the first of six closely spaced cones at 80km/h and then thread them together with no brake, and no throttle. Trust me, it’s easier said than done. 80km/h might not seem that quick on track, but turning into cone one at that speed, seems a tad too quick, given the close placement of these hats.
Predictably, there were plenty of cones down on most of the early runs, and it didn’t really seem to matter what car you were driving, the same degree of difficultly applied.
You had to work the steering wheel fast if you wanted to make it a clean run, which meant some relatively violent use of the tiller at times.
The point of this test was to measure the time is takes the car to negotiate a successful run (that’s no cones down), lateral G, exit speed and deceleration or Long G.
The surprising winner of this event, let’s call it that, was the Honda Accord VTi-L, which took the least time to complete the slalom run (6.69 seconds), and as expected, had the highest exit speed of 49.6 km/h. I would never have picked this particular Honda model to do as well as the other cars, given its skew towards luxury and a compliant suspension set up.
On the other hand, the Hybrid Camry took more time than any other car to complete the exercise (7.51 seconds) while its exit speed was also the slowest of group at 40.5km/h, most likely due to it’s regenerative braking system.
Does the electric power steering (EPS) have anything to do with why the Camry was slower through the witch’s hats than the other cars? Not sure. That’s something for the Toyota engineers to decide when they pour though all the data collected from each and every clean slalom run that the cars completed during the course of the day.
It was a different story when we got to the ‘cornering acceleration’ stage along the test course. It’s more a test of the proficiency of each manufacturer’s Traction Control System and how that system is calibrated, than outright cornering speed. It was also an area where the Camry displayed complete and utter composure.
From a standing start, through an uphill right hand bend, it required full throttle through the entire bend, which was wet through the forced apex, and in all cases, the traction control became active on the wet surface area.
While the speed through the corner on this test was considerably faster than the average driver would ever attempt on public roads, it was comforting to know that all cars completed the run without any real loss of composure.
The Camry pulled the most ‘sustained lateral G’ (0.67) followed by the Liberty (0.63) although the quickest corner exit speed was recorded by the Mazda 6 Sport Diesel, at 94.86 km/h followed by Camry at 94.21 km/h.
That said the highest actual mid-corner speed went to the Liberty at 65.95km/h, with the Accord recording 65.57 and Camry at 64.54km/h.
Composure, is what counts in these extreme-driving situations and speed merely accentuates the behaviour of the car and the various active safety systems at work.
This is where Camry differs from the rest of the pack. While all four cars are equipped with a full suite of electronic nannies including, Anti-Skid Brakes, Brake Assist, Traction Control and Vehicle Stability Control, Camry’s system is managed by VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) and ‘integrated’ being the key word.
Toyota claims that VDIM is a more intelligent system than many current Electronic Stability Programs (ESP) due to the fact that it not only integrates all active safety systems including the Electric Power Steering, but also can process more information and faster. From behind the wheel, it feels almost predictive rather than adaptive.
The system also monitors the coefficient of friction or 'mu' number between the wheels and surface, which essentially means the system works out how much slip there is at any one time, and applies a more measured correction rather than simply an 'on or off' approach to the problem.
To the average driver, and as we experienced on the test track in the Hybrid Camry, the end result is that you are largely unaware that these systems have even been activated even under extreme load.
The acceleration test, which was also integrated into the braking/deceleration test, was always going to favour the Hybrid with its combined power output of 140kW (7kW more than any other car) as well as the advantage of a sizeable dose of torque available from zero rpm, via the electric power.
That said any advantage Camry Hybrid gained in power and torque would surely be lost with the car’s weight of 1645 kilograms against 1597 kilos for the Mazda 6 Diesel Sports, 1565 kg and 1439 kg for the Accord and Liberty respectively.
No such result. Hybrid Camry shot from 0-100km/h in 8.47 seconds, the fastest time by a full 1.44 seconds to the second place scoring Honda Accord.
The final stage of the test rotation involved cornering stability at full throttle as well as lift off on the exit. It’s something you wouldn’t want to try in a car without stability control, but again it was the Hybrid Camry, which easily felt the most composed and poised throughout the manoeuvre. It simply didn’t matter than you were maintaining the same turn angle on the steering wheel; the car simply went around the corner without any fuss whatsoever.
It wasn’t quite as comfortable in the Subaru or the Mazda but still, it was an excellent demonstration of how effective stability control programs can be. Lifesaving, is one word that comes to mind.
We wrapped up the day with some circle work on a saturated piece of tarmac and again, but without wanting to sound like a broken record, the Camry offered the most poise and control under full throttle and close to full lock.
While the Honda and Mazda also handled the manoeuvre with control, the surprise was the All-wheel Drive Liberty, whose stability control system did not kick in as quickly as the other systems, which maybe a result of the car’s all-wheel drive set up or simply a different calibration that allows for more driver input in particular situations.
Thankfully, car manufacturers are continually testing their cars in various environments around the globe and today was no more than a glimpse of what is an exhaustive program by an army of engineers and test drivers, who spend their working lives looking for improvements in a car’s overall performance.
In the end, it may only be a few extra kilowatts or a slight reduction in cabin noise or stopping distance, but that could translate into an important marketing edge over competitive vehicles.