Will Toyota’s 2018 Camry Hybrid Rise Back To The Head of Its Class?

When Toyota releases its next-generation 2018 Camry Hybrid this summer, eyes will be on how it does in taking back sales in the competitive midsized hybrid sedan segment.

To come in three trim levels, the most-efficient and base-level 52-mpg LE will match the fuel economy of the 52-mpg Prius – a remarkable 30-percent better than the outgoing Camry Hybrid which relied on a powertrain dating back to 2012.

Toyota’s introduction of the 46-52 mpg sedan lineup is expected to help project its nameplate and hybrid expertise in global markets, says Michigan-based analyst Alan Baum, and this of course includes the all-important U.S.

Camry Hybrid LE.

Here the midsized hybrid sedan class is the most competitive in that it is the most populated with closely matched models of various brands – although with the shift in American tastes toward crossovers and SUVs, it is becoming less popular.

One proof of that is the rapid climb to success of Toyota’s 32-mpg RAV4 Hybrid crossover. Despite its lower fuel economy, the AWD vehicle ascended this year to third-best selling – tacitly crying out to automakers to bring more models like it – but meanwhile the sedans present tough choices.

All-wheel drive RAV4 Hybrid. Nissan also has a Rogue Hybrid, and a Honda CR-V Hybrid could be coming. There’s room for more and in light of inexpensive gas, and waning sedan sales, the midsized hybrid sedan class ought to be a buyer’s market.

Even in a time of inexpensive gas, the best can pay back their price premiums with mpg as much as 19 mpg higher over non-hybrid stablemates. The most efficient deliver mpg in the upper 40s, and lower 40s is only average. Vehicles from Toyota, Honda, Ford, Hyundai, and Kia are variations on a theme in terms of design, power, amenities, drive quality, and value proposition.

Not all sell equally though, and that most important metric may reflect not just price or mpg, but a sum package perceived, including what dealers are willing to sell them for.

The current-generation Camry Hybrid has slipped from leading the board to third-best selling midsized hybrid and fifth-best selling hybrid overall.

With the revision of its bread-and-butter line, Toyota is well poised to gain back eroded ground. Below is an overview of the new Camry first, followed by existing competitors in order of their sales ranking.

2018 Camry Hybrid

Camry Hybrid LE.

In its attempt to change the perception of what a Camry is, Toyota went with a sleeker look to help it shift from a stereotype that its vehicles are mere appliances that lack passion. A move toward upscale was also made, not unlike how Honda has taken its Accord line a step upmarket, knocking on the back door of its Acura line.

SEE: 2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid’s MPG Will Match the Prius

Toyota’s Sam Butto says he can understand how some may view the new Camry’s improved refinement as having similarities with a luxury level vehicle, but it isn’t one by definition – though for now, we’ll note, it ought to shine brightly next to a 40-mpg Lexus ES 300h or Avalon Hybrid.

Camry Hybrid XLE.

The Camry now has a longer wheelbase, wider stance, lower hood (now made of aluminum), better outward visibility, and driver positioning.

Promised to be more fun to drive, revisions inside and out of the company’s best-selling car line aim to keep the Camry family relevant for another multi-year life cycle, and the hybrid is expected to comprise 5 percent of the model line’s total sales.

With the introduction of its Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, Toyota is saving money while improving structural integrity for the car whose sportier looks are to be matched with sportier handling.

Best of all, its projected mpg is astonishingly better than a former 40-41 mpg, and assuming projected numbers become official, the LE will be the class leader – 4-mpg ahead of the 48-mpg Honda Accord Hybrid. Its city mpg is 51 mpg, and highway is 53 mpg. This compares to the Prius rated 54 city, 50 highway, and 52 combined. A Prius Two Eco is still ahead with 56 mpg combined and so Toyota is following that ethos of making a base model the efficiency king, while more-contended higher trims get slightly less mpg.

Camry Hybrid XLE.

Said upper trims, the SE and XLE are rated 44 mpg city, 47 highway, and 46 combined. These vehicles make do with the existing NiMh battery chemistry Toyota has stuck with for years whereas the LE gets a lithium-ion battery. The upper SE and XLE also lose efficiency with larger tires and with a bit more curb weight.

Why did the base LE model get a more-expensive and more-efficient li-ion battery? Why did Toyota not put li-ion in the upper trims too being they are catering to people with deeper pockets?

