Executive wheels: Toyota’s still got it

2011 TOYOTA CAMRY HYBRID

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I know, I know, Toyota has had a tough year and the bad news keeps coming and everyone is pretty much down on Toyota. Not me. Many people know I am an auto reviewer and they like to tell me their car stories – how much they like this, how much they hate that, how the Americans are getting it – and lately it has been venting at Toyota. I guess people just like to see the mighty fall; it makes their meager lives more interesting.

The truth is, however, we – all of us in the American motoring public – owe Toyota, and to a lesser degree its Japanese counterpart Honda, an enormous debt of gratitude. I know that many people blame the demise of the American automobile industry on the Japanese, but the fact is that the Americans simply refused to respond. I have said many times that if General Motors had built the Toyota Corolla or its equivalent back in the 1970s, the company would have never collapsed. Toyota and Honda – even if it took 40 years – taught the American automobile business how to design and manufacture cars, and how to deal with organized labor in an efficient manner. Almost every car on the market today is pretty nice, which wasn’t true in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and it is in large measure because of Toyota. On that basis it could be argued that, ultimately, Toyota saved the U.S. carmaking business.

I bring this up to defend Toyota – in spite of the company’s troubles over the last couple of years, I believe they still make the best fleet of cars in the world, and trust me, I have driven most of the general consumer cars over the last 27 years and I’m in a position to make this statement with some authority.

A grand example of this superiority is the 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid 4-door sedan. The basic, gas-powered Camry has been manufactured since 1980 (in the U.S. since 1982), and I believe it is the most copied automobile ever made. Look at the competition a year or two after each of the 8 generations of Camrys offered for sale and you’ll see cars from Japanese, Korean, European and American manufacturers that, by design, look just like the Camry. Still, the best of the lot remains the original, the Camry.

Then there’s this Hybrid model. It became available with the 2006 model year, with the introduction of the latest version of the Camry, the XV40, and it is made in the U.S. at the firm’s plant in Kentucky. Toyota, of course, pioneered mass-produced hybrids models with the Prius, introduced in the United States in 2001 to much acclaim.

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The two share the same basic hybrid system – indeed, Toyota’s hybrid system is the basis for many worldwide, including Ford – however the latest Prius has a 1.8-liter I4 gas engine, rated at 98 hp, while the Camry has a 2.4-liter I4 with some 187 hp (147 of it from the gas engine).

And the difference shows. A good friend of mine has the new Prius and while I love it, I love the Hybrid Camry more. Most people who ask me about hybrids are concerned that they are underpowered, and the answer is flatly that they are not: the electric engine works in concert with the gasoline engine to boost the power. Hybrids, and this Camry in particular, are quicker off the line than a more powerful gas engine model (electric engines have more torque), and on the highway you’d think you were driving a car with a V-8.

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During my test-drive week in the Camry I had the opportunity of taking two friends down to the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs for a golf outing, so we had three men and three golf bags. First, I was concerned that the golf bags wouldn’t fit in the trunk; most hybrids have battery packs that eat up trunk space. Toyota has done an admirable job here – they did take away some trunk space by putting the battery pack behind the rear seats, but not that much (all three bags fit easily), and they also allowed for a pass-through for such items as skis to go over the battery pack. Ingenious. Second, I was worried that with all the weight it would be sluggish on the highway. Not only was it not sluggish, I found the power to be excellent, with a great boost for passing; to be honest I had to pay attention to keeping the speed down.

Since it’s a hybrid, the Camry Hybrid is, of course, quiet on the outside; standing still it is completely quiet because nothing is actually running. But even when the gas engine kicks in the whole thing is much more quiet that a gas-powered model. Inside there was never an issue – the Camry Hybrid is a near-luxury vehicle and inside there is very little road noise or car noise.

The other concern most people have about hybrids is whether you are required to do something different, like plug it in or charge it up; that it is, somehow different than operating a car that everyone is used to. Nothing could be further from the truth: in all respects, this car operates like any other car. Turn the key (or push the button) and off you go.

And just like a regular car you gas it up – although much less often. The Toyota Camry Hybrid is rated at 31 miles-per-gallon in city driving, and 35 mpg on the highway, with a combined overall of 33 mpg. (By way of comparison, the 268 hp 3.5-liter V6 in the standard Camry is rated at 20/29).

The Camry is a very handsome, if often-copied car, on the outside, but it is inside where it really shines. Very simple, yet elegant, in that Toyota way, the dash and console feature beautiful brushed chrome details and very nice inlaid “wood-grain-style,” whatever that is (it is nice looking). Seating is quite comfortable and ample.

The other great thing about a Camry is the way it handles. This isn’t a race car made for the track; rather5 it is an elegant sedan that is responsive, rides stiffly with great feel, and corners without leaning. I wouldn’t say it’s a driver’s-drive; it’s an easy car to drive and handle, I felt safe behind the wheel, and comfortable making quick lane changes. I loved driving it.

The base price for the 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid is $26,400, an unbelievable price for a car of this nature and quality. On my test-drive model they added $470 for a Comfort Package with heated front seats and outside mirrors; $1,295 for the Leather Package including leather-trimmed upholstery, sliding console and power front seats; $130 for integrated fog lamps; $200 for floor and trunk mats, $69 for a rear-bumper applique, $179 for door sill enhancements (I have no idea), and $2,960 for the Upgrade package, including DVD navigation, backup camera, JBL stereo, hands-free phone capability, all the iPod, etc. connections, lots of speakers, and satellite radio. Add $750 in handling fees and the bottom line is $32,453.

The price compares very favorably with the highest-priced gas-powered Camry (the SE V6 6-AT has a base price of $26,040), it is a very beautiful car inside and out, the hybrid system is excellent, the room is amazing, the luxury just right. I have driven cars I liked a lot less that cost, easily, ten grand more.

My theory is that every car maker on earth should make a mid-sized hybrid sedan. And just as they have done for the past 30 years, they can look to the Camry as the measure of excellence.
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