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Posted: September 07, 2009

Executive Wheels: 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid 4-Door Sedan

Here's a vehicle to make "my car"

Jeff Rundles

 

If you're a car manufacturer, there are a few lists you would like to have your name on, and a few you wouldn't. Toyota of late has hit two of the most desirable.09ToyotaCamryHybridExt.JPG

 

 

First, the near-final tally on the Cash for Clunkers program shows that Toyota had the top car to be purchased under the program, the Corolla, and two others in the Top 10: Camry at #4 and Prius at #6.

Three out of 10 ain't bad - Honda also landed three: Civic at #2, Fit at #9, and CR-V AWD at #10. The only American brand to hit the Top 10 was Ford - Focus at #3 and Escape FWD at #8 - and then the Japanese Nissan Versa held sway at #7 and the Korean Hyundai Elantra came in at #5. I didn't reference American-made cars because many of the Toyotas, including the Camry, are built here (Kentucky).

The other list Toyota made was the Hot Wheels 2009 - a compilation of the most stolen cars last year put together with law enforcement data by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The Toyota Camry, specifically the 1989 Camry, was third on the list, following the '94 Honda Accord and the '95 Honda Civic.

While stolen cars are nothing to make fun of, I believe this is a good list to be on because, hey, thieves know cars and they could steal virtually anything. Just so you know, the '90 Camry was the 4th most stolen car in Colorado last year. I checked for the stats on Michigan and note with some interest (I was raised there) that no foreign makes made the Top 10 most stolen vehicles; they may be thieves, but apparently they have some honor and will only steal in support of local industries.

For the Cash for Clunkers list, it didn't surprise me that Toyota and Honda were among the most popular. They both have noted reputations for quality, and they offer great gas mileage - the more the better in that the government rebates were $3,500 and $4,500 depending on the mileage gap between the new car and the clunker.

People went for as much car as they could get for as much rebate as possible, and Toyota fits in nicely. The report I read on the list didn't break out the Camry Hybrid from all the Camrys, so it's difficult to know right now if people were going Hybrid (except for the Prius, which only comes in Hybrid; Ford Escape also has a Hybrid, but again no breakdown on sales).

On the stolen vehicle list, the speculation is that the cars are, for the most part, older because they are easier to steal than newer models what with all the theft-deterrent systems now built in. But the core issue for all the cars on the list is relative popularity - not among thieves, but in the general public.

The cars on the list were the hottest sellers of their eras - Jeep Cherokee, Ford Explorer and F-150, Dodge Caravan - and they made the list simply because of the law of averages: there were/are more of them on the road, and the statistics don't break out percentages. So for thieves it was just a matter of availability; the most-stolen car 10 years from now will be last year's best seller.

Either way you look at it, Toyota is a winner, and Camry has to be its centerpiece. Yeah, the Prius gets a lot of ink as it was the first Hybrid to really go mass market, and the Highlander, RAV4 and Sienna minivan are very popular and all, but the Camry is the crown jewel.

I use that term on purpose. In doing some research, I found out that "Camry" is an Anglicized version of a Japanese word meaning "crown," and two other Toyota names, the Corona and the Corolla, come from the Latin for "crown" and "small crown," respectively. So there you go: the Camry as the line's flagship model must be the crown jewel.

By the way, Camry is also an anagram for "my car," and frankly I wish it were so.

I got to drive the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and all accounts I could find say that the 2010 model has been "freshened;" the only real difference I could find is the new, bolder grille, a feature Toyota is adding to all of its models. From a cost standpoint - and I'll get more specific on the sticker of my model in a moment - it looks as though Toyota has held the line for 2010 with the same base price, at least on the Hybrid, so in essence we're talking about the same car.

First, just the Camry. What a nice car. Some people think it lacks panache, that it is simply a Dad-car sedan. But I think it just exudes class. There is nothing particularly fancy about the car. It is handsome, and it can be argued that it looks like so many other cars on the roads, but the truth is that so many other cars on the road look like a Camry, not the other way around, which is a testament to Toyota and Camry.

All others are derivative; the Camry is the original.

