Monday, August 13, 2012

Hybrid is ultimate Toyota Camry

Imagine you're a department manager whose company vehicle budget is restricted to main players, those with decent service costs and preferably cars that look "normal" rather than flash.
You can't really get much more normal than a Camry. So normal were past models that the joke goes that you could buy a Camry only to find when you got home that you've already got one.
It's different now. The latest Camry is a sharp-looking unit for what is a classic three-box sedan, and when it goes to choosing one there's a whole raft of options, especially if you, like me, refer to the 3.5-litre Toyota Aurion, as the Camry V6. Which is what it is, with a nose and tail job to differentiate it from the 2.5-litre fours that keep the Camry name. I'm not quite sure why they just couldn't leave the nicely- proportioned Camry body alone, stuff the bigger engine under the nose anyway and have done with it, saving on body changes and of course the badge. There are badges enough as it is in the Camry range, with GL, Atara S, Atara SX and Hybrid and Hybrid i-tech variations, while the Aurion offers-up AT-X, SX-6 (say that while you're eating) and Touring versions.
I've now driven the whole of the range, and much as I love the creamy smoothness and elastic punch of the 200kW Aurion, there's too much weight up front for it to match the much-improved Camry four for poise and handling on the road. Also, while the bigger six is a quick car by any reckoning - under seven seconds to 100kmh, even in "D", - the Hybrid isn't that far behind.
There are other things I don't like about the Aurion too, like the massive boot spoilers, which give your peripheral vision the impression you're being tailgated by a light aircraft, while it obfuscates most following vehicles unless they're trucks. Quite apart from that, you're not allowed to go quickly enough to enjoy the aerodynamic benefits, while it adds so much weight on the lid that the counter springs have a job helping with boot opening, too.
The whole fleet of Camrys and Aurions we get are made in Australia, and it has to be said that the quality gains made at the Altona, Melbourne, plant through several generations of Ocker Camry are remarkable. The panel work is tightly cinched together, the paint orange-peel free and there wasn't a buzz or rattle to be found, heard or felt. There has also been a passing from brittle, hard-edged plastics on the immediately previous model to subtly-shaped, classily textured vinyls and leather-wrapped levers and wheelrims which is most welcome. Top models even have a stitched faux-hide dash top, that really adds some style too.
On the outside you might spot the badges on the car's flanks and tail, but from a passenger's point of view, the Hybrid is no different to the standard Camry, with the exception of the lack of a fold-down rear seat, although unlike the previous Hybrid Camry it does have a ski-through slot due to a change in battery and inverter packaging, and the boot gains 60 litres of volume over the old car and this goes some way to placating cab drivers whose biggest complaint about the old Camry Hybrid was its restricted load space.
There's lots of space for adults in the front and the back thanks to the reshaping of the Camry, which provides not only a light, airy cabin, but one with good rear headroom, so tall occupants out back who felt a little snug in the 2011 model, will have no problem with this year's.
In terms of safety, the Camry Hybrid has nine airbags as standard including a driver's knee airbag, while active safety reads like an alphabet soup of technical acronyms, like: Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRC) and ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), and Brake Assist (BA).
On the home comfort and equipment front, the Hybrid, like every Camry takes air conditioning, a hot CD audio system, with Bluetooth handsfree and audio streaming capabilities along with Auxiliary and USB input and iPod connectivity. They also get audio and cruise controls on or close to the steering wheel and six- speakers for the sound system.
Compared with the first generation 2.4-litre Camry hybrid, the new model's petrol engine is a 2.5-litre unit that remains a super- efficient, if less than ideally torquey Atkinson-cycle unit, with its low-end performance bolstered of course by the electric part of the car's Hybrid Synergy Drive equation. A water-cooled exhaust gas recirculation system now recycles some of the engine's gaseous discharge, and allows the air/fuel ratio to be as lean as possible. The port-injected four- cylinder engine now manages to produce 118kW to the previous model's 110kW while the torque output is now 213Nm, up 24Nm.
The electric component of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system produces 105kW and 270Nm and can propel the Camry alone, as long as the 1.6kW/hr nickel-metal-hydride has sufficient charge. Working together the battery and petrol-fuelled components are restricted to producing about 150kW and the way the powertrain blends, divides and applies its power sources is uncanny.
Like the Prius models, the Camry Hybrid has Eco and EV modes, each selectable by way of a console switch, and for most commuter driving the Eco setting is fine. The car keeps pace very easily in that mode, drops into electric power when travelling slowly and sips at the tank's fuel very sparingly. The Camry can still get a good boost if you floor the throttle in this mode, if not as briskly as in the what we could call normal driving state.
The Camry's EV setting selects electric power on its own and this is ideal for a few kays' driving around town or perhaps for negotiating car parks. Be aware though of how quiet the car is in this mode, as pedestrians and cyclists can get a fright.
Left to its own devices, in "D" and allowing the Hybrid Synergy Drive to make the decisions about what combination of electric and petrol power is required, all you have to do is squeeze the throttle. Squeeze it hard and the Camry is capable of hitting 100kmh in just over seven seconds, which is not hanging about for a four-cylinder car, albeit a hybrid assisted one. It's nothing to sneeze at for a six either, and though the Camry Hybrid is ultimately slower than an Aurion, it's not by much, and with the ability to sip fuel at about half the rate I can't think who'd want the V6 sedan.
Open-road pace is surprisingly restful. A dab on the accelerator will whisk the car past slower traffic, with just a lilt of the engine note as the CVT transmission compensates for the driver's request, and once settled back to 100kmh, the Camry Hybrid is an ethereally pleasant place to sit and drive.
The Hybrid Camry, like its conventional siblings, has been on a weight-reduction programme, and ends up a useful 58kg lighter than its predecessor, at 1570kg.
There's a little more weight up front than the petrol-only car, but that appears to be nicely balanced by the battery pack, as the Camry Hybrid feels no less wieldy than the basic car, which as part of its revamp earlier this year gained a chassis of some talent. The model is also 20 per cent stiffer than its predecessor, and it shows. In fact, the tacility and accuracy of the Camry Hybrid is a delight and that's another reason I'd plump for the petrol-electric car over the nevertheless impressive 3.5-litre V6 which is more nose-heavy.
In terms of ride quality, the 17-inch rimmed Camry Hybrid is a well-damped and surprisingly competent negotiator of broken surfaces. Suspension movement is quiet and there appears to be plenty of body control, as when cornering there's little to upset passengers.
The Camry Hybrid is offered in two trim levels, the $50,990 base car and the $56,890 i-tech version. In recent months the i-tech moniker has become attached to the upper-echelon version of all Toyota hybrids and so it is with the leather and all the fruit Camry Hybrid i-tech, which with Sat-Nav and every bell and whistle leaves nothing on the must-have list.
It's possible to opt for a base $44,990 Camry, with the $48,890 Atara S and $51,490 Atara SX models making up that car's pecking-order, while fans who like the idea of a V6 Camry, can go for the Aurion - no, I don't know what it means - which goes from the $49,690 AT-X, through the $51,790 Sportivo SX6 to the all-singing and dancing $52,090 Touring model.
Thus, the Camry Hybrid i-tech is the most expensive of this family of Australian Toyotas, but irrefutably the best of them for all that money. However, the ordinary common-or-garden Camry Hybrid is not the most expensive and it undercuts the top two Aurions despite being a better, more frugal drive.
So, returning to my made-up job of department manager, I'd put in for the Camry Hybrid i-tech, with a fall-back of the straight Hybrid, which might lack the satnav and leather, but has darn near everything else and behaves on the road in an identical manner. I wouldn't care if I was bumped back to the base Hybrid - the accountant would be pleased with the fuel costs, head office with the green credentials, and as I wave goodnight to my boss in his top-spec Aurion, I'd be pleased to be going home in the better car.
I never rated hybrids, often relating the cost and the fact that you're dragging around two engines when most cars have just one to anyone who'll listen. But this car - like the recently introduced Prius C - is different. It gets rid of the hybrid novelty factor and allows its user to get on with driving the car.
Meanwhile, if you can't stretch to the Hybrid, even the GL and Atara Camrys are a pleasant enough drive, with 131 and 135kW on tap respectively. But they're not half the car the Hybrid is, probably Toyota's best current offering in New Zealand.


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