Hybrid cars are not exactly a big ticket item in Australia, especially when you compare our market to somewhere such as Japan or the US. Nevertheless, there are options from Toyota, Honda and Lexus for those with green-tinged glasses.
Out of the 260,000-odd passenger cars registered to fleets and private buyers alike over the first half of 2015, fewer than 5000 were petrol-electric hybrids. This is down on 2014’s numbers, which were low to start with.
Of these, the vast majority were the Australian-made Toyota Camry Hybrid, the choice of taxi owners, Uber self-starters and fuel-miser-ing ‘user-choosers’ everywhere.
Along with the rest of the Camry range, the Hybrid just received a significant $108 million mid-life update with entirely new sheetmetal and some welcome price cuts that Toyota hopes will boost petrol-electric version sales. Here we test the flagship Toyota Camry Atara SL.
The Camry’s most obvious rival is the newly launched Honda Accord Sport Hybrid, a mid-sized petrol-electric sedan that on paper offers what the Camry Hybrid does, with a slightly more dynamic and premium edge — and a 50.0 per cent price premium to boot.
It’s actually this rather ambitious pricing that led us to throw a third rival into the mix. The Honda, an obvious rival for the Camry in terms of size and space, is actually positioned more closely against proper luxury cars including the smaller but sportier Lexus IS300h.
Sounds like a good wildcard for us.
And so we have a few questions to answer. Assuming you want a petrol-electric sedan — and don’t forget, you can get any number of equally frugal turbo diesels for the same or less — does the Accord justify its premium over the homegrown Camry? And if you have the extra outlay handy, do you opt for the Honda’s space, or the Lexus’ panache?
Most affordable here by some margin is the Toyota Camry Hybrid Atara SL, priced at $40,440 plus on-road costs, or $42,990 drive-away. If your belt needs to be a little tighter, you can get a Camry Hybrid in base (taxi-ready) Altise spec for just $30,490. These are between $3000 and $4000 pricier than the equivalent Camry petrol models, which is a fair whack really.
The Honda Accord Sport Hybrid wears a lofty $58,990 price tag, making it the most expensive Honda you can buy. It’s not just $18,550 more than the top-of-the-range Camry, it’s also $7000 more than the faster and similarly equipped Accord V6L.
This price is dangerous — indeed, Honda Australia admits it has no real sales target and will only sell the car from five of its dealerships — because it edges perilously close to a genuine luxury brand in Lexus.
The Lexus IS300h Luxury can actually be had for $57,000, and what it lacks in space it makes up for in driveway grace. But since you no doubt noticed the ‘Sport’ moniker in the Accord’s name, we figured the Lexus IS300h F Sport at $65,000 was an equally fair match. You can get a petrol IS250 F Sport for $62,000, or an IS350 F Sport for $70,000.
It’s worth noting that you can also get a larger and spongier Lexus ES300h with the same petrol-electric powertrain for $60,500. We admit this car might be a better fit for the Accord battle, but the truth is we couldn’t get our hands on one at the time we needed to. Sorry.
It might be the cheapie of the group, but the Camry Hybrid Atara SL nevertheless comes well equipped.
It gets LED daytime running lights, a reversing camera and front/rear parking sensors, a 6.1-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, a 10-speaker Premium Audio system with DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth/USB, keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, leather-accented power-adjustable front seats with memory, electric rear sunshade, auto high beam, rain-sensing wipers and 18-inch alloys.
Pictured above: Toyota Camry Hybrid Atara SL.
You also get a heap of active and preventative safety tech, operated by radar sensors and a windscreen-mounted camera, such as a pre-crash safety system (autonomous braking at low speeds), active radar-guided cruise control, lane departure alert, a blind-spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Over this, the Honda gets a larger 8.0-inch display, a fancier reversing camera setup with three modes (normal, top down and wide), Active Cornering Lights, sunroof (a $1950 option on the Camry), Active Noise Cancellation, and Honda’s LaneWatch system that displays your blind spot onto the multimedia screen when indicating instead of conventional blind-spot monitoring (pictured below). It also has four fewer speakers, and misses DAB+ and auto high-beam.
