Toyota Camry Hybrid — Satisfying frugality

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Has Toyota been hearing giant footsteps gaining on them, feeling the hot breath of segment competitors as they gain ground on the perennial best-selling mid-size Camry sedan? We ask this question because the lifecycle of most Toyota vehicles, including the Camry, is five to six years with only mild mid-cycle refreshes. Yet the current-generation Camry — only in the third year of its cycle — has been criticized for falling behind in styling, performance and personality, has been endowed with major updates for 2015 including new exterior styling, improved handling, and better interior materials.

This represents a serious departure from the Toyota norm. Whatever the reasons for the major makeover, we found after driving all trim levels and variations (hybrid, V6 and 4-cylinder) in the Camry lineup that the 2015 model represents more than just the usual tweaking. It is a better car.

Perhaps the highlight is the hybrid, which now comes in three trim levels including a new sportier SE. We think adding a sport-oriented model to go along with the hybrid's nifty gas mileage is a stroke of Toyota genius. The hybrid SE gets 17-inch aluminum wheels, a mesh grille, dark chrome trim and a spoiler. And it also gets its own unique suspension tuning to along with the larger tires.

Because of the larger tires, gas mileage — measured at 40 city and 38 highway — is slightly dialed back from the base LE hybrid, which runs on skinnier, ultra-low-rolling-resistance 16-inchers and is rated at 43/39.

From the performance aspect, the hybrid in any of the three trims (also including the upscale XLE) is quicker than the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, which is unchanged for 2015 making 178 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. The hybrid's gas-electric powertrain has a combined 200 horsepower with exceptional low-end torque from the electric motor. It zips off the line and can finish a 0-to-60 run in the mid-7-second range, a full second quicker than the base engine, which is EPA-rated at 25/35.

Consumer Reports was so impressed with the new Camry hybrid it rated it "the best overall value for the automotive dollar" among all 2015 models citing "impressive fuel economy, roominess, comfort and all-around functionality."

Not mentioned was driving excitement, which still does not come in big doses with the new Camry. For true sportiness you will have to look elsewhere, but it acquits itself quite nicely for the task to which it has been assigned — hauling families from point A to point B in a very comfortable and economical way.

Aside from giving the Camry a pleasing side profile and restyled front and rear ends including freshly styled taillights, Toyota has made a big effort to upgrade the Camry interior. For the most part it has succeeded. More premium materials have been used in the cabin with improved seat fabrics ranging from premium cloth up to genuine leather trim and Ultrasuede with French stitching.

The dashboard design has been tweaked for better ergonomics, and classier looking gauges. Also the sedan has a decidedly quieter interior with what we perceived as an obvious reduction in wind and road noise. Toyota officials say window and door seals have been improved, side mirrors have been redesigned to better control airflow-reducing turbulence and noise, and the floor carpet comes with 30 percent more noise-insulating material.

The Camry hybrid LE starts at $27,615 including destination charge and includes such standard equipment as keyless ignition and entry, a rearview camera, dual-zone climate control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, full power accessories, power driver's seat, cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and the base Entune Audio system. The SE starts at $28,820 including destination charge and the top trim XLE begins at $30,805. Our hybrid SE test car came with the navigation and moonroof packages taking the bottom line to $32,987.

While Toyota has covered the basic safety features including antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and 10 airbags, we think all cars in this price range should come standard with a rearview camera and a blind spot monitoring system. To Toyota's credit, it has made the rearview camera standard, but blindspot is not offered at any price on the LE or the SE trims. The only way to get the blind spot and rear cross-traffic alert features is to opt for the pricey XLE model and check off a $500 option.

Also a high end pre-collision system and lane departure alert system among several other items can be found in the Technology Package for an additional $750, but worth the price.

Base price: $27,615; as driven, $32,987
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: 200 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: engine, 156 lb-ft; motor, 199 lb-ft
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 190.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,565 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17 gallons
EPA rating: 38 highway, 40 city, 40 combined
0-60: 7.5 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda Accord hybrid, Ford Fusion hybrid, Hyundai Sonata hybrid

The Good
• Quiet, spacious interior
• Strong acceleration
• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad
• Not as engaging to drive as some competitors

The Ugly
• Blind spot monitor only available on top trim