Billboards in every major metropolitan area are currently being erected, trumpeting Toyota’s technological triumph. And at what better time could it come? A 40mpg family sedan surely sounds sweet to today’s commuters, as current energy costs creep into the stratosphere. Considered from another angle, though, “hybrid-izing” the Camry appears pointless; the popular Prius does pretty much the same duty already. On the one hand, a more frugal most-popular-car seems like it can’t help but be good news; on the other, adding a high-tech and high-cost powertrain to a cost-conscious car could be a paradox. (Not to mention the questionable logic of saddling an already lackluster driving machine with a propulsion system not known for performance.) So, what’s the point of the 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid? Does it make sense from an economical, aesthetic, or even emotional standpoint? Or is it just a marketing exercise? We spent a week, and a thousand miles, behind the wheel to find out.
First off, since we raised the question, we’re honor-bound to dispel the notion right now that the Camry Hybrid is an inadequate performer. Among the ‘new breed’ of gas-electric offerings, this Camry subscribes to the ‘more is better’ philosophy-in pure power as much as in penny-pinching ability. Thus, Toyota started with a 2.4-liter 147-horsepower four-cylinder as the basis for this eccentric engine combo, which, when added to the AC electric component, gives an overall reading of 192 hp. It’s not quite in line with the hybrid Honda Accord, which mates its motor to an already-robust V6, but the Toyota turns out to be plenty potent. Sixty mph comes up in about 9 seconds.
Odd, then, that Toyota went the route that they did with the Camry Hybrid’s outer appearance. While higher-end hybrids from other makes (and indeed even sister brand Lexus) sport styling commensurate with those models’ top-line status, the gas-electric Camry comes off as just another bread-and-butter beater. Sure, subtle cues differentiate the Hybrid from lesser cars, but they don’t really do much to set it apart from commuter Camrys, much less set it above them. Truth be told, the boldest bits here alluding to the presence of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive are the badges themselves. Bottom line: the 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid looks an awful lot like a 2007 Toyota Camry–no great loss if you’re fond of the new model’s swoopy lines.
Of course, the Hybrid’s miss-me styling reveals another angle. You won’t catch the brass admitting it, but surely the outlandish looks of the Prius put off some buyers–which can now be brought into the anonymous fold. By our own estimation, the original hybrid’s Buck Rogers personality is one of the strongest points about that car, but who are we to judge? Some folks just prefer vanilla–and Toyota has done well lo these many years by catering to just that desire.
The march of technology (and change) cannot be ignored, though, when it comes to new car interiors–and our Camry Hybrid tester, fortunately, exhibits everything good about solid-state ergonomic engineering. We’d like to attribute its high-tech cockpit at least in part to the hybrid model line, but everything inside our example is standard Camry fare. Still, we were mightily impressed with the soft blue Plasmacluster dash lighting, the handy auxiliary audio input, and the other modern touches we found inside.
As for the basics, Toyota has done them well, as ever. The cloth bench seats in our test model were sublimely comfortable, without entirely eschewing lateral support. Buttons and switchgear are all well-placed and eminently readable, too (is it just us, or does the oversize font in this car and the Avalon appeal especially to octogenarians?).
Faultless, too, is the ride. Pillowy-soft over even the most poorly-maintained road surfaces, the Camry Hybrid cruises like a dream. Jolts and shudders from the engine and/or motor engaging are a thing of the hybrid past, too–often, the only clue as to which system(s) are operating is the gas/electric gauge. Shifts from the CVT automatic, too, are seen rather than felt, and the tranny does a good job of maximizing economy without letting it fall out of the powerband. If there is any complaint to be made here, it is with the overall noise level; the cockpit generally seems so serene that when the four-banger is called upon to really work hard, the extra revving noise seems inappropriately raucous.
Considering how downright comfortable this car is, we can’t help but deem Toyota’s engineers especially successful for building in such competent overall driving dynamics. Truly, the new Camry line is well ahead of the outgoing model in terms of handling, performance, and the sheer driver confidence this all inspires. Sure, there’s body lean in tight turns, and brake dive at sudden stops, ut not at all to an unacceptable level. By no means is the Camry comparable to the land yachts of yesteryear (which older models came perilously close to emulating). Grip is entirely adequate for a modern sedan, and making those tires howl is much more difficult than it used to be. Perhaps most improved of all is steering feel; the much-more-accurate wheel feels so much less like a nautical device, and provides (finally!) decent feedback, too.
Of course, with the Camry Hybrid, it all comes down to the mileage. To answer the ultimate question (and NOT just because we had road trips to take), we drove our tester up to, as well as in and around, New York and Cape Cod. EPA estimates of 40/38 city/highway notwithstanding, we weren’t expecting much–past experiences with hybrids have returned significantly poorer economy than advertised, even in the heavy traffic of Washington, DC. In this, then, we were pleasantly surprised; our Camry Hybrid came much closer to the official numbers than we’re used to seeing. In fact, our city-street fuel use averaged out to almost 29 miles per gallon. Separate highway economy returns of 36 mpg and change were also impressive, although less so, due to the loss of the engine’s ‘auto-stop’ feature in high-speed conditions.
Our tester stickered at $26,700, with few options, but plenty of comfort. Whether that’s an economical proposition depends on the driving one does, and the longevity of the car’s ownership experience. For once, though, we’re less interested in a Toyota hybrid as a money-saving appliance. The 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid stands on its own as a competent, solid sedan. At this point, that in itself seems inspired.