There's nothing all that sophisticated about the Toyota Camry Hybrid, except how it easily doles out 36, 37, 38 mpg around town and 41-plus on the highway.
While the standard Camry is available in six trim levels, including a very base L and sporty S, the Hybrid is sold in well-equipped LE and XLE. Hybrid starting prices range from $26,750, including the $760 freight charge from Georgetown, Ky., to $28,160. The LE tester was $26,975, which included floor mats and trunk mat for $225. And the price includes two years or 25,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance. Hybrid components are under warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles.
The Camry's Hybrid Synergy Drive system puts an electric motor with a nickel-metal hydride battery pack, four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. New this year is a more efficient 156-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which replaces a 2.4-liter. The hybrid system pulls power from the gasoline engine and a small but high-torque electric motor. The system produces a combined 200-horsepower and varies power between the gas engine and electric motor, or combines both, as needed.
It is a slick and seamless process, which has been enhanced with two new features: Eco mode and EV mode.
Eco mode blunts throttle response and optimizes air conditioning to prioritize maximum fuel economy. I did all city driving in Eco mode to help maintain the mileage gains established from highway cruising.
EV mode allows the car to be driven on the electric motor alone for up to 1.6 miles at lower speeds (below 25 mph). That can be handy when moving cars around in the driveway or making a donut run on Sunday morning. But no doubt it could be higher with a more energy-dense (but pricier) lithium-ion battery.
And the Camry Hybrid has the other expected features, such as a system indicator that shows power transfer between engine and battery. And a fuel consumption indicator helps guilt the driver into economical driving.
Stepping on the brake pedal converts the motor to a generator, which captures the kinetic energy from the still-spinning vehicle wheels and stores it in the hybrid battery pack. This keep the battery topped off for interior functions so the engine can stay off longer at idle or traffic stops. A "B" mode uses regenerative braking as a form of engine braking for more battery charging on downhill runs. And a new hill-start assist control helps prevent the vehicle from rolling backward when starting off on an incline when the brake pedal is released.
This is the seventh generation of Camry — 29 years on U.S. roads. The styling redesign is safe but confident. The dimensions are the same as the 2011 model but with a little more interior room. The hybrid's battery pack takes up part of the trunk space, but at 13.1 cubic feet, there is still functional luggage room and the space is 2.1 cubic feet larger than the last model.
The LE tester was what hybrids are all about: minimal content to maximize mileage. Standard features on the LE include smart key with push-button start, six-speaker audio system with Aux-USB-iPod inputs, 16-inch steel wheels with full covers and Michelin low rolling resistance tires, fabric seats, Bluetooth phone connection and 10 air bags.
There was no rearview camera, sunroof, navigation system or smartphone-assisted app features. But those are available.
Now, compare the test car's price to fairly basic but smaller Toyota Prius 2, starting at $27,310.
The Prius has EPA fuel economy ratings of 51 mpg city, 48 highway and 50 combined. The larger Camry Hybrid gets 43/39/41 mpg. It takes the Prius 9.8 seconds to get to 60 mph while the Camry Hybrid does it in 7.6.
The power-mileage-price equation looks pretty good for the base Camry Hybrid to be used as that long-distance commuter car.