Driving the all-new 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid is pretty much like driving the all-new gas powered 2012 Camry. Now I don’t expect you to take my word on this so, I would like to throw out a challenge. When the 2012 Toyota Camry rolls into dealerships in November, take both cars out for a test drive. But, when you slip behind the steering wheels, you can’t know which version of the car you are testing.
After you’ve driven both cars I’m willing to bet—not large sums, well, a few pennies to be exact—that unless you’re among the most perceptive of drivers, you found little if any difference in the driving experience between the two cars.
Camry has been America’s top-selling car nine out of the last 10 years, but competition is brutal with Ford, Hyundai, Kia and even Volkswagen making significant inroads with their midsize entries. As for the Camry Hybrid, it has taken a beating. Introduced in 2006 as a 2007 model, it quickly became the second best-selling hybrid behind the Prius. By the end of 2010, it dropped to fourth best selling hybrid. For the first six-months of this year, it has slipped to eighth, with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid the big gainers.
Toyota is confident the seventh-generation Camry will continue its streak of being the best seller. It is equally confident the 2012 Camry Hybrid will double its sales in its first year to around 50,000 to reclaim its sales ranking. Here’s why.
More Power And More MPG
The 2012 Camry Hybrid boasts the latest incarnation of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive. The hybrid system again teams a four-cylinder engine, a small high torque electric motor and nickel-metal hydride batteries. Power continues to be directed to the front wheels through the transaxle’s continuously variable transmission.
The first half of the Camry Hybrid drivetrain is a new Atkinson-cycle version of the base Camry’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. (An Atkinson-cycle engine gives up a little power output in exchange for improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.) The engine produces 156 horsepower, nine more than the 2.4-liter in the 2011 Camry Hybrid. The larger displacement and more efficient combustion boosts torque to 156 pound-feet, 16 more than the outgoing model.
The second half is a 105-kW electric motor and a revised 245-volt battery pack. The battery pack consists of 34 nickel-metal hydride modules, each of which contains six 1.2-volt cells. Although smaller in size, the battery pack stores and delivers more power.
Combined power output of the hybrid powertrain is 200 horsepower, a gain of 13 horsepower compared to the previous version. (Toyota does not publish a net hybrid torque figure, though it states the electric motor alone spins out 199 pounds-feet.)
Fuel economy for the previous generation Camry Hybrid—31 mpg city/35 highway/33 combined—was first eclipsed by the Ford Fusion Hybrid and then Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid. But the 2012 model demonstrates Toyota’s expertise in gasoline-electric hybrid technology, delivering a 43/39 mpg EPA fuel economy rating with a combined average of 41 mpg. That’s a whopping 12 mpg increase in city driving and an impressive gain of 8 mpg for combined driving cycles, numbers that elevate the Camry Hybrid to again claim the title of most fuel-efficient midsize sedan.
So, how did the automaker produce a car with more power and more miles per gallon?
Weight is a major nemesis of fuel economy, and engineers cut around 250 pounds from the new hybrid. This includes trimming the size and weight of the battery pack.
Aerodynamics plays an important role in fuel economy and the 2012 Camry Hybrid achieves a notable 0.27 coefficient of drag (Cd) wind resistance. (The Toyota Prius registers 0.25 Cd.) To reach that number, underbody aerodynamic cladding was strategically placed and, the side-view mirrors and taillight lenses have integrated small fins that create a buffer around the car, helping the vehicle to slip through the air. This aero design trick was culled from Toyota’s Formula One days.
Under the hood, the engine features a roller-rocker type valvetrain and a variable-output oil pump that help reduce internal friction, boosting economy. Another fuel-saving strategy is a water-cooled exhaust-gas recirculation (EGR) system. This feature boosts fuel economy by reducing engine pumping losses. Also, accessory drive belts have been eliminated, replaced by electric driven accessories, including the air conditioning compressor, water pump and power steering pump.
Software engineers are credited for helping to increase the mpg numbers by enhancing the hybrid system’s power management; the Hybrid’s electronic sensors precisely determine what blend of gas and electric propulsion best balances power and fuel economy. And finally, Toyota says lower rolling resistance tires also help boost fuel economy.
