When the best-selling car in America adopts a hybrid powertrain, you know the technology has gone mainstream. The 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid is quieter, quicker and more comfortable than its hybrid stablemate, the Toyota Prius. The tradeoff is lower mileage, but it's still far more economical (and clean) than most mid-size sedans. Price range: $26,480 to $30,576. EPA mileage estimates (which should be taken with a grain of salt): 43 city/37 highway.
First Glance: No one has to know you're driving a hybrid...
So you want to drive a hybrid. You want to save fuel and you want your friends and neighbors to know you're ecologically aware. No problem: With their unique, futuristic styling, big badges, and snazzy-looking wind-cheating lightweight wheels, most hybrid cars stand out like a polar bear at a cocktail party.
Wait - what's that? You don't care what other people think? You don't want people stopping you to ask you what kind of mileage you get, or how you like the car, or whether you have to plug it in?
You just want to save fuel and get on with your life?
No worries. The Toyota Camry Hybrid is the plain-vanilla hybrid you're looking for.
There are modest HYBRID badges on the fenders and trunk, but you have to be pretty close to spot those. The grille is a bit different than other Camrys, but chances are only us car geeks will notice (and we already know you get around 30-35 MPG, you love it, and you don't have to plug it in).
Other than that, there's really nothing to set the Camry Hybrid apart from other cars. Chances are the only person who'll know you're driving a hybrid will be your local gas station owner, who is bound to miss you after your once-a-week fill-up becomes a once-every-week-and-a-half affair.
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In the Driver's Seat: Pleasingly ordinary
There's little to differentiate the Hybrid's cabin from that of other 2007 Camrys. Aside from the push-button starter, the biggest difference is the big fuel-economy gauge that replaces the tachometer. It's marked 0 at the top and 60 at the bottom; the better the mileage, the lower the needle drops. If only it could be turned off! The needle spent way too much time in the upper ranges (lower MPG) for my liking. I started fretting that if I couldn't keep the needle in the 30s, the Hybrid Police might show up and take the car away from me.
There are also blue rings around the gauges that supposedly get brighter as fuel economy increases. I couldn't make rhyme or reason of them; they seemed to act in complete contradiction to the fuel economy gauge, sort of like dashboard-mounted Hatfields and McCoys. Oh well -- at least they look cool. There is also a small display that shows whether the car is drawing power from batteries, gasoline or both. Nice, but the big color display on cars equipped with the navigation system (my tester wasn't) is more user-friendly.
The rest of the interior is classic Toyota: Nice materials, well laid out and easy to use. One complaint: The bright glow of the stereo faceplate is too distracting at night.
On the Road: A seamless driving experience
Here's a quick hybrid primer for the uninitiated: There's a gas engine and an electric motor; either or both can be used to power the car. Toyota's system allows the car to run on pure electricity in stop-and-go traffic or when coasting at moderate (30 MPH-ish) speeds.
Electricity comes from a big battery nestled behind the back seat. The electric motors (the Camry has two) also work as generators, charging the battery as the car slows down. (Charging creates resistance that helps slow the car). When the gas engine isn't needed -- like when the car is sitting at a stoplight -- it shuts off, restarting automatically as needed.
Unlike the Prius, which uses a small (1.5 liter) gas engine, the Camry Hybrid's 2.4 liter engine is the same size as the standard four-cylinder Camry. Gas engine and electric motors combine to produce 192 horsepower, making the Camry noticeably quicker than the Prius. Like the Prius, the Camry Hybrid always starts rolling on electricity, with the gas engine coming in as little as a half-second later. This elicits a noticeable shudder in both cars, but the Camry's superior noise insulation masks more of the engine's noise, making the hybrid system less intrusive.
Journey's End: 50% farther on a gallon of gas
Time for the $64,000 question: What kind of mileage does it get?
Forget the EPA ratings of 43 MPG city/37 highway. I doubt many owners will see them, just as few Prius owners achieve their cars' 60/51 EPA figures. (Want to see EPA figures? Buy a turbodiesel like the VW Jetta TDI.)
I stuck to local streets during my Camry Hybrid test drive and averaged 30 MPG. Disappointing? Nope. That's a downright impressive figure for a car as big, comfy and quick as the Camry Hybrid. Most mid-size sedans average in the low 20s under the same conditions, so we're talking a 20 to 50% improvement.
I drove a Prius for a week under the same conditions and averaged 45 MPG, par for the course with friends who own one. The difference, of course, is attributable to the Camry's speed and amenities.
The Camry's biggest competitor -- and I use the term loosely -- is the Honda Accord Hybrid. It uses a 240hp V6 engine, and the hybrid system does more for power than mileage; it's impressively fast but real-world fuel economy is in the low 20s.
The Camry Hybrid is the perfect middle ground. It works just like a regular Camry but consumes and pollutes less. If you want a hybrid without the attention or the hassles, the Camry Hybrid is the way to go. -- Aaron Gold