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2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid (Toyota)
2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid (Toyota)

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Hybrid Camry a better buy than the standard model Add to ...

Toyota is the hybrid company, correct?

I mean, in his keynote address at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota Motor Sales CEO Jim Lentz prowled the stage as he delivered news of Toyota’s impending launch of 21 new or redesigned hybrid vehicles worldwide by the end of 2015.

Hybrids, he added, account for 14 per cent of Toyota’s U.S. sales. Impressive when you consider that, industry-wide, hybrids command just 3.4 per cent of all sales. Hybrids, hybrids, hybrids. Combined U.S. and Canadian sales of the full and expanded Prius hybrid line have almost doubled this year compared to 2011 – to well above 200,000 through October. Toyota has made hybrids a mainstream technology.

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This brings us to the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid ($26,990 base). While the Prius is the poster boy for Toyota’s hybrid lot, the Camry is arguably the better buy – and not just better than the Prius, but also, arguably, better than a regular ol’ run-of-the-mill Camry mid-size sedan. I’ll run the numbers in a second, but before I do, let me also touch on what is now the Camry Hybrid’s greatest rival. And it’s not a Toyota.

Meet the 2013 Ford Fusion, Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year. A truly pugnacious Ford has been out there aggressively making head-to-head comparisons with the rival Camry Hybrid during this early launch phase of the reinvented Fusion Hybrid for 2013. Expect more of the same. Ford is touting the new Fusion Hybrid’s superior fuel economy, upscale appointments and nifty road manners compared to the only slightly older Camry Hybrid.

But there’s a price to be paid for being better. Literally. According to a head-to-head price comparison using Autodata software, a 2012 Camry Hybrid LE comes in nearly $3,000 less than the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid SE when both cars are comparably equipped.

I’d argue that the newest Fusion Hybrid is more handsome and technologically advanced than the Camry Hybrid, all things considered. For instance, the Fusion uses more advanced lithium-ion batteries, while the Camry sticks with old-style and well proven nickel metal hydride. And there’s almost no question when it comes to road manners: the Fusion Hybrid is the superior car, even though Toyota did a major makeover of the Camry and the Camry Hybrid for the 2012 model year.

Yet the Camry Hybrid is much less expensive and still extraordinarily “green.” Moreover, the Camry Hybrid is a better value than, say, a standard Camry SE sedan. That is, the Hybrid not only delivers impressive under-hood technology – in particular Toyota’s computer-operated hybrid controller system – the roster of everyday features is excellent. Consider: the regular Camry SE, at $26,950, has manual air conditioning, while the Hybrid has fancier dual-zone AC. In any case, both versions of the Camry are safe and reliable and Toyota’s healthy resale values across the lineup mean that if you lease, you’re looking at an affordable monthly payment.

Oh, yes, the better buy is the Camry Hybrid. In fact, this Camry tops Consumer Reports’ Ratings of family sedans – ahead of other versions of the Camry and a long list of rivals, including the reinvented Volkswagen Passat. Yes, the 2013 Fusion Hybrid has superior road manners, a balanced, pleasant ride, and this four-door quietly and happily scoots along the highway or around town.

Now Ford’s hybrid sedan handles with great aplomb and transitions between gas and electric are seamless – better than Toyota’s, in my estimation. The transitions are really seamless. But praise for one does not mean raspberries for the Camry Hybrid. It is not at all lumpy or unpleasant to drive.

In fact, I’d argue the steering here is quite quick for this class, and CR agrees. No, this is not a sporty sedan and it’s not meant to be. But good overall? You bet, and with above-average braking and sharp acceleration from the 200-horsepower, 2.5-litre four-cylinder hybrid drivetrain.

I like the rear-seat room, too, and the overall look of the cabin. Here and there, you can spot where Toyota has cut costs, but the package in total is well done. No one will be confused by the controls and the instrumentation is thoroughly straightforward. The Fusion Hybrid’s cabin looks richer, but as I said, you pay for it. The Camry Hybrid also has a trunk of a decent size, though because batteries take up space behind the rear seats, the trunk here is smaller than you get with the everyday Camry.

I marvel at all the attention to detail, as well. But this is Toyota’s signature. Trust me without an explanation when I say the water-cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system is nifty. As Toyota notes, “by cooling and controlling exhaust gas injected into each cylinder, the system eliminates the need to richen the air-fuel mixture to control cylinder temperatures.”

Meantime, the air conditioning and power steering systems are driven electrically; they keep running even when the gas engine shuts down. Lower rolling resistance tires reduce fuel consumption, too. And yes, the Camry Hybrid can go on electric power alone for up to 2.5 kilometres at speeds below 40 km/h. You’ll know you’re all-electric when the EV indicator lights.

And so on. The electric motor turns into a generator when you apply the brakes, charging the battery pack. Shifting to “B” mode allows you to use the regenerative braking as engine braking. Hill-start assist keeps the car from rolling backward during start-ups on an incline. On and on the list of goes.

While I believe the Fusion is a more refined and advanced hybrid, the Camry is significantly less expensive – and it’s a better buy than a non-hybrid Camry.

Tech specs

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid LE

Type: Mid-size hybrid sedan

Base price: $26,990 (freight $1,565)

Base gas engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 156 hp/156 lb-ft

Hybrid/electric: electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery pack (141 hp/199 lb-ft torque)

Combined output: 200 hp

Transmission: Two-speed CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.5 city/4.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Kia Optima Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

jcato@globeandmail.com

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