Pictured above: Honda Accord Sport Hybrid
The Lexus gets a range of drive modes including Sport S+ that sharpens up the throttle response and adds steering resistance. However, if you want the sunroof and active cruise control you’ll need to buy the $6879 Enhancement Pack 2, which also adds a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and a pre-collision safety system. That's not very premium. At least the IS gets the most airbags, with eight.
So it appears that the Accord is a better equipped than the Camry, but not to the tune of $18,000. Meanwhile, the get the good stuff in the Lexus, you’ve got to shell out almost $7000 over and above the regular price. Camry wins.
Pictured above: Toyota Camry Hybrid Atara SL (upper) and Honda Accord Sport Hybrid (lower)
Pictured above: Lexus IS300h F Sport
One area where the Camry doesn’t win is in cabin presentation. It’s not necessarily awful, but the lack of changes inside compared to the revolutionary changes to the styling register as mildly disappointing.
The rectangular fascia is simple to navigate, but it looks decidedly plain and the plastics feel a little on the cheap side despite the excellent build quality. There are soft plastics on touch points, but the faux stitching is as naff as ever.
The basic infotainment system is simple enough to operate, though the fact it continually reverts to a split-screen mode drove us mad.
Pictured above: Toyota Camry Hybrid Atara SL
Better is the unique full-colour 4.2-inch thin-film transistor multi-information display between the dials. The display’s colour animation conveys a wide range of vehicle functions, such as energy use, though it lacks a digital speedo.
Befitting the price, the Honda feels a little glitzier. Its steering wheel and gear shifter are nicer in the hand, there are superior silver-hued plastics and even somewhat tasteful applications of faux wood, moderately more comfortable leather seats and an even more informative information display ahead of the driver than the Camry. Watching your brake regeneration system levels chop and change is almost as entertaining as a video game.
The Accord also has a toggle to navigate the infotainment — albeit one below the ventilation controls rather than on the transmission tunnel as per usual — but bizarrely has two screens just like an Infiniti Q50, one that operates via touch instead. The split layout can be a little unintuitive at first. Excess isn’t always synonymous with success.
Pictured above: Honda Accord Sport Hybrid
The Lexus feels substantially more premium, those heated/cooled leather seats are deluxe, there’s squishy leather and plastics everywhere, and the electrically-adjusting steering wheel and moving gauges operated via steering wheel buttons are reminiscent of the LFA supercar.
Less flash is the slightly outdated 7.0-inch screen with its generation-old navigation layout, the parts commonality with the Camry (some of the information screens and the cruise control stalk among them) and the comparative lack of storage areas in the cabin. For some, though not yours truly, the unorthodox mouse-like dial between the seats (pictured below) that operates the car's major functions in lieu of a more conventional rotary controller takes some adjustment.
Jumping into the rear seats shows off the immediate size differences between the Camry Accord and the Lexus IS, a contrast not helped by the fact that the Lexus is also the only rear-wheel-drive car here.
Pictured above: Lexus IS300h F Sport
At 4870mm long, the Accord has 20mm over the Camry, and 205mm over the IS. The Honda is also the widest at 1850mm, 25mm more than the Toyota and 40mm more than the Lexus. Interestingly, the IS actually has the longest wheelbase here, at 2800mm (25mm more than the others), as evidenced by its smaller front overhang.
Still, the rear seats are chalk and cheese. The Camry and Accord offer ample headroom and legroom behind a 190cm-plus driver, and both offer fold-down centre arm rests (the Honda with a covered bit) and air vents. The highlight, though, is the fact the Honda anachronistically comes with ashtrays in the rear doors. Classic.
The Lexus’ rear seats are cushy and the plush carpet mats feel very ‘designer’ — just like the other material choices — but there’s notably less space, and it’s harder to see out of.