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When it was first introduced into the American market in 1980, the Camry was a smaller car, a subcompact, but it has now gone through seven generations and it has become what is called a mid-sized sedan. That it is now nearly 30 years on the market makes it a venerable car in my book, taking its place among such stalwarts as the BMW 3 Series and the VW Jetta, cars where the popularity as measured by the number of them on the road, especially in Colorado, speaks for itself.

The Camry didn't become a high seller and popular because it was a mainstay of rental car fleets, which explains a lot of the "popularity" of cars like the Ford Taurus; rather it is popular because a ton of people went down to a Toyota dealership and bought one, based on, I would imagine, its reputation for reliability and longevity. That hasn't changed.

Moreover, since car companies do a lot of cross-platform building or other models, and the smart automakers only use their best models for cross-platform purposes, it is instructive to note that both the popular Sienna minivan and the hot Highlander SUV share the Camry platform, and the Luxury Lexus ES300 is pretty much the same car. Not to be accused of using the obvious pun, but quite obviously Toyota has gotten a lot of mileage out of the development of the Camry.

Anyway, so I get into the Camry and it is total class. So many cars these days, especially luxury cars and flagship models, go for the dark side in interior design, with wood panels and darkish instrument panels. Nothing wrong with that. The Camry goes the other way.

 

09ToyotaCamryHybridDash.JPG

 

The interior is bright and cheery, all polished chrome and light instruments, and it just comes across as so clean. It's like a respite from the world. The doors make a reassuring "whummpff" sound when they close, and all of the controls are easy to reach, easy to use, and also reassuring.

The seats, front and back, are especially comfortable; they are not the European stiff, and not the American soft and cushiony. I just couldn't help thinking that these were seats that would be a pleasure to occupy for long road trips, and that they would last a long time. Indeed, everything felt that last-long-time way; they are many cars, even some Toyotas, with plastic-y dashes and subpar knobs and handles, but not the Camry. Everything about it just says "built to last."

So here we have the Hybrid version of the car, and while I haven't driven the gas-engine version (I've only peeked into one), about the only difference you'd notice is in the instrument panel where there are measurements for the output of electric energy, and the storage and build up of electrical energy.

And except for the sound - that is, there is very little sound when it is just using the electrical motor - it feels like any other normal gas engine. People are always asking me about hybrids, because I have driven most of them on the market, and generally speaking many people have the same misconceptions, so here it is, one more time, the myths and the truth:

• No, it doesn't plug in. You as the driver/owner don't have to do anything. It operates just like any other car you have ever driven.

• No, it is not less powerful. Electrical engines, in fact, have more torque that most gas engines, so at slow speeds - off the line, as they say - the car is more powerful than a regular gasoline model. And since the hybrid system also uses the electric engine to boost output even when the gasoline engine is the main operating system, you'd never know the Camry Hybrid is not a V6 gas engine.

• No, the storage batteries don't take up extra space - actually, of course, they do, but Toyota engineers have placed them in places where you wouldn't notice. The trunk is still spacious, the seating the same. I don't actually know where the batteries are, and that's a good thing; for the owner/driver it is a matter of no concern.

So when you look at the specs sheets and such on the Camry Hybrid, what they tell you is that the car comes equipped with a 2.4-liter I4 engine rated at 187 hp. What is really going on is that the 187hp is a combined rating; the gas engine itself is 147 hp and the electric engine alone would be rated at 40 hp.

But trust me; the combination comes across as more than that. The gas engines Camrys come in a 2.5-liter I4 with 169 hp, and a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 268 hp, but in other cars where I have driven both the Hybrid and the larger gas engine - like the Toyota Highlander - I felt as though the Hybrid was just as powerful.

This effect comes from the way engines work. I read a Toyota press release that summed it up nicely, and here is my interpretation. An electric engine, going back more than 100 years, still today suffers from its inherent drawbacks: first, it has limited range before the juice gives out, and second, as the juice diminishes the power also diminishes.

So essentially, an all-electric car would have less power as the batteries drain. In a gasoline engine, the power, or potential power, remains the same until the last drop of gasoline, but the truth is that once you get up to speed in, say, a 200 hp engine, you are only using maybe 30 hp or 40 hp.

