Early Impressions of a Camry Hybrid Driver
By Todd Bannor
I admit it. I’ve been skeptic about hybrid cars. There are more and more of them on the road, but with the exception of the Honda Accord Hybrid, they all reminded me of cars I drove when I was in my early twenties. I had no desire to go back.
However, the recent rise in gas prices—and the fact that our Subaru Forester XT averaged 15 mpg around town and required premium fuel—convinced my wife that we needed to get something more economical and more friendly to the environment. Given my background in science and the overwhelming evidence supporting human-caused climate change, I had to agree.
The Test Drive
Our Camry Hybrid in front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arthur B. Heurtley House in Oak Park, Illinois. © Todd A. Bannor/bannorphotography.com.
As luck would have it, a pretty silver Camry Hybrid arrived at the dealer 30 minutes before we did and it wasn’t spoken for. After an hour for dealer preparation, we took the car for a ten-minute test drive. We were very impressed. The Camry was quiet and well equipped, even though it was a base model. The only thing it lacked, which we’d grown accustomed to in our Forester, was a sunroof.
Its features included dual zone climate control, a satellite-ready radio, a CD-changer with an auxiliary jack for plugging in an MP3 player, and Bluetooth phone capability. It also uses Toyota’s “Smart Key System.” There is no physical key, just a remote fob. As long as you have the fob in your pocket or purse, the car will unlock automatically when you pull the door handle. You then push a button on the dashboard while pressing on the brake to start the car.
Since it was brand new, I didn’t do any hard acceleration. Still, it moved quite sprightly away from a traffic light under partial throttle.
When we returned to the dealership, we were told it would be a long wait for a Camry Hybrid equipped with a sunroof. And it would be red. They offered us the available silver car and we went for it—opting to have a power sunroof installed. The list price was about $27,000, and it cost us $1,000 to have the sunroof installed—less than what we paid for our loaded 2004 Forester Turbo.
When we picked up the car, there was one minor glitch. The “Check Hybrid System” warning was activated. It turned out to be an electric connecter that was not fully pushed into its socket.
One Month Later
We have now had the Camry Hybrid for almost a month, and we are convinced that hybrid technology is the wave of the future in automotive design.
Now that it has some mileage on it, I don’t hold back when merging on to an expressway. The Camry Hybrid has absolutely no trouble getting into the flow of traffic. In fact, it’s surprisingly quick. Electric motors generate maximum torque from zero rpm, so there is no waiting for the engine to get into the peak of its torque curve. Think of it as a turbocharger with no lag and less fuel consumption. The Camry Hybrid has significantly more horsepower than the basic four-cylinder Camry. Obviously, the V6-equipped Honda Accord Hybrid is quicker, but its fuel economy is not as good.
As for the driving experience, it’s a fun car to drive. Handling is secure and better than most family sedans I’ve driven—though not really sporty. The vehicle stability control system contributes to its secure handling.
The continuously variable transmission makes the car feel like a jet airliner on takeoff. Hit the accelerator and you hear the Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine throttle up to its optimal power range. There is an almost imperceptible whine from the electric motor. There is no shifting and the car moves briskly forward. When you reach expressway speed and back off the accelerator, the gasoline engine settles into a quiet cruising rpm. Of course, if you do a lot of hard acceleration, you won’t get anywhere near the mileage this car is capable of.
We gave up a bit of room in the trunk, which accommodates the hybrid battery. However, the back seats still fold down. Only the right side has an opening to the trunk. This allows you to carry long objects, a feature that came in handy when my mother reminded me that I had to pick up her large set of blinds. The blinds fit just fine in the Camry.
If you achieve over 35 mpg on a single trip, the Camry Hybrid’s dashboard rewards you with high praise. The word “Excellent” flashes below the bar graph. © Todd A. Bannor/bannorphotography.com.
The Camry Hybrid is EPA rated at 43-mpg city and 37-mpg highway. While I’ve achieved over 40-mpg in city driving, it is not easily done. Of course, there isn’t a car made that regularly gets EPA mileage.
In the first five to ten minutes of driving, the gasoline engine will not shut down, even at a stoplight. (That’s normal for all hybrids.) On our daily trip to drop my wife off at the train station, which is less than ten minutes away, the mileage drops below 30 mpg. During the return trip, however, everything has warmed up and mileage climbs above this level.
When fully warmed up, the Camry Hybrid can cruise at speeds up to 40 mph using only the electric motor. In non-rush hour city traffic, fuel economy can go over 40 mpg, especially on major streets with synchronized traffic signals. In instances like this, I’ve cruised all-electric for over a mile at a time; perhaps even more. It takes a light touch on the throttle, but it is possible.
In rush hour traffic, 30 mpg or so is normal. Economy with AC drops into the 25-mpg range. Of course, most other cars in this class don’t do much better than 25 mpg on the highway.
Using a light foot on the throttle is encouraged by the display in the middle of the speedometer, which shows you where the power is coming from, and when the battery is recharging. Whenever you coast or brake, the gasoline engine almost always shuts down—except during warm-up period and at speeds over 40 mph. Driving this car shows just how inefficient conventional cars are. At a stoplight, they all get 0 mpg—while a hybrid isn’t using any gas.
Using a button on the steering wheel, you can also view average mileage per fill-up, cruising range, “Eco Drive” level, and outside temperature. I’d prefer the outside temperature indicator to be on top of the dash with the clock, where it would always be visible without using a button. The Eco Drive level is the mileage-per-trip and is indicated by a bar graph. It is also displayed at the end of each trip when you turn the car off. If you achieve over 35 mpg on that trip, you are rewarded with high praise by the word “Excellent,” flashing below the bar graph.
All four doors unlock when you shift into park. There are instructions in the owner’s manual on how to reprogram the doors not to do this, but after numerous attempts, following the instructions closely, I cannot get them to stay locked when I shift into park. This is not a desirable feature in an urban area. Also, contrary to the information in the owner’s manual, the automatic radio volume feature, which adjusts the volume based on the speed/noise level of the vehicle, doesn’t seem to work.
My wife and I are very happy with the Camry Hybrid. We’re not sacrificing anything and we’re helping to conserve natural resources. You can have very good power, features, and comfort in a family-sized car while reducing your impact on this fragile planet’s environment.
Todd Bannor is a commercial photographer specializing in images of medicine, science and technology . He lives with his wife in Oak Park, Illinois.