By Andrew Ganz
Tuesday, Aug 23rd, 2011 @ 1:30 pm
 
Even though it remains one of the world's automotive super powers, Toyota has proven that it isn't quite invincible. As an automaker reviled as much as it is rejoiced, Toyota embodies Japan's undeniable work ethic.

But the first-generation Toyota Camry Hybrid was an unusual misfire for a company that has rarely struggled to find buyers for its products. Beset with middling performance in both fuel guzzling performance and fuel sipping mpg categories, the Camry Hybrid was not the mainstream Prius that Toyota dreamed it would be.

That was then and this is now. For 2012, Camry is reinvented and reinvigorated with a tautly toned body, a dressed up interior and a new hybrid powertrain that offers more for everyone. It's a recipe that Toyota thinks will help put far more Camrys with battery packs in America's garages than ever before.

Setting the scene
No longer is the Hybrid a stand-alone, buy it one way and like it or else Camry model. Instead, the company now treats the powertrain as simply that - another engine choice available on high-volume LE and luxo-oriented XLE trim levels.

The change in thought stands in contrast to Toyota's decision to create an entire Prius lineup; while everyone's favorite/least favorite hatchback can stand on its own, the greeniest Camry now fits in better with its gas-only siblings.

Underhood is a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle inline four-cylinder gasoline engine that puts out 156 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 156 lb-ft. of torque at 4,500 rpm. An electric motor offers its own 105 kW at 4,500 rpm and 199 lb-ft. of torque from 1,000 to 1,500 rpm. Put these numbers into your fuzzy math machine and you'll get 200 net horsepower and a mountain of torque available the second you touch the skinny pedal. Power is routed to the ground through a continuously variable transaxle and, of course, regenerative brakes grab otherwise lost energy to charge a more compact nickel metal hydride battery, while electric power steering and electric air conditioning ensure that no vehicle functions are lost when the gas engine is taking a nap.

Like the rest of the Camry lineup, the Hybrid boasts a conservative but more stylish look inside and out. A beaky nose and squared off bumper corners help all Camrys cheat the wind better than before, meaning that Hybrids no longer require their own aerodynamic body modifications. The biggest styling upgrades come inside, where premium plastics replace hard touch surfaces. We aren't sold on the chintzy fabric and mediocre leather that covers its seats, but we loved the stitched dashboard topper and organized center stack. Less organic on the whole than the outgoing Camry, the new car signals a shift in direction from blobby bland to dapper and conservative. Considering the big audience Toyota will no doubt court, we'll call this one a stylistic base hit.

Inside, hybrids are essentially identical to their mainstream brethren. XLEs are available with a sophisticated flagship version of Toyot's innovative new Entune app-based infotainment system, while LEs make due with a less-trick Entune with a smaller screen. Skip navigation entirely and you'll miss out on a fancy hybrid power-flow screen and advanced mpg tracking, although limited trip computer information is available on all models in the gauge cluster. Camry isn't available with a fancy gauge cluster like the showy one you'll find on a Ford Fusion Hybrid, a move that might sway some buyers in the showroom.

Interior materials are better than before, although they still fall somewhat short of the Kia Optima. Roominess is another Camry virtue made even better by careful trimming here and there despite an identical wheelbase to the outgoing car.

Torque monster
Well, not quite. But Camry Hybrid genuinely impressed us with the relative mountain of torque available just after the throttle is stabbed. For the first few seconds off the line, Camry Hybrid will dust some performance cars, let alone any other hybrid you might encounter, especially if you really dig at the throttle to convince the gas engine to turn over.

And that's just what sets this Camry apart from most other hybrids; it's perfectly content to keep up with real-life traffic with only the electric engine doing the work. Stab the skinny pedal at lower speeds and you'll get an extra rush from the gas engine, but the electric motor will provide sole motivation under normal conditions up to somewhere around 45 mph. In most other hybrids, this kind of behavior is only possible if you drive like Grandma.

The power transition is essentially seamless, with only a glance at the gauges revealing that the Atkinson cycle engine is operational. The Camry's CVT does an admirable job of keeping the car within the power band, while careful NVH tuning means that any engine droning you might expect has been kept under the car's hood.

Like other Camrys, the Hybrid has electric steering that has been tuned a bit too light for our tastes. But turn in is crisp and the Camry feels safe and secure, although soft tires and a flaccid suspension mean that its limits are not high. Then again, anyone who drives a Camry Hybrid like a performance car needs to have his or her head examined. That soft suspension does provide one of the industry's most well-controlled rides. Like gas-only models, Camry Hybrid glides over undulating terrain with none of the floppiness endemic to boats of yore.

The EPA says to expect 43/39 mpg city/highway for LEs and 41/38 mpg for XLEs thanks to their standard 17-inch alloy wheels. We netted around 41 mpg on the highway regardless of model, but suburban-style driving - 40 mph with long distances between stops - bumped that figure up to closer to 50 mpg.

Leftlane's bottom line
Toyota shoots for the stars with the Camry Hybrid. And it mostly hits. Fuel economy and drivability both make massive gains, while the style is improved both inside and out.

Now it's the rest of the midsize hybrid segment's turn to play catch-up. Camry Hybrid isn't the be-all, end-all for this segment, but it's a quantum leap forward that delivers the digits hybrid buyers seek. Game on.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid base price range, TBA.