Like the gasoline models, the 2012 Camry Hybrid rides on an all-new platform, though wheelbase, length, width and height are carried-over dimensions. The result is a familiar looking vehicle, even though designers clad the sedan in all-new sheetmetal from bumper to bumper.
Except for those who work at a Toyota dealership, most people when they see the new car won’t say, “Wow, that’s the new Camry.” And surely there will be a host of auto critics who will berate Toyota for its conservative redesign, pointing to the Hyundai Sonata with its swoopy lines and sharp creases. But their livelihood isn’t dependent on Camry sales.
Toyota says that 50 percent of new Camry buyers will be current Camry owners. With a projected 360,000 first year sales—50,000 hybrids—the automaker wisely won’t risk alienating that many loyal customers with polarizing styling.
Granted, this seventh-generation Camry’s sheetmetal clothing bears more than just a little kinship to the previous model, the styling, while not stirring or striking, is clean, handsome and safe.
The most noteworthy change is up front where a new chrome grille sweeps upward to a refreshed headlight design. Below, an expansive air inlet is flanked by trapezoidal chrome fog light recesses. The design fools the eye and gives the impression of greater width. In the rear, chrome taillight accents were discarded and replaced by a more curved design that wraps into the rear side panels and extends into the trunk.
There is little to distinguish the Camry Hybrid from the gasoline models. Small hybrid badges adorn the front fenders and trunk. The front Toyota emblem has a blue background rather than black, borrowing a design element from the Prius.
Toyota heeded remarks about the hard, cheap looking interior plastics of the previous Camry. The 2012 Camry’s cabin is nicely furnished and is now on par with competitors. Soft-touch plastic on the upper dash is given an upscale appearance with genuine cloth stitching. Soft textures are also used on the upper door trim, door and center console armrests as well as kneepads on either side of the console.
Exclusive interior design touches differentiate the 2012 Camry Hybrid from other Camry models. The Hybrid’s “metallic-tech grain” trim is a combination of a black dashboard with brushed-aluminum highlights and light gray or ivory seat fabrics. Unique to the Hybrid is a three-gauge instrument cluster with an analog fuel economy gauge plus, a power-flow display graphically shows energy flow, cruising range and real-time fuel economy.
Seating is all-day comfortable, and not just in the front row. Camry seats are kind to the gluteal portions of the anatomy, important in a car with a fuel range of 650-plus miles. Designers reshaped interior components to make it more spacious, with big gains in rear seat leg and hip room.
There’s also more trunk space. The trunk mounted battery pack was reduced in size and the DC-to-DC converter was moved from the trunk area to under the hood. That increased cargo room to 13.1 cubic feet, a 2.5 cubic feet gain. For long items, the right rear seatback folds forward.
On The Road
Toyota’s press introduction was held on the eastern slopes of Washington state’s Cascade Mountains, about three miles from the tiny town of Rosyln, the setting for the somewhat outré 1990’s TV series, Northern Exposure. There were several drive routes offered that included some marvelous two-lane black top roads that encouraged back road two-stepping, nearby Interstate 5 and a drive through the small town of Cle Elum.
The 2012 Camry Hybrid feels more like V-6 power than inline four. Toyota says the scoot from 0 to 60 mph is 7.6 seconds—halfway between the gas V-6’s time of 6.8 seconds and the four cylinder’s 8.6 seconds. Throttle response is near perfect; ideal for highway on-ramps as I found out when an 18-wheeler was motivating faster than I first thought. At the same time, the car is smooth as silk in low speed conditions.
Transition from gas engine to electric motor and back again is no longer “almost seamless,” it is seamless—no shuddering, no shimmying; none, nada. As for the quirky, almost brick-like feel of the regenerative brake system of the previous Hybrid, it doesn’t exist anymore. Brake pedal feel is equal to gas-powered Camrys and very linear.