When you combine the two, as in the Camry Hybrid, the kinetic energy and the gas engine keep the electric engine at full or near-full power, and the electric engine boosts the output of the gas engine without the need to increase the horsepower output of the gas engine. So essentially, on the highway say, you are still using only 30 hp or 40 hp in the gas engine, but because of the electric powerplant, it can feel like twice that. Pretty ingenious, if you ask me, and as the driver I don't have to do anything out of the ordinary.

And frankly, I just loved driving it. To say it is quiet is an understatement. The Camry itself is a quiet ride; very little road noise. But if you have the windows down, most of the time around town all you can hear is the tires. The electric engine is so quiet that you have to watch out for pedestrians because they normally rely on the usual "I can hear any car coming" instinct, and with the Hybrid they can't. I had quite of few of them step off the curb, lost in their thoughts, let down by the lack of the sensory perception of hearing.

Like all Hybrids, when it's really hot or really cold, and you have a need to pump up the AC or the heater, they work better if the gas engine is powering them. In the older version of the Prius, for example, when you were really pumping the AC and heat, the gas engine would run all the time.

But in the newer Toyota system, called Hybrid Synergy Drive, they have made accommodations for these systems to run on electric power, boosted by the kinetic energy of slowing and braking, and by the gas engine when it would normally be running anyway. In this way, all remains quiet.

Plus, the Camry Hybrid has an "ECO" button which, as near as I can tell, balances the output of the AC and heater with the kinetic energy and the two motors to save and conserve energy. A great deal of engineering went into making this car function well in two ways: 1) you don't have to do anything different than any other car you have ever driven; and, 2) it maximizes all the benefits of Hybrid.

The driving is, in fact, spectacular. This is no BMW, mind you, which just begs you to race it. The Camry is more sedate, and the Hybrid version so smooth that it always feels as though you are driving on a sheet of pristine glass. It corners beautifully, has wonder visibility, and accelerates easily with no jumping or surge. It is, to put it succinctly, very, very easy to drive, and a pleasure.

What impressed me the most, however, is the whole package. What I mean is that this Camry truly feels like a luxury car - from the way it feels and looks inside, to the way it drives. As I mentioned, the smaller luxury or near-luxury Lexus sedan is pretty much the same car, and you could pay extra to have the Lexus nameplate, but if you're really into luxury and performance on its own merits and don't really care what message you're sending out to the community, then the Camry is clearly the choice.

The standards on this car are amazing. Abs - and great - brakes - all the modern safety equipment (air bags around, etc., even a driver's knew air bag), tire pressure monitoring, blue-tint halogen headlamps, daytime running lights, smart key with push-button start, a great climate control system, a nearly perfect stereo with auxiliary jack, power doors, locks and mirrors, tilt steering wheel with audio controls, 60/40 split/fold-down rear seat. You get here pretty much everything you get in any luxury car costing a lot more.

For my test drive model, they added heated seats and mirrors for $470, leather upholstery for $1,300, an entire in-dash and voice activated Navigation systems with upgraded stereo, Bluetooth and satellite in a package for $2,350, a carpet/trunk mat set for $199, and a V.I.P. security system for $359.

I particularly like the nav system in that Toyota has taken the whole screen-in-the-dash issue to a more dignified level. In many cars these days, these screens are large and distracting, the centerpiece of the interior. In the Camry, they have made it much less obtrusive, much more handsome, and much easier to use. Sure, it is the operational center - and you can figure out all the systems in very short order - but it isn't in the way. I loved it.

So the question is one of value. The regular Camry comes in 10 trims for a base price ranging from $19,400 to $29,045. I suspected the Hybrid model would come at a significant premium, but I was wrong. The base price on my test drive model was $25,650 - and as I said it appears that the 2010 model carries the same base price. With the options mentions, and with $660 in destination charges, the bottom line is $30,998. For a loaded Hybrid.

I realize that is not inexpensive. But rarely, especially lately, have I driven anything that I felt wasn't overpriced, and I didn't feel that here. This Camry Hybrid is an impressive car and it would have to be several thousand more before I had any price qualms.

Besides, it's a Toyota and will go forever, so cost over time is a relative thing.

As I related, Camry is an anagram for "My Car." Scramble out to get one.

RATING: 4 WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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