2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid Review


2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid

At this point in time, gasoline-electric vehicles have gone from early-adopter to mainstream technology. And what could underline that more than a hybrid version of that most popular of mid-size cars, the Toyota Camry?

The Hybrid has been in the Camry lineup since model year 2007. It's one of the three top-level models in that line, along with the luxury-oriented XLE and sporty SE. Base Camry and mid-level LE grades fill out the lineup, with the base, no-name Camry a new addition this year, replacing the previous CE.

A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 158 horsepower and commendable fuel economy is the standard engine in all except the hybrid, which has a modified version of that unit allied with an electric motor in Toyota's full-hybrid Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The 187 maximum system horsepower slots between the standard four and the 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V6 optional for the LE, SE, and XLE.

The Hybrid is equipped to the same level as the XLE, with the addition of the keyless "Smart Entry and Smart Start" system, as used in upscale cousins over at Lexus. It's not quite that luxurious, but it is a pleasant upper-middle class sedan with all of the virtues of a current-generation Camry and better fuel economy and cruising range. It does have some drawbacks - the battery pack under the trunk floor means a small loss of trunk space - which shouldn't be a major problem as that trunk is still more than adequate. And the battery pack also precludes a real trunk pass-though. But I suspect that anyone who really needs a huge trunk and cargo capacity is not looking at a sedan. Hello Toyota Highlander (also available in hybrid form) or RAV4.

I first drove a Camry Hybrid two years ago, when it was a new addition for model year 2007, and have just finished a refresher week in a 2009 model. Differences to the car between then and now are few. But out in the world at large, gasoline costs more and the EPA has changed the way it calculates estimated mileage, especially for hybrids. Two years ago, the Camry Hybrid was rated 40mpg city/ 38 highway. Now it's 33/34. Reality: two years ago I got 34 mpg for the week, last week I got 35. With a 17-gallon fuel tank, that's close to 600 miles between fill-ups.

Driving a Camry Hybrid differs little from driving a regular Camry. As in all Toyota-system hybrids, it may be powered by the gasoline engine only, the electric motor only, or both to varying degrees. What drives the front wheels depends on a combination of vehicle speed, drivetrain load, and throttle position. Transitions between power modes are not completely seamless, but usually no more noticeable than the shifting of an automatic transmission. When in electric mode, with the gasoline engine shut off, the Camry Hybrid is uncannily quiet. Under absolute full-throttle acceleration, it's quick enough to deal with any need I came across, including the ever-exciting merge from a 20 mph on-ramp into 70+ mph traffic. Placing the shift lever in B -- for maximum regenerative braking -- mode for extra braking power (and battery charging) when slowing, especially down long grades. But the real difference between a hybrid Camry and one of the others is in the time and distance it takes for the fuel gauge to drop. And even though gasoline prices have fallen in recent weeks, spending less on fuel, and going farther between fill-ups, is still attractive. Other than that, the most remarkable thing about the Camry Hybrid is that it's unremarkable in daily use, and requires little in the way of adaptation by its driver.

APPEARANCE: Other than the discreet "hybrid" badging on the trunk and front fenders, the Camry Hybrid looks like any other current Camry. It's less conservative than previous editions, and features a mix of rounded shapes and chiseled lines that makes it look smaller than its immediate predecessor. The same length as the previous model, the new Camry is a little wider and lower, and has a longer wheelbase and shorter overhangs.

COMFORT: Interior styling differences between the Hybrid and other Camry models are limited to the instrument panel. In standard equipment level it is similar to the four-cylinder XLE, with comfortable velour cloth upholstery, a premium JBL AM/FM/WMA and MP3-capable six-CD changer and auxiliary jack audio system with satellite radio capability, and dual-zone climate control. There are useful storage spaces around the cabin, and the MP3 jack is in a covered compartment at the base of the center stack, next to a power outlet. Seat comfort, front and rear, is very good. Hybrid-specific features include the "Smart Entry" keyless push-button start/stop system, a hybrid-specific Optitron instrument panel that replaces the tachometer with a fuel-consumption gauge, and a PRNDB shifter, "B" being enhanced regenerative braking mode, useful in long descents. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds, but only a small passthrough on the passenger side is useful because of the placement of the hybrid battery pack, which also decreases trunk space by about four cubic feet. As with other Toyota hybrids, the engine may not start immediately when the start button is pressed - the car can run under electric power at that time. Also be careful to press "Stop" before exiting the car, as the engine will stop when the car does.

SAFETY: As in all current Camrys, safety is improved by a stronger structure, larger antilock brakes -- four-wheel disc in all models-- and standard brake assist. Seven airbags - dual front, front side, side curtain, and a driver's knee bag - are standard in all grades. The Hybrid also has the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system and enhanced brake performance from regenerative braking.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Heavier than other Camry models because of the extra hardware of the hybrid system, and with a softer tuning to its independent MacPherson strut front, dual link rear suspension, the Hybrid's true place is at moderate speeds in city and highway traffic - the real world. There, it is exceptionally quiet and comfortable. A 17.2-gallon tank and realistic 30 to 35mpg+ fuel economy gives a long range between fillups.

PERFORMANCE: The Camry Hybrid's powertrain gives it good performance for everyday use. Acceleration for merging into traffic is never inadequate, thanks to the strong and instant torque boost available from the electric motor, and magnetic drag from regenerative braking helps slow the car under deceleration. As in other Toyota (and Lexus) hybrids, the Camry Hybrid's engine is an Atkinson cycle unit, meaning that internal modifications are made to improve efficiency, at the expense of maximum power output. Compare its 147 horsepower (at 6000 rpm) and 138 lb-ft of torque (at 4400 rpm) with the similarly-sized regular Camry four-cylinder's 158 hp and 161 lb-ft. But the decreased power is made moot by assistance from the electric motor, with a maximum output of 105 kW (141 hp) and 199 lb-ft of torque. That torque is from 0 through 1500 rpm - as soon as the motor kicks in. Output from the engine and motor is sent to the front wheels through a complex electronically-controlled continuously-variable transmission, and it's hard to tell the power source without looking at the animated diagram on the dash. Engine noise is only noticeable under full-throttle acceleration, and under light throttle or in electric mode the Camry Hybrid is virtually silent. Further improvement in fuel economy comes from the engine automatically shutting off when the car comes to a stop, as at a light. It restarts when the brake is released or the accelerator is pressed.

CONCLUSIONS: Gasoline-electric hybrid technology is solidly mainstream in the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

SPECIFICATIONS: 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Base Price			$ 26,150
Price As Tested			$ 31,930
Engine Type			16-valve dual overhead cam aluminum
				 alloy 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle
				 4-cylinder with VVT-i variable
				 valve timing
Engine Size			2.4 liters / 144 cu. in.
Horsepower			147 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			138 @ 4400 rpm
Electric motor			permanent magnet synchronous
Horsepower			141 (105kW) @ 4500 rpm
Torque				199 lb-ft @ 0-1500 rpm
Battery				Nickel-metal hydride, 244.8V in 204 cells
Combined system maximum horsepower	187
Transmission			electronically-controlled
				 continuously-variable
Wheelbase / Length		109.3 in. / 189.2 in.
Curb Weight			3680 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		19.7
Fuel Capacity			17.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane regular unleaded gasoline
Tires				P215/60R16 all-season
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, 
				electronically-controlled with ABS,
				 BA, and regenerative braking
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent dual link
Drivetrain			Transverse front engine and motor,
				 front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		33 / 34 / 35
0 to 60 mph				est 8.5  sec


OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Comfort and Convenience Package - includes:
  heated front seats and outside power mirrors		$  470
Leather Package - includes:
  leather-trimmed power driver and front passenger
  seats and door trim					$ 1,300
Power tilt/slide moonroof with dual illuminated
  visor vanity mirrors and rear personal reading
  lamps							$   940
Upgrade Package With Navigation- includes:
  16-inch alloy wheels with P215/60 tires,
  voice-activated DVD navigation with JBL digital
  AM/FM/MP3 4-disc in-dash CD player with 
  Bluetooth and 8 speakers in 6 locations. 440 watts
  and XM satellite radio capability. Leather-wrapped
  steering wheel and shift knob, auto-dimming rear
  view mirror,  Homelink universal transceiver		$ 2,350
Destination charge					$   720

Complete specifications on the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid 4-Door Sedan and other vehicles are available at the New Car Buyers Guide!

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