In terms of handling, the Camry is more than competent and is devoid of vices and totally predictable. It corners well and the electric power steering has good on-center feel and offers decent driver feedback.
But Camry’s are best known for their ride quality. A more rigid body structure and tweaks to the all-independent suspension provide a smooth and compliant feel that makes it ideal for long trips and daily commuting.
Cabin noise intrusion plays a role in perceived ride quality. Toyota has made wind noise almost nonexistent in the Hybrid with stronger door and rocker area seals; optimized placement of sound insulating materials; foam the roof, pillars and door openings; and acoustic glass used for the windshield.
All this adds up to a controlled, balanced and comfortable four-door family sedan.
And then there’s fuel economy, what the Camry Hybrid is really all about. I drove three stints on a route that was a near duplicate of my wife’s daily 15 mile commute—a tad over two miles on the freeway and the balance on city and rural roads with speed limits of 25 to 40 mph. In the 2011 Hybrid, the instrument panel readout was 44.5 mpg, the 2012 Hybrid LE model yielded 49.7 mpg.
My third trip was in the Hybrid XLE model, yes there are two Hybrid versions for 2012 (see below). By employing the Eco mode, which maximizes fuel economy across all driving conditions, and the new EV mode that keeps the vehicle in electric drive only up to 25 mph, the readout was 58.5 mpg. A longer 54-mile drive in the XLE that included a little over 40 miles on the Interstate registered 48.2 mpg.
All of these fuel economy numbers far exceed the EPA estimates, and for a couple of reasons. First, I’m quite sure I was more judicious in managing fuel economy than the EPA’s protocols. Second, the EPA does not factor the Eco and EV modes in their fuel economy estimates. Or, as the EPA says, “Your fuel economy may vary.”
More Car For Less Money
For the first time, the Camry Hybrid will be offered in trim levels, LE and XLE. The Camry Hybrid LE has a sticker price of $25,900, that’s $1,150 less than the outgoing model. And, this is no stripper model. Standard features include: keyless access with push-button start; power windows, locks and outside mirrors; cruise control; dual-zone automatic climate control, tilt/telescoping steering-wheel; and an audio system with Bluetooth and USB/iPod connectivity.
Step-up to the XLE and the base price of $27,400 is a decrease of $800 compared to last year’s model with upgrade package. The additional $1,500 for the XLE adds a power driver’s seat, a touch-screen stereo display and 17-inch alloy wheels.
A blind-spot warning system is an option on the XLE as is a JBL audio system, two separate navigation systems and Toyota’s Entune multimedia system. Entune includes apps like OpenTable, and Movietickets.com so you can book a restaurant or buy movie tickets, as well as iheartradio that offers different streaming radio stations from across the country.
The average age of Camry Hybrid owners is 64 and it would seem they would be more likely to own a Jitterbug cell phone than a smart phone, which is required for Entune. For the hip baby boomers, the apps are free but the smart phone data time will cost you.
Completing the Camry Hybrid’s resume are all the biggies when it comes to standard safety systems. For active safety, Toyota’s Star Safety System integrates stability control, anti-lock disc braking system and traction control. Passive safety features 10 passenger airbags that include, in addition to head-protecting curtain side airbags, driver and passenger front knee airbags and torso-protecting rear-seat-mounted outboard-side airbags.
Comparing the Camry Hybrid with the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid reveals the competition between the three is fierce. The Camry’s base price is $25,900, the Sonata stickers for $25,795 and the Fusion is priced at $28,600. But at the pump, the Camry is the clear winner, besting the Sonata’s city fuel economy by 8 mpg and the Fusion by 2 mpg.
New hybrid car buyers with no attachments to a brand will have to spend some time to determine which of the above three is right for them. For Toyota devotees, however, it is pretty much a no brainer: The 2012 Camry Hybrid offers plenty of power, an excellent interior, loads of features, enough room for five adult and then there’s that fuel economy.
The 2012 Camry will most likely again be the top selling car in the U.S. But when the numbers are tallied, don’t be surprised if the Camry Hybrid racks up a total way beyond the 50,000 the automaker is projecting.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of writing and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.