Toyota Camry Hybrid — For people who hate gas stations

By Al Vinikour

Trick question: What do you get when you cross a 2012 Toyota Camry with a hybrid engine? You don’t need a Cray SuperComputer to tell you the answer is one of the world’s best-selling mid-size automobiles that will get 40 mpg in city driving and 38 mpg highway.

Toyota recently introduced its all-new seventh-generation Camry, American’s best-selling car for nine years running and 13 of the past 14 years. Among the various models is the all-new Hybrid that debuts with a highly-revised version of the brand’s Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, which includes a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine.

It comes in two trim levels – LE Hybrid and XLE Hybrid. Since my testing was the XLE the following will concentrate on it.

To say the 2012 Camry Hybrid could be termed the “ultimate family vehicle” is an understatement. With attacks on its quality and integrity behind it Toyota has seen the future and it is now.

The model it replaced was quiet; the new one is mute in comparison. New sound absorbing materials have been added to the engine compartment along with more linear control over engine speed. This also gives the vehicle a more pleasing sound under acceleration. Though the engine develops 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque, the Hybrid System net horsepower is 200.

With a compression ratio of 12.5:1 it seems like it pumps out more power than that. The engine is mated to an electronically controlled continuously variable Transmission. Because the vehicle is lighter overall it boasts a 0-60 acceleration time of 7.6 seconds — midway between the four-cylinder and V-6 gasoline models. A set of 17-inch lower rolling resistance tires also help boost fuel economy.

Camry’s ride and handling are outstanding. It loves the road and likes to be turned loose. Built-in safety features sure aren’t at a premium. It’s equipped with 10 standard airbags, the body structure is designed to help absorb collision-impact forces and help minimize impact deformation to the passenger cabin and the seat frames are designed to help absorb side collision loads. It also features Toyota’s Star Safety System standard, which includes vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock braking, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

A new available blind spot monitoring system detects vehicles in the driver’s blind spots. This is my favorite safety device since seatbelts — one I’d like to see made standard on every car manufactured in the world. Camry offers other available safety features as well. Usually one has to go to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and drive an M1-A2 Abrams tank to achieve the safety comfort zone that the new Camry provides.

New for 2012 is an EV Drive mode that allows the driver to operate the car on the electric motor alone for up to 1.6 miles at lower speeds (below about 25 mph). The EV indicator illuminates when the vehicle is being propelled solely by the electric motor.

I found myself challenging the system…and lost every time. The ECO mode, as in prior models, optimizes throttle response and air conditioning output to prioritize maximum fuel economy. A Hybrid-exclusive instrument cluster with Hybrid System Indicator and fuel consumption indicator helps operate the car as economically as possible.

Instantaneous fuel economy is shown with LEDs around the outside of the average fuel economy gauge. Hybrid’s Multi-Information display graphically shows fuel economy in real time and can also show energy flow and cruising range information. (In other words, it’s a geek’s dream…and you don’t have to be a geek to enjoy and understand it.)

Camry’s styling has never been mistaken as having been designed by Frank Gehry. Nor was it designed by Pablo Picasso, either. It’s a good, solid understated sedan that you’d never be embarrassed to take anywhere. (If you want something whose design will knock your socks off Toyota would be happy to show them to you. Camry is a “family show” and always has been.)

Camry Hybrid’s interior is where driver and passengers are most happy. There’s plenty of room for five full-sized adults. It’s one of the first Toyotas to offer the Entune multimedia system. It leverages the mobile smartphones with fully integrated access to navigation, entertainment and information services. It debuts the first-ever support for engaging mobile apps such as Bing, OpenTable and, along with accessing useful travel-related services like live weather, traffic, fuel location and price, stocks and sports.

 It also brings the largest selection of music options available to a vehicle, including iHeartRadio’s 750-plus stations and Pandora’s personalized music service. A best-in-class, advanced conversational voice recognition system helps the driver stay focused on the road.

There’s a ton of optional packages and because of Camry’s affordable MSRP ($27,400 for the XLE Hybrid) a smart driver would load up on as many as he or she could. Let’s face it, a Camry is probably going to last longer than you are and generally the desire for something new is the only reason to get rid of the one that’s being driven.

It could be said that Toyota’s Camry is an “Old Man River Car” —  it just keeps rolling along. Would I buy this for a beloved family member? Hell, No. But…would I recommend it to them? In a New York minute!