“The Camry LE HV buyer values higher fuel efficiency and by incorporating the Li-Ion battery we can maximize mpg,” said Butto using “HV” to denote hybrid vehicle. “The Camry XLE HV buyer appreciates added features and may not be so concerned with maximizing fuel economy versus the LE HV buyer so the Ni-MH battery fits the XLE buyer/package needs best. By being able to achieve the XLE HV target mpg with the Ni-MH, it was not necessary to incorporate the Li-Ion battery into that grade since target mpg was achieved.”

Camry Hybrid XLE.

So Toyota’s target for improving the Camry Hybrid was met with the SE and XLE hitting 46 mpg – which is a sizable increase, and note the Prius barely squeaked out a 10-percent increase when revised in 2016.

Efficiencies were gained in part by borrowing technology from the Prius, including an improved Power Control Unit (PCU) and related hardware. As a nod toward making it closer to a driver’s car, Toyota has gone the route of simulating with its continuously variable transmission a six-speed sequential automatic transmission – shift-able with paddles in the SE, or with the lever in LE and XLE.

Camry Hybrid LE.

Also mirroring the Prius is advanced safety enhancing the stronger chassis with more high-tensile steel and 10 airbags. The car comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P). This suite bundles Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection (PCS w/PD), Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC), Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist (LDA w/SA); and Automatic High Beams (AHB).

Further advanced safety features are optionally available as well. The new car sees a roughly $1,000-2,000 price bump, and including $885 delivery fee, the LE starts at $28,685, the SE stickers from $30,385, and the XLE is $$33,135.

Ford Fusion Hybrid

This year a phenomenon in the world of hybrid car sales has been taking place in that the Ford Fusion Hybrid has escalated beyond all former precedents, threatening even the vaunted Prius Liftback for preeminence.

Its 25,840 sales from January through May 2017 are second to the 27,635 achieved by the Prius which in prior years led second place by double or triple the sales, not just a couple thousand. The Fusion’s sales tower over the next-closest midsized hybrid sedan, the Accord, which has garnered 9,184 in the same period. The outgoing 2017 Camry Hybrid sits at 7,453 sales – less than a third of the Fusion.

SEE: Ford Fusion Hybrid Review

Is the Fusion three-times better a car? Obviously not, but its mid-level 42 mpg from a 188-horsepower 2.0-liter hybrid powertrain comes in a handsome-looking vehicle with good creature comforts, amenities, and quality throughout.

Ford actually co-patented some hybrid tech with Toyota years ago, and while some may not remember that, memories are also short in that the Fusion was once over-rated 47 mpg by an over-ambitious Ford which pushed the limits on its EPA certification.

SEE: Class-action Suit Alleges ‘False and Misleading’ Economy Ratings On C-MAX and Fusion Hybrids

Yes, in this brave new world, instead of anyone punishing it – like we hear readers say they will “never forget” other perceived improprieties by other carmakers – Ford has jumped into a new sales league.

Its starting price of around $26,000 that rises to around $31,000 may be discounted enough to make its total value look very good, and it is carrying sales momentum, Baum notes, by having been just refreshed.

To be sure, it is a solid proposition, and while not the most sophisticated in this group, it strikes a balance that matters most to its maker – sales performance.

Honda Accord Hybrid

Check back after July 14, when Honda will reveal its updated 10th Generation Accord line, including improved Hybrid.

The Accord Hybrid is the most expensive of the bunch, and until the new Camry shows up, it might be argued it’s the most sophisticated and well-sorted as well.

SEE ALSO: 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid Review – First Drive

Its 2.0-liter hybrid powertrain has one technological credential loosely in common with a million-dollar Koenigsegg hypercar – it relies on a virtual transmission, and does away with a conventional auto or CVT.

Called “Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive” (I-MMD), Honda’s innovation moves the car on battery power under easy acceleration or under low torque demands when cruising.

That’s a neat trick, but the Accord Hybrid is all-around stellar – being relatively large and spacious, broaching on the large class, and having 212 horsepower – more than others in the existing class.

Toyota said it did not set out to beat the Accord, but be competitive with all, but the fact remains its Japanese rival is the one to beat, and Toyota does appear to undercut it on price.

