2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid Review
Ever since I spent a week in a 2008 Toyota Prius – and wasn’t really impressed with much other than its fuel economy and the underlying technology – I had been looking forward to testing a more spacious, better-performing, more “normal looking” hybrid.
Toyota finally granted my wish last week, when it dropped off a Jasper Pearl Camry Hybrid sedan. I could hardly wait to spend a week with the car, comparing the experience not only to my time with the Prius, but also to the Honda Accord that I normally commute in.
The Jasper Pearl paint certainly made a statement. If driving a Prius tells the world that you care about the environment, then driving a bright green Camry tells the world that you also care about “being green.” It’s certainly an interesting color; you can see it yourself in the photos, but my son called it “Lizard Green” and I’d describe it as something like a pearlescent lime green with a little silver added to the mix. Overall, the car’s shape is similar to that of every other 2007 and 2008 Camry on the road (and there are a lot of them!) Elements unique to the Hybrid model are the grille, taillights, and large HYBRID logos on the front fenders. The Camry is not a beautiful car like the 2008 Malibu is, but it’s also not a hodgepodge of disparate styling clichés like the 2008 Accord sedan is. It’s a car that you can drive anywhere and not get a second look from anyone, because chances are, 10 cars behind you, there is another version of the same car on the road. Toyota rightfully took a lot of criticism about the previous generation Camry’s shape (or lack thereof) and responded in 2007 with a car that is far more interesting looking, with low front fenders, a higher hood, and shapely contours around the doors and fenders. My favorite styling feature is the intersection of the upper character line with the curve around the front wheel openings (just below the Hybrid badge), but the overall look is nearly as jelly bean-like as a few models of the Ford Taurus have been over the years.
Once inside the Camry, it’s a pretty large car. In terms of interior dimensions, it’s slightly smaller than the recently-upsized 2008 Accord, but a little bit larger than the Saturn Aura (the Aura shares most dimensions with the Chevy Malibu). My tester was equipped with the first-level option package, which included 16″ alloy wheels, JBL audio system with a 6-disc CD changer and 8 speakers, Bluetooth cell phone connection, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Desirable options that my tester did not include were a moonroof, leather heated seats, and an in-dash navigation system. Still, the seats were comfortable and I found it easy to settle into a comfortable driving position. Interior materials were, however, slightly disappointing at places. I really dislike the “mouse fur” headliner material, which this car had both on the headliner and on all four door panels behind the door pulls. Most manufacturers such as GM, Ford, and Honda have gone to a woven headliner material that has a more quality feel to it than the mouse fur, which feels the same as your grandmother’s 1986 Cutlass Ciera’s did. The top of the dash is nicely padded, but the design of the “Plasmacluster” HVAC and audio controls on the center stack looked like they were cribbed from an old Kia (though they did really look sweet at night). There is a storage compartment between the center stack and the console that has a cheap lid that feels like a low grade of plastic was used for it, and the grey plastic surrounding that questionable lid also had a different texture than did other areas of the interior (and sounded hollow when running a fingernail across it). However, I’m nitpicking, and a lot of buyers would be perfectly happy with the interior design and materials in the Camry. I know that Toyota can do better, however, having spent a lot of time in our 2008 Sienna Limited (which is an older design, likely engineered before the 2007-2008 Camry’s engineers were told to decontent to remove some cost).
Trunk space in the Camry Hybrid is compromised by the necessary hybrid battery pack, which resides between the rear seat and the trunk’s cargo area. The location of the battery pack claims about a third of the trunk’s usable area (taking its capacity from 15 cubic feet to just 10.6), but short of sacrificing the spare tire for a set of run-flats, or somehow hiding the battery beneath the rear seat, I’m not sure where else Toyota could have put it. The result was a trunk that could only hold one folding stroller and not much else; the photo gallery linked at the end of this review contains two photos of the inside of the trunk, including the area where the battery pack resides.
On the Road
The Camry Hybrid’s startup routine is identical to that in the Prius. Just have the Smart Key fob in your pocket or purse (pocket in my case, of course), and walk up to the door. As soon as you get about a half inch from the handle, the doors unlock. Once inside, you just put your foot on the brake and press the Start button. When the READY light illuminates, you can drop it into gear and go. Usually, you won’t hear anything even when the car is on (“ready”), but putting it into gear generally starts the engine. An interesting quirk of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system is that reverse gear is always electric-only (I had heard this before, and never experienced anything other than that with either the Camry Hybrid or Prius). Once underway, only very low-speed, gentle driving with a warm engine will keep the car in electric vehicle (EV)-only mode. Otherwise, the 2.4 liter four cylinder engine starts and provides primary motivation for the car. The Hybrid Synergy Drive system also features a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is another unique driving experience. For those not used to driving a vehicle with a CVT, it adds a few odd sensations to the other odd sensations that driving a hybrid already bring to the table. For instance, during full throttle acceleration, the CVT will allow the engine to wind up to its optimal speed and just hold the engine at that speed, while varying the ratio as the car accelerates. The sensation, however, is one of a slipping automatic transmission. Of course, there is no “shifting” either, since there aren’t discrete gear ratios as in a traditional planetary automatic transmission. The advantage of a CVT, however, is that it’s always in the perfect ratio no matter what the situation requires at a particular moment, whether it be maximum acceleration (keeping the engine pegged at the peak of its powerband) or maximum fuel economy (keeping the engine spinning as slowly as possible during steady-state cruising, particularly when the electric motor is helping to move the car). Audibly, the car didn’t sound very swift, but watching the speedometer move did validate the car’s combined power and torque ratings of 147 horsepower/140 lb-ft of torque in the 2.4 liter four cylinder and 40 horsepower/199 lb-ft of torque in the electric motor. It didn’t feel as swift as a V6 Camry or Accord, but it’s also short quite a few horsepower compared to the V6 models of those cars.
