Toyota doesn't need flash to make a great Camry

Toyota's hybrid technology gives this sedan plenty of power

2017 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Toyota/Lexus, for about five model years, 2010-2014, more or less rested on their considerable laurels and stood pat, not changing much. They build great cars – they have always built great cars – but when the recession kicked in after 2008 the automobile business was hit especially hard and resting on laurels was probably the best strategy.

But as I have been pointing out in several reviews of Toyota and its luxury division Lexus, a couple of years ago, with car sales rebounding spectacularly, the time was ripe for doubling down on greatness and making a statement for the future. The Toyota/Lexus statement has been stunning.

Case in point is this 2016 Toyota Camry Hybrid (the 2017 is out now, with no discernable changes). Following several years of taking heat for being pedestrian, the newly refreshed Camry is once again taking its place among the very finest vehicles on the road. Beautiful styling? Check. Performance? Check. Affordability? Double check.

I can only imagine that the 178 horsepower 4-banger and the 286 hp V6 editions of the Camry are excellent, but they sent me the Hybrid and I am prepared to say that I can’t imagine that either of the other two measure up. Oh sure, they are the same car and the amenities are all there, however given the prices and the performance I encountered, I can only say that I highly recommend the Hybrid. A little more expensive – base price of the base model Hybrid is $26,790, compared to $23,070 for the I-4 base model gasoline version – and yet it performs way beyond expectations.

My family and I took the Camry Hybrid up into the mountains over July 4, to the Winter Park area, and so on the way up we did the I-70 thing and then over Berthoud Pass. This Hybrid Camry features a 2.5-Liter gas engine coupled with an electric motor, a combination that is rated at 200 horsepower. However, having had a lot of experience with horsepower over the years of reviewing cars, I can only say that it felt like much, much more than that.

Toyota, long the leader in hybrid technology, apparently uses the electric/gas combination to both save gasoline usage in city driving where the electric motor does most of the heavy lifting at lower speeds (the city mpg rating on this car is 40 miles per gallon), but also to boost power at higher speeds. So, on the highway and the high mountain pass there is power to spare; this Camry Hybrid will sprint around a slower moving vehicle with ease, and accelerate on the steep upslope like it has 300 hp. I was amazed.

On the way back we went over Trail Ridge Road, up to over 12,000 feet, and the Camry never blinked. Plus we got great gas mileage – the Hybrid is rated 40 mpg city/38 mpg highway, and while I didn’t actually measure my own mileage experience and we had the air conditioning on, we traveled an awfully long way on the trip on less than half a tank of gas.

What I liked most about the Camry Hybrid – well, second most, after the hybrid tech – was how elegantly simple it was. No offense to Lexus, which I have driven a lot lately, but here in the Camry pretty much all the same technology and operations are the same, but much less complicated. No computer mouse-like device to access all of the systems and radio, just a simple touch screen for the radio, navigation and apps (you can hook up a ton of stuff through your smart phone), and a separate and easy-to-use great climate control panel with knobs and push buttons.

My 90-year-old mother would be able to hop in this car and figure out everything in a minute; in a Lexus she’d need quite a bit of instruction. I’ve said this before, but it’s as if the luxury lines – Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Volvo, Cadillac, et al – make the technology highly whiz-bang to make people who buy them feel like they got something extra in return for the inflated price tag. As I said, all the same stuff is in the Camry, it just isn’t all over-the-top whiz-bang.

As an example, this Camry has the Qi Wireless charging port so prevalent on luxury cars, and here they have tucked it away in the console under the radio/climate controls, under a cover. As I said, all the luxury stuff is here, just rendered in an unobtrusive, not showy manner.

About my only complaint with the car is the navigation. Oh, it’s easy to use – just type in an address and a pleasant voice will begin guidance in seconds – but it doesn’t give you enough of a heads-up on where you’re going. A couple of times over my test-drive week I found myself having to quickly get across several lanes of highway traffic to make an exit because the guidance voice was a little late with the info. It would be much easier if the voice just said, “Travel five miles on I-25 South and then the exit is on the left.” It lacked specifics in a timely manner.

Now, having said all of this – basically raving about the Camry in general and the Hybrid in particular – I must add that my 18-year-old son didn’t like the car. He said it was “boring,” and that the dash and the doors and the stuff looked to be cheaply made (as opposed to some of the Lexus vehicles we’ve had lately). I didn’t think so, but I understood where he was coming from.

It’s clearly a Dad car; nothing fancy. But all the great luxury items are here, it is very quiet, it drives beautifully, handles extremely well, felt well-made (at least to me), and offers, as I said, simple elegance. It’s also nice looking – although my son thinks it’s boring; I probably would too if I was 18.

One other great thing: One of the drawbacks on Hybrids over the years, and on this Camry Hybrid a few years ago, was that since they put the electric batteries behind the rear seat, they make the trunk smaller than the standard non-hybrid model. The configuration here is the same, but I was surprised at how roomy the trunk was – plenty of room and space for multiple golf bags. And they did this without sacrificing room in the rear seat – it’s roomy. Maybe it’s new battery technology, or a larger car (they are all larger), but whatever, it works.

There are three models of the Camry Hybrid – the LE, SE and XLE – and as I mentioned, the LE’s base price is $26,790. The one I drove is the XLE, and I can only imagine that the difference is in the seating and appointments since the engine is the same. The base price on mine is $30,140. They added in about another $4,000 in mostly tech stuff, and another $835 in dealer handling, bringing the bottom line to $35,405. What they added was such cool stuff as pre-collision, lane departure alerts, auto high beams, dynamic cruise control (very cool; it keeps pace with traffic by itself), an upgrade split screen monitor, blind spot monitoring, and an upgraded JBL sound system that is magnificent.

In any case, this is a great car, simply done, that will serve every Dad out there for years and years to come very well. And don’t mind what the teenagers say – if you’re driving it, by definition it isn’t cool anyway.


Categories: Industry Trends, Transportation