The Toyota Camry Hybrid has been unchanged for almost two years, though the ominous state of Australia’s automotive manufacturing industry makes now a pertinent time to take another look at our only locally produced medium car.
The Camry could well be the last vehicle ever made in this country, with Ford and Holden set to cease local production in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and Toyota Australia is yet to announce its plans beyond the current Camry, which is due to run until at least 2017.
As the blue-tinged Toyota badges proudly signal, the model tested is a hybrid – the only one in its class – teaming a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with an electric motor and a nickel-metal-hydride battery. Those last two allow the Camry Hybrid to operate in pure electric mode with the petrol engine switched off for up to 2km at speeds below 45km/h. In EV mode, the Toyota Camry Hybrid uses no fuel and produces no CO
or other emissions.
In normal driving conditions, the motor takes the load off the petrol engine in the pursuit of increased fuel efficiency. Toyota claims combined cycle fuel consumption of 5.2 litres per 100km for the Camry Hybrid, making it the most economical petrol-powered mid-sizer in the country: 33 per cent more efficient than the regular non-hybrid Camry (7.8L/100km), and 22 per cent more frugal than the Mazda 6 (6.6L/100km).
Unlike non-hybrid vehicles, the more stop-start driving you do, the better the Camry Hybrid’s economy will be – though it had little opportunity to prove this during our test, in which it performed mostly country road and highway driving and recorded consumption of 9.1L/100km.
The Toyota Camry Hybrid is not short of rivals, and at $34,990 the entry-level Hybrid H specification tested here competes most closely with the Ford Mondeo LX ($31,490), Hyundai i40 Active ($31,990), Subaru Liberty 2.5i ($32,990), Mazda 6 Sport ($33,460), Honda Accord VTi-S ($33,490), and the Altima ST-L ($35,890).
Standard features include 16-inch alloy wheels (with a full-size steel spare), auto headlights, cruise control, and a six-speaker audio system with AUX/USB inputs and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
Those in the market for an entry-level medium car may look at the Hybrid H’s $4500 premium over the non-hybrid Camry Altise and question the value of the former, though with its more expensive powertrain hardware and additional smart key with push-button start, dual-zone climate control, 6.1-inch central display screen with reversing camera, trip computer with energy flow monitor and Eco drive level display, and an electrically adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, it presents a compelling case.
Those who want sat-nav need to spend an extra $5500 on the Hybrid HL, however, which also adds a larger screen, digital radio, auto high beam and wipers, an enhanced rear-view camera with guiding lines and reversing sensors, and a 10-speaker JBL premium audio system.
Perhaps the biggest compromise of the Camry Hybrid is its reduced boot space – down 94 litres from the regular car to 421L due to the addition of the battery pack behind the rear seats. The boot retains the non-hybrid model’s flat floor; it’s just shorter, and only the ‘60’ section of the 60:40 split rear seats folds forward. Like all Camrys, the Hybrid also has suitcase-crushing gooseneck hinges.
Another limitation of the Hybrid is its reduced towing ability, which is capped to 300kg compared with the standard Camry’s 1200kg braked capacity.
Unhitched, however, the Toyota Camry Hybrid delivers superior performance to its non-hybrid counterpart. Its 118kW/213Nm petrol engine and 105kW/270Nm electric motor combine for a 151kW peak power output – up 18kW on the regular Camry, as well as 13kW more than the next-best Mazda 6.
You wouldn’t know it pressing the start button, however; the Camry Hybrid turns on silently, the engine unroused.
Step on the throttle lightly and the Camry Hybrid takes off with a soft, tram-like electric whirr and with keen response (the electric motor’s full 270Nm is available from rest) before the engine turns over quietly and seamlessly steps in to provide the bulk of the acceleration power.
The Camry’s 2.5-litre isn’t as silky as the Mazda’s, to name one example, but it never sounds laboured, even when pushed towards its invisible redline (an Eco meter replaces a conventional tacho). There are also no jerks or jolts from the drivetrain, which delivers uninterrupted power with adequate vigour. Transitions between electric and hybrid modes are brilliantly refined.
The Hybrid’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) can’t match the reaction times of the best CVTs; calls for more power and higher revs are met with a slight hesitation, though once there it holds revs appropriately, and is soundly intuitive around hills.
Unlike the Mazda, which it still guilty of some of the worst NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels in its class, the Camry Hybrid’s cabin is well insulated from engine, transmission, wind and road noise, enhancing passenger comfort.
Furthering comfort is the entry-level Camry Hybrid’s ride quality. The Toyota is settled, doing a decent job of dulling big hits and smoothing coarse surfaces. Credit to the local engineering team, then, as well as the Hybrid H’s chubby, low rolling-resistance 215/60-aspect Michelin Primacy LC tyres. Experience with the harsh-riding HL on 215/55-aspect 17s highlights an incredible amount of difference. The brakes are less of a triumph, however; oversensitive and plagued by the wooden feeling typical of regenerative systems.
The Camry is a supremely competent cruiser, though is prone to roll when pushed through corners and lacks the overall composure of the Mazda, as well as the all-wheel-drive Liberty.
The steering is vague around the straight-ahead position, though offers more predictability and easy, light weighting as lock is applied.
The seat behind the wheel offers armchair-like comfort and is among the best in its class. Rear-seat space is also beyond the mid-size category, comparing more closely with large family cars like the Commodore and Falcon.
The fit and finish of the cabin is fine and its controls are intuitive. The design feels a generation behind many of its rivals, however; the old-school graphics of the centre screen and the velour-style seat upholstery in particular clash philosophically with the car’s advanced powertrain.
Like all Camrys, the Hybrid carries ANCAP’s maximum five-star rating, protecting occupants with electronic stability control and seven airbags (front, side, curtains, and driver’s knee).
The mid-sized Toyota is also the cheapest car in its class to service thanks to the brand’s competitive capped-price servicing program. The first five scheduled services – completed at nine-month/15,000km intervals – are capped at $130, costing owners no more than $650 for the first four years/75,000km.
It may have reduced cargo and towing capacity, touchy brakes and a high starting price compared with the cheaper, non-hybrid Altise, as well as some other mid-sized rivals.
But its more powerful and refined drivetrain, class-leading fuel consumption, decent equipment, comfortable seats, and considerably better ride than the more expensive Hybrid HL and Atara grades make the Toyota Camry Hybrid H the sweet spot in the top-selling model’s line-up.