After taking delivery of a Toyota Camry Hybrid (TCH), I toyed with the idea of de-badging it. I quickly realized my inverse snobbery might boomerang in my elitist face; reducing me to total automotive anonymity. Perhaps that's why Toyota's marketing department equipped the TCH with three "Hybrid" badges to the one discreet Camry badge tucked under the lip of the trunk line. And I suppose I should be proud to drive a clean-burning gas – electric automobile; protecting the environment, reducing oil imports and all that PC sort of stuff. Still, I can't stop the nagging feeling that I'm getting away with something…
I purchased my TCH in refrigerator white to match its household appliance id. Should I be ashamed to admit it looks handsome? The family four-door's newly tightened curves straddle the fine line between generic everycar and sophisticated modern motor. The Camry's snout is a bit more pugnacious than the previous generation's, and Toyota's plagiarists have added a welcome touch of flame surfacing to the slabbed sides. Hell, the TCH even sports a little Bangle butt. The overall appearance is more Mazda than BMW, but there's no doubt that Toyota has mastered the formerly German art of understated inoffensiveness.
The TCH's interior is equally sleek. While the new Camry boasts the high-quality soft-touch plastics we've come to expect from Toyota, the company's designers deserve special credit for harmonious ergonomic integration. Unlike the new Civic, all the Camry's switchgear and instrumentation– from the chic central gauges to the padded steering wheel to the rotary climate controllers– are in perfect scale with each other. As you'd expect, the TCH's build quality is impeccable: everything clicks satisfactorily and lines-up properly. They even included a new 'plasmacluster' air filtration system, which they proudly emboss on the HVAC controls, lending a new age ionic breezy touch.
Switch on the TCH and it glides on battery power until gas-powered propulsion becomes unavoidable. It's fun to feather the throttle to see how long you can motivate the car on electrics alone. The party ends when you need real acceleration. The factory claims the hybrid will dash from 0 to 60mph in 7.7 seconds– which isn't slow per se and easily out-scoots the four-cylinder Camry. But the placidity of the forward progress and the drivetrain's serene transitions make the TCH seem positively glacial. In fact, everything about the driving experience is syrupy smooth: road and wind noise are hushed, driveline lash is nonexistent, the helm answers with linear predictability.
The TCH handles with equal equanimity. The brakes are a bit touchy, but easy to modulate. Turn-in is about as crisp as two week-old potato chips, but ultimate grip is excellent– particularly as the tires were designed for maximum mileage. Bonus: the TCH's shoes don't squeal in protest at every turn, like other hybrids I've experienced. Forward lethargy aside, the TCH is a pretty good city car. It's comfortable, quiet and smooth. Ditto highway performance, as long as you remember that highway overtaking requires more advance planning than the Normandy invasion. The TCH is a thoroughly relaxing car, regardless of road or traffic conditions.
Of course, there are annoyances. For example, you can't make inputs to the navigation system or the telephone above 10 mph. (What's my passenger supposed to do while I search for forward thrust?) The JBL sound system is excellent– light and airy with only a slight murkiness to the bass response– but the system would not recognize the MP3 or WMA files on any CD I burned, nor could I plug in a digital memory card. (I was forced to listen to my MP3 player through the separate audio input.) Fortunately, the TCH's trip economy screen makes up for the digital deficiency. A PowerPoint bar graph displays your fuel economy for the past 30 minutes in ninety second intervals. When you average more than 40mpg, the word 'excellent' appears above the electronic odometer when you shut off the car. And no, I am not making this up.
In its quest to fill every niche known to carkind, Toyota sells a full spectrum of hybrid vehicles; from machines boasting extreme frugality (Prius) to mad performance (Lexus GS450h). One extreme prioritizes economy over just about anything else (except maybe goofiness), while the other emphasizes snobbery, complexity and profitability. The Camry Hybrid lands smack dab in the middle of this range, and just about any other automotive range you might imagine.
No other Hybrid appeals to as many people as Toyota's latest entry in the hybrid genre. It does just about everything well except accelerate– a deficiency unlikely to trouble the majority of potential buyers. From my personal point-of-view, the Toyota Camry Hyrbrid's only real drawback is that is doesn't qualify for California's HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle lane). Although its sips gas, its EPA mileage figures don't quite make the cut (unlike the Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid). Oh well. I guess sometimes even extraordinary cars have to do ordinary things.