OPINION: Toyota's conventional-looking Camry hybrid is the pick of the latest Camry range, says Rob Maetzig.
You can't help but think that there's going to be an explosion in hybrid sales this year - or maybe that should be more of an explosion.
That's because it's already happening. More than 6 million hybrids have been sold worldwide and annual sales have recently passed the 1 million mark.
This has meant that hybrids have progressed from being seen as the darlings of the green set, to normal forms of everyday motoring, just like diesels or cars that run on 91 or 98 octane petrol.
Toyota has played a major role in achieving this hybrid acceptance by the wider market, and is the world's biggest producer of the petrol-electric cars.
Sales statistics to the end of 2012 show Toyota New Zealand has sold almost 5000 of them here. The vast majority of them have been the Prius, the hatchback that was the first hybrid to arrive in this country.
I need to say that the Prius in all its forms is a very good car. But it has always looked quite futuristic in its design, so up until now has always been considered a "green" vehicle.
However, the same cannot be said of another Toyota hybrid here - the Australian-built Camry.
This is a vehicle that looks just like every other Camry and the similar-looking V6-powered Aurion. It's conventional in its looks, and as far as I'm concerned, this conventionality has been its strong point.
I remember writing, when the car first began to be imported here, that it could be said that the single outstanding feature about the Camry hybrid was that there wasn't anything outstanding about it.
It certainly drove like a Camry - albeit more powerfully and frugally than the other Camrys and from the perspectives of specification and passenger space.
The only real difference was that it had less room in the boot, because that's where the hybrid's battery pack was stored.
Now there's a new Camry hybrid out - it arrived last year as a part of new Camry selection for New Zealand.
And it still looks like any other Camry, to the point that if you lined it up alongside the conventional petrol models, it would be anonymous.
But under that skin, there's all those special workings that help it become the most powerful Camry with a total power output of 151kW and by far the most fuel-efficient with an average fuel consumption of 5.2L/100km.
The new Camry hybrid boasts quite a few improvements, too. Whereas the first-generation model had a 2.4-litre engine, this new version has a freshly-developed 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine which it combines with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system as it works its hybrid magic.
As a result, power output for the Camry Hybrid's petrol engine is 118kW, up 7.3 per cent or 8kW compared to the engine in the previous model. Torque has increased 14 per cent from 187Nm to 213Nm.
The combination of Toyota's HSD with the larger-output petrol engine raises the total system output to 151kW and allows Camry Hybrid to accelerate to 100kmh in a quite impressive eight seconds.
And something's also been done to get over the first Camry hybrid's biggest criticism, which was lack of luggage area in the boot.
Improvements to Camry's hybrid system for this generation include integrating the DC-DC converter and inverter and moving the unit up into the engine compartment, which has freed up 60 more litres of space in the luggage area.
A further big improvement is introduction of an Electric Vehicle (EV) mode which allows this Camry to move using only the electric motor, which is great for those times you need to sneak up the driveway in as quiet a manner as possible.
There's also now a dedicated ECO drive mode switch which helps the driver to drive in a more fuel-efficient manner.
Two versions of the Camry hybrid are sold in New Zealand - the standard model which retails for $50,990, and the top-spec i-Tech at $56,890, which makes it the most expensive Camry by some considerable margin.
We've been driving the i-Tech, which is a highly specified model featuring a range of extras as standard - including blind-spot monitoring, reversing camera, leather upholstery, and active high-beam system for the lights, satellite navigation, a touch-screen display, high-end 10-speaker audio, and electric adjustability of the front seats.
Like all the models in the new-generation range, the i-Tech is well built.
The old model might have featured quite a few hard-edged plastics, but this new version has an interior that is a lot smoother and softer.
Obviously the big difference between this car and the standard Camry is that it is a hybrid. You immediately notice that when you hit the ignition button - because nothing happens.
That's because initially there's no need for the hybrid system to fire up the petrol engine. So you reverse out of your parking lot in total electric-vehicle silence, and only experience the engine cutting in when more power and torque is required for acceleration.
The petrol-electric hybrid system aboard the car works exactly like that in the Prius. In the case of the Camry, it all combines to give it very good performance.
The 151kW of power speaks for itself, and the system also provides an instant 270 Newton metres of torque at the wheels from a standing start, which is why it can scoot the car to 100kmh in eight seconds flat.
The i-Tech is also a nice-handling Camry. It has electric power steering, which means it has been able to be uniquely tuned for improved steering feel, and the suspension has been specially calibrated to cater for the fact the car's kerb weight is 100kg more than petrol-engined models.
All that helps give the hybrid a sort of ride and handling authority.
Hybrid vehicles have reached the stage where they are now accepted as just another form of motoring, even more true for the new Camry hybrid because it looks just like any other medium to large sedan.
It is an expensive car though.
But for the money you do get a rather impressive combination of comfort, high specification, excellent performance, and world-leading economy.
TOYOTA CAMRY I-TECH HYBRID
POWER PLANT: 2.5-litre Atkinson Cycle four cylinder DOHC petrol engine, combined with Hybrid Synergy Drive parallel hybrid system. Total system output 151kW and 270Nm.
RUNNING GEAR: Front-wheel drive. Electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission. MacPherson front struts, dual-link rear suspension.
HOW BIG: Length 4815mm, width 1825mm, height 1470mm, wheelbase 2775mm.
HOW MUCH: $56,890.
WHAT'S GOOD: Hybrid economy, excellent power and torque, rides and handles well, much improved build quality.
WHAT'S NOT: Still issues with the boot space, primarily because rear seats cannot split/fold. Expensive.
OUR VERDICT: This hybrid is the best of the Camry range – simple as that.
- © Fairfax NZ News