The Accord is also highly contented, starts at around $30,000 and rises to $37,000 in Touring trim. Its 49 mpg city 47 mpg highway, and 48 mpg combined is offered in all trims but meanwhile, Toyota has contented its now larger, prettier Camry better than before, and kept prices – albeit higher – to a couple-few thousand less.

This said, in July, Honda is unveiling a revised Accord lineup.

“The new Accord design will have a dramatically lower and wider appearance that creates a more aggressive and athletic stance,” says Honda, which promises also the “all-new, even more refined Accord Hybrid will be powered by the next-generation of Honda’s innovative two-motor hybrid technology.”

Both ought to be cross shopped and test driven and it will be interesting to see which is most popular. Note – Honda does not include fleet sales in its sales numbers, while Toyota, which sells to fleet and taxi services, does.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Revised for 2016, the 40-42 mpg Sonata Hybrid versions closely follow the midsized sedan formula of the others while deviating with a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a CVT.

Note that Toyota felt it a good idea to simulate a six-speeder as some drivers dislike the CVT’s engine note and power delivery, while others can tune it out and not be bothered.

Also different is while the displacement of the 2.0-liter Nu GDI engine is comparable to others, it’s mated to a single electric motor contrasting with two-motor hybrid systems found in competitive models.

SEE: First Drive: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid

Horsepower is 193, so within realm of the others, and other aspects fit the car as a close competitor.

Hyundai’s design language is called “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0” and it makes for a good-looking vehicle that boasts a low 0.27 coefficient of drag. Inside it’s spacious, equipped with amenities one expects in this realm.

Sales this year trail the existing Camry Hybrid by a couple thousand at 5,629 through May. It is reasonably likely the new Camry will revive interest among Toyota buyers to increase that gap but the Hyundai has been a solid performer.

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Possibly underappreciated, the 46-mpg Malibu Hybrid is actually the second-best mpg car in its class for now and uses a 1.8-liter full hybrid powertrain derived from that of the 1.5-liter plug-in Chevy Volt.

SEE ALSO: Why the 2016 Chevy Malibu Hybrid Gets Better MPG Than The 2016 Chevy Volt

It’s also a fairly large car in its segment, nicely redesigned last year. Inside, it’s comfortable and nicely equipped, the drive is very smooth, and it comes with a highly level of safety features.

Nicks against it include limited trunk space due to the hybrid battery – something Toyota avoids by relocating the battery under the rear seat. As General Motors has been known to do with its other green cars, it is highly contented and a bit overpriced at sticker.

If you can from a Chevy dealer motivated to deal downward from an almost $29,000 starting price, it ought to be considered as an otherwise viable contender in its class.

Kia Optima Hybrid

Revised last year, Kia’s Optima is a variation on a theme set by its Korean sibling, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.

Rated 39 mpg city, 46 highway, and 42 combined, the nicely designed car borrows the 2.0-liter one-motor hybrid powertrain along with six-speed automatic transmission from the Sonata which is comparably rated at 40-42 mpg.

Another handsome car that like all the others deviates little from non-hybrid stablemates, it does boast aerodynamic alloy wheels and active grille shutters that bring the wind-cheating body’s coefficient of drag to a 0.24 – equal to the Prius and Tesla Model S.

SEE: 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid Review

Inside, the layout is conservative and tasteful with simply arranged buttons and knobs, and occupant space front and back is roomy and comfortable.

On the road, it’s quiet, sufficiently powerful with 192 horses at 6,000 rpm, and a substantial 271 pounds-feet of torque.

Competitively priced at just over $26,000 before destination for the Optima Hybrid Premium, and $31,000 for the Kia Optima Hybrid EX, it’s not a bad proposition next to the close to $26,000 for the non-hybrid Optima EX 2.4, and upper level Optimas including turbo versions range from the lower to upper 30s.

This said, sales through May of just 1,177 units – far less than the 5,671 units Ford sold of its Fusion Hybrid in May alone – indicate this is a game of either winners or losers.

Despite being rated 5 mpg better on the highway than the also 42-mpg combined Ford, it is left picking up the scraps in the sales department and no doubt the Camry will look better to consumers as well.

Whether that’s fully deserved is another matter, but it’s a buyer’s market in a time of inexpensive gas, and lots of very competent me-too products in the midsized hybrid sedan class.

Look for the new Camry Hybrid to rise, probably not to the level of that anomaly, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, but perhaps near or above the Accord, and the rest.

Coming your way.



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