Steering feel was better than it was in the Prius, but it’s still electric power steering by necessity (otherwise, the car would have no power steering when the engine was not running and the car was in EV mode). Any kind of acceleration while turning the wheel (for example, turning left at a traffic light from a stop after oncoming traffic had just cleared) resulted in howls of protest from the front tires. Also, the suspension was too soft for my taste; it was closer to the Lincoln MKZ in terms of recovery from uneven road surfaces than a sportier choice like a Honda Accord would be.
Driving a hybrid for maximum fuel economy requires almost a completely different technique than driving a regular vehicle does. Gentle acceleration and deceleration work for both types, but hybrids do well when braking gently to a stop because braking energy is captured and sent back to the battery in slower stops; panic stops still use conventional hydraulic brakes. There is an obvious change from the regenerative braking to hydraulic braking, as the hydraulic brakes seemed to suddenly grab the rotors; it was not a linear transition between the two. When moving through very slow traffic, a gentle right foot is golden, as it’s possible to move for a while on battery power alone, which technically gives an infinitely high fuel economy figure. In the spot where there would normally be a tachometer, the Camry Hybrid has a MPG Consumption gauge that shows instant fuel economy, as well as when the car is in EV-only mode. Having this gauge not only encourages better (meaning more economical) driving habits, but also makes maintaining high numbers (and keeping the car in EV mode as often as possible) a game. In fact, the car even takes the “game” mentality one step further, by displaying a Eco Drive Level graph in the display under the speedometer after shutting down the car. After a particularly economical trip over the weekend (after all, my wife and sons were riding along), the car was so pleased with my achievement of 37 or 38 mpg on the trip that it rewarded me with an “EXCELLENT!” message.
Discussion of a hybrid vehicle would be incomplete with a mention of its fuel economy. It was impressive, but not stratospherically high like it was in the Prius. However, the Camry Hybrid is also a much larger car with a larger (2.4 liter rather than 1.5 liter) engine. My first day with the car, I drove my 50-mile roundtrip commute conservatively to maximize my fuel economy and got 33.0 miles per gallon, which is exactly what the car is supposed to get in the city cycle, according to the revised EPA ratings for 2008. My trip consists of mostly back roads, with almost 30 traffic lights as I approach the city that I work in; I typically get about 22 or 23 miles per gallon in my V6 Accord. The next few days, I drove the car “normally” without specifically trying to maximize fuel economy, and it dropped to 31.4 miles per gallon. Today, I was a little more aggressive on the throttle and sank my average to 31.0 miles per gallon. The amazing thing to me was the consistency of the fuel economy over 250 miles; usually, driving style has a huge effect on fuel economy, but I saw much less of that with the Camry Hybrid.
How does this fuel economy compare to similar vehicles? The non-hybrid four cylinder Camry is rated at 21 city/31 highway (25 combined), so the Hybrid’s 33/34 (34 combined) is a 9 mile per gallon improvement, with better performance. In fact, the diminutive Honda Fit, while admittedly cheaper than the Camry Hybrid, is also smaller and less powerful, but is rated at 27 city/34 highway (30 combined).
The Camry Hybrid starts at $25,860 including destination, although it currently has a $1,000 rebate, and can be found for under MSRP without much searching. Most models that I have seen, however, are equipped with the upgrade package that my tester featured, which added the leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, upgraded stereo, and more. My tester’s total MSRP was $27,239. While that is a significant jump from the $18,000 that a price leader CE is selling for, a more valid price comparison is against the XLE four cylinder. The Hybrid has everything standard or optional that the XLE has except for a folding rear seat, foglights, and rear seat sunshades, and costs about $1,770 more when adjusting for features. While there are no longer tax incentives available when purchasing a new Toyota hybrid, assuming that it gets 9 miles per gallon better than a regular midsize vehicle, the extra upfront cost of the Camry Hybrid compared to the Camry XLE four cylinder will be paid off in 3.06 years (assuming gas costs $3.15 per gallon and that you drive 15,000 miles per year). After the three years, its cheaper fuel costs will add money to your pocket.
I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a more fuel efficient vehicle for my next daily driver, and I had been very interested in a Camry Hybrid as one possibility. Although if I were in the market for a traditional midsize sedan, the Camry Hybrid would be an excellent choice, vehicles such as the Honda Fit would be easier to park and more fun to drive, with a $10,000 lower price relative to the Camry Hybrid ($6,000 when adjusting for all of the goodies that the Camry Hybrid includes and aren’t available on the Fit at any price). However, for those interested in a fuel efficient vehicle without sacrificing comfort or performance, the Camry Hybrid is a very good vehicle worth investigating. Just be prepared for a driving experience that requires some getting used to.