Pictured above: Toyota Camry Hybrid Atara SL (upper) and Honda Accord Sport Hybrid (lower)
The Lexus offers the most boot space though, at 450 litres, and has a proper set of folding rear seats. This is followed by the Camry with 421L, though you can’t fully fold the rear seats — only the centre portion as pictured below. There is, however, a proper spare wheel in the Camry unlike the others.
The figure for the Accord is 415L (34L under floor), 42L less than the regular internal combustion versions. The rear seats are also fixed in placed due to the location of the generator, and there’s no spare wheel.
Pictured above: Lexus IS300h F Sport (upper) and Toyota Camry Hybrid Atara SL (lower)
Engine and transmission
Hybrid cars have a few unique selling points that make them fantastic companions for city work. For one, they run on battery power alone at low speeds — generally 30km/h or less — for a small distance (unless you’re pumping ancillaries like the heater), and are therefore super quiet.
Most also have brake regeneration systems that allow you to recharge the batteries while sparing your brake pads (and they emit a cool, ghostly whine when you lift off the throttle). And vitally, they’re usually more frugal around town than on highways, because the battery is doing more heavy lifting. This is different to full IC cars.
The Camry Hybrid’s powertrain, like the cabin, is unchanged. It pairs a 118kW/213Nm Atkinson Cycle 2.5-litre petrol engine with a 105kW/270Nm AC electric motor and a Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack. Combined system power is 151kW.
Torque is sent to the front wheels via an electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) with brake regeneration. Toyota claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 5.2 litres per 100km (a diesel Ford Mondeo outguns it in terms of fuel economy, for context), though it’s actually higher around town, which is unusual.
The Honda Accord Sport Hybrid's all-new hybrid drivetrain, rather different to the old Honda Integrated Motor Assist, is called Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD). It comprises a 105kW/165Nm 2.0-litre i-VTEC Atkinson cycle, port-injected petrol engine paired to two electric motors (including a larger 124kW one) and 1.3 kWh Lithium-Ion battery.
Total system output is 146kW/307Nm. Standard is a take on the continuously variable transmission called E-CVT, with a mode that like the Camry amplifies the regenerative braking system.
It has three driving modes controlled by the E-CVT. EV mode at low speeds with a 2km range, Hybrid mode where the petrol engine powers a supplementary generator motor to generate electricity for the main propulsion motor which still solely powers the front wheels, and Engine Mode where the electric motor is decoupled, and the engine drives the wheels directly through the single-gear transmission at 70km/h and above.
Notable as the first Honda sold in Australia with the brand’s new Earth Dreams hybrid technologies, it is claimed to be the most fuel-efficient car in its segment, with combined-cycle fuel use of 4.6L/100km — half that of the V6.
The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree with the Lexus, which pairs a 133kW/221Nm 2.5-litre inline four (sound familiar) with a 105kW/300Nm AC electric motor for total system output of 164kW. Energy is stored in a Nickel-Metal Hydride battery, which seems old hat for a luxury car.
The system sends torque to the rear wheels via a CVT with six stepped ratios to alleviate the conventional bugbears of such a setup — that persistent drone that apes the sound of a clutch slipping. There’s no dedicated brake regen control mode, so you have to use the paddle-shifters instead. Lexus claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 4.9L/100km. It’s also the only maker here to talk about its 0-100km/h sprint abilities — 8.5 seconds — so it’s no surprise it feels the most sprightly, especially when you sharpen up throttle response via the S+ mode.
None of these cars feel particularity exciting to drive, though the IS is clearly the sprightliest. The Accord and Camry both suffer from that signature CVT drone that’s alienated from your forward progress when pushed hard — the Honda notably more so, it drives one a bit nuts — and while they have decent shove from standstill thanks to all that torque on tap from zero rpm, those small-ish petrol engines battle as you pile on revs.
One thing all three cars here have is a rather awkward and wooden brake feel, which is common to hybrid cars, that gives way to a harsher bite at the end of your pedal travel. It takes some adjustment. The Lexus is the best of the trio at ironing this out.
Ride and handling
Again, it’s the Lexus that is the only car here that’s ever even close to being fun to drive, though we put a premium on driving in urban conditions on what would constitute the average daily commute of most people.
