Camry Hybrid: Save gas, get pat on back
By providing constant feedback on your driving, hybrid sedan maximizes fuel efficiency.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- It would be interesting if all cars, when you arrived home and pulled out the key, told you exactly what they thought of your driving. ("Hey, were you trying to get me totaled back there?")
If your average fuel economy, from the time you turned on car to the time you turned if off, was better than 35 miles per gallon, the word "Excellent" flashes on a screen inside the speedometer.
It even keeps you appraised, while in transit, of how you're doing. A big fuel economy dial goes where you'd normally see a tachometer. The more fuel your engine is sucking down, the higher the needle sweeps. If the car is running on pure electric power, the needle drops down into the blue "Eco Drive" zone at the bottom of the dial. You can see more advanced analysis of your fuel consumption too.
All of this will probably do a lot to help the Camry Hybrid driver get the best possible fuel economy. In any car, driver behavior can have an enormous impact on fuel use. The difference is even greater in a gas-electric hybrid vehicle where your right foot can make the difference between getting infinite miles per gallon and using infinite gallons per mile.
All of this self-monitoring can get a bit distracting, though. Someday soon, you can imagine a driver saying, "I was just checking my Eco Drive Mode, Officer..."
Aside from the distraction factor, fuel-efficient driving generally equals cautious driving. In my ardent attempts to get the flashing "Excellent!" prize, I accelerated more gently, slowed to stops sooner and allowed more following distance behind other cars.
Unlike most hybrid cars, the Camry can cruise at up to 40 miles per hour on its electric motor alone. It needs the gasoline engine to get up to speed, but once there you can take the pressure off the gas pedal just a touch, feel the engine shut down and watch the fuel-economy needle drop down to the blue "Eco" zone.
By playing along with the Camry's fuel-economy game, I got mileage that very nearly matched the car's EPA estimates of 39 mpg overall. (The best I could manage was 37.5 in, mostly, city driving.)
Perhaps the best thing about the Camry Hybrid, however, is that it's a Camry. For a price of about $26,000, the car I tested would have been a good value even without the hybrid drivetrain.
The Camry's interior has an interesting and understated design. Surrounded in backlit frosted "glass," my test car's stereo controls had a techno-retro late 1950s kind of look. At least I saw it that way. Others might just say it looks nice.
The Camry Hybrid, unlike some of Toyota's other hybrid vehicles, is serious about saving gas. Instead of using a V-6 engine for extra performance, the Camry hybrid runs with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine.
Handing and road-feel is, as is typical for Toyota, soft and easy. There's lots of body sway in turns. The steering is light but it does provide a reasonable amount of road feel.
Acceleration isn't great. But since this isn't a car one would buy for thrills, merely adequate acceleration probably won't be an issue.
As I drove, I found the occasional shudder of the 4-cylinder engine starting and stopping a bit annoying. Some people might love it as a little sign of technology in action, but it kept making me think I'd driven over something.
One thing that many will find a genuine problem is trunk space. The battery pack eats up 5 cubic feet of trunk space. What remains is arranged in a rather odd shape with a big open space just ahead of the rear bumper, then a raised rectangular hole that reaches all the way through to the seatbacks . For a lot of folks interested in a midsize family sedan, that could be a deal-killer.
If you're interested in a hybrid sedan, but you can't sacrifice all that trunk space, you might want to wait for the Saturn Aura Hybrid. That car, which will be available next year, will use a "mild hybrid" system. It won't deliver fuel economy quite as good as the Camry's, but it will retain nearly its full usable trunk space.
The Camry Hybrid is, for now at least, the hybrid car to beat. Its raft of feedback systems allow drivers to get the most out of its technology (just make sure you pay attention to the road.)
If you're seriously considering it, though, be sure to open the trunk before opening your checkbook.
Details and photos: 2007 Toyota Camry