It seemed that the near perfect family car was upon us.
When I drove and reviewed
the new four-cylinder Camry, I felt that Toyota had significantly improved the car's styling and handling. Then I learned that the Hybrid version would have more power yet earn EPA ratings of 40 city and 38 highway (compared to the regular four-cylinder's 24/33). Add in a price premium more than cancelled out by a $2,600 tax credit (get yours before they're gone!), and it seemed that the perfect family car might be at hand.
Well, now I've driven one, and I'm afraid to say that the Camry in Hybrid form isn't quite ready for prime time.
Though based on the 2002-2006 Camry, the new car's exterior betrays a strong Audi influence on the front end, a strong BMW influence on the rear end, and a strong European influence in general. Though still far from strikingly beautiful--there are too many odd panel cuts and creases for that--the 2007 looks more upscale and substantial. Most importantly, is a tremendous improvement over the homely old car.
Inside the improvement is at least as dramatic. Though materials in the previous Camry made the car's interior look better than its styling warranted, this styling could not have been plainer. In contrast, in the new interior you'll find sweeping curves on the door panels and a center stack that flows cleanly into the console. The top of the instrument panel has an especially upscale appearance. As in the Avalon, clear blue buttons are used on the HVAC and sound system controls. I personally like the effect. The curvy seams on the seats suggest a sporty mission, even in the base trim.
Still, all is not perfect inside. The door pulls strongly resemble those in the BMW 5-Series. I found them uncomfortable in the BMW, and they're uncomfortable here as well. Unlike in the BMW, those in the Camry are hard plastic, making them even less pleasant to grab. Open the door all the way, and you'll have trouble even reaching them. Additional hard plastic surrounds the controls just ahead of the grab handle. As this is an area that will be touched frequently, a higher grade material would be welcome.
The above is from my review of the regular Camry. This time around I found the interior even more shoddy. It didn't help that I drove a Lexus ES 350 the same day. The Camry's interior felt like something out of the bargain basement in comparison. The door panels and center console in particular look and feel cheap. They are composed of hard plastic pieces and those on the doors even include a few sharp, ill-fitting edges. I'm not used to this from Toyota. All those people who claim that Toyotas are nearly as nice inside as a Lexus, and that there's very little about a Lexus that justifies its higher price--they need to sit in this pair of cars.
The driving position is much like that in other midsize American and Japanese cars, so the driver enjoys a good view over the instrument panel. The seats that look so good to the eye are also pretty good to sit in. They're firmer than I remember in past Camrys, and fit the body well. I'd personally prefer the fairly prominent side bolsters closer together, so that they actually served their function, but people with broader builds than my own will like them just where they are.
The published specs suggest that the new Camry has lost a bit of headroom and gained a bit of legroom. But sitting in the rear seat I found it less roomy than I recall in the previous Camry. Like that in the Accord, it's a bit low to the floor to provide good thigh support. And my knees aren't terribly far from the front seatback. I suspect that the cushion was lowered to enable a sportier roofline. But my memory could just be off. Either way, the rear seat is at least average in room and comfort. I just remembered it being among the best in a midsize sedan.
The hybrid battery pack steals about one-third of the trunk, but there's still a decent amount of room back there. TrueDelta gives credit for a folding rear seat, and the Toyota site claims that the Hybrid still has one. I've been wondering if this is a typo. Well, it's not. But it is wishful thinking. The rear seat still folds, in two sections no less. But there's no opening behind the left side--I think it just folds to even out the load floor with a folded right side. And the opening behind the right side isn't much larger than a mail slot. You could probably use it to haul a few two-by-fours, or perhaps a small folding ladder, but that's about it.
On the Road
The last Hybrid I drove was the Highlander, and that sucker is FAST. The Camry Hybrid has a four-cylinder engine rather than a V6, but since the rated power output is 187--nearly thirty more than the regular four I found adequate--I expected somewhat brisk acceleration.
Floor it, and the car is fairly quick. But in regular driving the throttle calibration and CVT operation makes it feel like the car has no power. We're talking SOFT. I suppose this is to encourage people to conserve fuel, but there must be a way to do this without making the powertrain feel weak.
I was also disappointed by the powertrain's less-than-seamless transitions among its various modes. In the original Prius such transitions were painfully obvious, but they are much smoother in the current Prius, and hard to detect at all in the Highlander and Honda Accord Hybrids. I expected the Camry to be like the Highlander in this regard. Instead, it's at the level of the Prius, at best. The transitions are fairly obvious and not always smooth, and this combined with the erratic operation of the CVT does not convey an impression of refinement. On top of all of this, the brakes can be touchy. I'd have a hard time getting used to driving this car. I remember the Prius feeling smoother, but it's possible I simply expected less of it. Call it a tie. The Accord Hybrid, though it earns signfiicantly lower EPA ratings, is a much more pleasant car to drive.
And I say this even before discussing handling. I felt that the regular Camry had improved in this area. Well, the Hybrid feels loose and floppy. The Hybrid bits add about 300 pounds, for a total of over 3700 with my car's optional sunroof, and this might be primary source of the problem. But the Hybrid's light and numb electric-assist steering system doesn't help.
Ride quality is good on fairly smooth roads, though with the overly soft suspension settings it doesn't take much to upset the car's composure. Noise levels are very low, especially when the electric motor is propelling the car and the gas engine is off.
Toyota Camry Hybrid Pricing and Price Comparisons
The regular Camry four-cylinder costs about $400 more after the $2,600 tax credit is factored in. But dealers will want near invoice for the regular Camry, and near MSRP for the Hybrid, so the actual difference is probably still about $2,000. Which wouldn't be bad if the Hybrid drove as nicely as the regular Camry, just with more power and much better fuel economy. But it doesn't.
The Accord Hybrid gets a much smaller tax credit, $650, and this contributes to a $7,000 price gap at MSRP. But I've seen the Accord for sale with large discounts, so the actual difference is probably about $4,000. Still a large amount of money, but I much prefer the Accord.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.) TrueDelta's page for the Camry:
This was one of my most disappointing test drives in recent memory. The level of powertrain refinement, feeling of power, and chassis composure were nowhere near where I expected them to be. And the interior came across as especially cheap this time. This car needs another round of development.
That said, if you really want a midsize hybrid sedan that earns good EPA numbers, and the Prius is too odd for your tastes, the Camry is at this point they only game in town. Go ahead and drive one. You're probably less picky than me.
A note on Toyota Camry Hybrid Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Camry Hybrid rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Toyota Camry Hybrid reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the Camry Hybrid--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. For non-participants, this access will cost $24.95.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
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Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Honda Accord Hybrid review
Toyota Highlander Hybrid review
Toyota Prius review
Toyota Prius review
Toyota Camry review