If you like corners, or do long-distance touring, owning a hybrid car won’t play to your strengths.
The IS300h is rear-wheel-drive, so you can rightly expect to be able to push a little harder into corners — not too much push-on understeer, obviously — though the rabid stability control system needs to calm down.
Its double wishbone setup up front also gives it the sharper nose than the other pair, though it weighs more (1680kg tare, compared to 1642kg for the Honda and 1570kg for the Camry — a veritable featherweight here).
The mode-dependent electrically-assisted steering is sharper on centre than either of the larger pair, and has decidedly more weight, though no simulacrum of feel-and-feedback. It also has better noise insulation, though it’s 18-inch wheels shod in low-profile 255/35 rubber. The main gripe is the brittle ride that jars over broken surfaces and bridge joins, and the mode dial doesn’t yield big changes to the Adaptive Variable Suspension.
On the topic of ride, the Honda likewise is decidedly firm — note the ‘Sport’ in the name — but though it’s a little brittle over sharper bumps such as road joins, the dampers offer a degree of compromise to comfort over more general road degradation.
The 18-inch wheels and 235/45 Michelin Pilot Sport tyres (good hoops, those, as the mid-corner grip attests), let in notably more road noise, which further erodes the notion of ‘premium’.
On the plus side, the electric-assisted steering system is well-weighted and progressive to a degree that the Camry isn’t. If you favour some play on-centre, you might even prefer it to the Lexus. The turning circle, however, is larger than the others, and it’s a pain in a tight carpark.
The Camry’s ride is, and we don't much like the term, 'busy'. It’s sometimes hard to communicate why ride is relevant to non-performance buyers, but here’s our crack — road bumps that the other two cars dispatch moderately better, work their way into the Camry’s cabin. It’s firm, with less ability to insulate you from bumps on, say, Parramatta Road. The Atara on 16s is better, as it has more rubber to work with. Its tyres do send less noise into the cabin though.
The electrically-assisted power steering system gives you a little more heft on centre, though it can prove non-linear from half-a-turn in. Like the other two, the steering is largely devoid of feel, and it sits about between the Honda and Lexus in terms of weight/resistance.
All told, the Lexus IS300h is the only one here capable of being properly sporty, though the Honda strikes a moderately better dynamic balance than the Camry, given it’s both better-steering and (narrowly more) comfortable at the same time.
The Lexus IS300h F Sport gets a four-year/100,000km warranty, while when servicing you get a complimentary loan car. Lexus’ DriveCar service also offers four years of roadside assistance, and even covers up to $150 for cab fare if your car konks out.
The Toyota’s warranty is three-years/100,000km, and you also get Toyota Service Advantage that caps the first five standard scheduled services at $140. Service intervals on Camry Hybrid are every nine months or 15,000km (whichever occurs first).
Ditto, the Honda Accord gets a three-year/100,000km warranty. There’s also capped-price servicing with intervals of 12-months/10,000km, out to 100,000km, priced generally at $307 at current levels.
The Li-Ion battery gets its own eight-year warranty, as do the Nickel-Metal units in the Toyota/Lexus.
As we found at the launch last month, the Honda Accord Sport Hybrid isn’t a bad car, and some of its hybrid tech is advanced. In reality, though, the harshness under heavy throttle undoes any notion of sportiness promised by the name, and that frankly silly price tag commands a level of luxury simply not found here.
The Camry Hybrid is not a better car than the Honda — though it ticks the same boxes, by and large — but it’s also almost $20,000 cheaper and comes loaded with equipment. If ‘big’ and ‘hybrid’ are one and two on your checklist it remains the pick.
No car will make you feel better about yourself here than the Lexus IS300h, which at $57,000 in base Luxury form is decent value next to the Honda. In F Sport guise at $65,000 it remains a justifiable premium, though you need to spend more to option it up as we’ve mentioned.
What this test was really all about was to show the petrol-electric sedan market from three angles. None are massively convincing. It’s a competitive market out there — hybrid sales are low for a reason.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos