Remember when the Camry was the poster child of mobile conservatism? Its sole mission was to provide roomy, comfortable, reliable transportation to people who purposely wanted to attract as little attention as possible.
Camry owners can’t fly under the radar anymore. The only four-door sedan in the mainstream volume sector with a more conspicuous grille is the slightly larger Toyota Avalon that shares much of the Camry’s componentry, but the mainstream family sedan’s flashy new attitude doesn’t appear to have eroded sales.
Last year the Camry remained number one in its class, and by a considerable margin. Certainly sales in the mid-size family sedan segment have been slowing in recent years, the Camry falling victim to crossover SUV growth that includes the ever more popular Toyota Highlander, a mid-size SUV that also shares underpinnings with this bestselling sedan, but the Camry is still king of cars… no scratch that… king of family vehicles (including trucks not sold for commercial purposes).
Toyota sold 388,618 Camrys in the U.S. last year, compared to just 191,379 Highlanders, and 2016 was a particularly poor year for the four-door sedan. By comparison, Camry sales for calendar year 2015 totaled 429,355, while Highlanders only accounted for 158,915. 2014? A few fewer Camrys at 428,606 units compared to considerably less Highlanders at 146,127.
That’s not quite the high of 2007 that witnessed 473,108 Camrys leave Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky production facility, a year that saw just 127,878 Highlanders roll off the assembly line in Kurate-gun, Japan (production has since moved to Princeton, Indiana, other than the Highlander Hybrid that’s now built in Miyawaka City, Japan), which shows what we all now know, the current upward trend is in favor of SUVs instead of mid-size sedans, but whether or not the two vehicle types’ sales numbers will eventually even out is anyone’s guess.
For the time being it’s easy to read the numbers, which clearly show the Camry as more than twice as popular as the Highlander last year. Factor in approximately 10–12 percent of those being Camry Hybrids, and we’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 43,000 of these electrified versions sold throughout the U.S. in 2016. To put this into perspective, Camry Hybrid numbers are only a couple thousand shy of Mazda6 sales, which makes me wonder if the redesigned 2018 model (the conventionally powered version shown at the 2017 NAIAS in Detroit last January and rising gas prices) might cause that number to jump closer to the Passat’s 73,000 units in a couple of years.
While selling well for an HEV (other than the Prius that found 98,866 buyers last year), the Camry Hybrid adds yet more green sheen to Toyota’s already lustrous image, something the Japanese brand has been buffing up since introducing its Prius here in 2000, and the first Camry Hybrid in March of 2006 for the 2007 model year.
I was on that launch program, part of which included side-by-side drag races against conventionally powered four-cylinder Camrys down an airport runway strip. The Camry Hybrids came out ahead as you might expect, the exercise designed to dispel a common belief that HEVs were boring to drive.
At the time I noted the 2007 Camry “HV” (the abbreviation then used by Toyota for Hybrid Vehicle, since globally standardized to HEV) sprinted to 60 mph in under nine seconds thanks to 187 net horsepower; provided combined city/highway mileage of 34 mpg; and had a starting price of $25,900; so other than the styling, a much more refined interior with more features, and a starting price of $26,790 (so much for inflation), not much has changed.
Granted, performance has improved thanks to an updated 2.5-liter Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder internal combustion engine (ICE) that, when combined with the same Hybrid Synergy Drive technology that incorporates an identical 105-kW rating for its permanent magnet electric motor and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery combination, is rated at 200 net horsepower now, an increase of 13 horsepower since inception.
While older tech than Lithium-ion (Li-ion), NiMH batteries have served Toyota well over the years; powering some Prius taxi cabs more than a million miles before needing replacement. Despite the power upgrade, the 2017 Camry Hybrid’s fuel economy is significantly better than the 2007 model in the city at 40 mpg combined, while the car itself is miles more impressive.
I’m not necessarily talking about its styling (I’m more of a “fan” of the current generation’s pre-facelift 2012–2015 model anyway), but more so of the attention to detail Toyota spent on interior design, quality, digital interfaces, and the way it drives.
As you might expect the Camry Hybrid XLE is a lot more about comfort than performance, and to that end I found it an extremely nice car to drive. It soaks up inner-city bumps very well, is quite maneuverable in tight parking lots, around town and on a winding back road (as long as you don’t push too hard), and it takes to the highway ideally. The Hybrid drivetrain provides plenty of power too, especially for passing duties, while it can cruise at high-speed all day long in quiet, near serene comfort.
With respect to that aforementioned winding back road, the Camry is a fairly wide car with a relatively low center of gravity allowing for pretty good performance through corners, while the XLE’s 17-inch rims and 215/55 rubber provided plenty of grip for being winters. I’ve learned from experience that Michelin X-Ice tires are superb in the snow and also very good in rainy conditions, but no snow tire is as capable on dry pavement as a stock set of all-seasons, which aren’t as sticky as a good set of summers.
Optimally any car should have a set of winters like these X-Ice tires for the colder season and summers when it’s warm, swapping them out in the fall and spring so as to maximize road-holding and minimize wear. This said if you send the Camry Hybrid XLE into a sharp curve too hard it tends to understeer, which means it pushes the front wheels outwards (toward the curb, ditch, trees, river, ocean, or generally where you don’t want to go), which believe it or not is the better of two evils (the opposite is losing traction at the rear, which could send the car into a spin). Winter tires, with inherently less grip in the dry, exacerbate this tendency. As noted earlier, the Camry Hybrid XLE drives well if it’s not thrown around with abandon, its understeering nature easily remedied with a slight lift off the throttle. Of note, I’ve driven this latest Camry in sportier XSE trim, which unfortunately isn’t available in Hybrid guise, and it’s actually quite a bit of fun when pushed considerably harder.
Trims in mind, the Camry Hybrid is available in three variations including LE, SE, and as-tested XLE. While my tester was dressed up much nicer than the $26k base car mentioned earlier, it’s not like the entry-level model is particularly lacking in features. A few highlights from the Hybrid LE include auto on/off projector-style halogen headlamps, power-adjustable side mirrors, windshield acoustic glass, proximity-sensing keyless access with pushbutton ignition, a tilt and telescopic multifunction steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers, cruise control, bright and colorful Optitron primary gauges, a TFT multi-information display, filtered dual-zone auto climate control with a humidity sensor, 6.1-inch Entune Audio touchscreen infotainment with Bluetooth phone connectivity and streaming audio, Siri Eyes Free, a backup camera, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA stereo with aux and USB ports, the usual powered locks and windows, dual vanity mirrors, an overhead sunglasses holder, an eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks (with only the “40” side available as a pass-through due to the rear bulkhead-mounted battery), and more.
Additionally, Toyota’s standard Star Safety System includes the usual ABS-enhanced brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and emergency brake assist, traction and stability control, Toyota’s exclusive Smart Stop Technology (SST) that eliminates any chance of driver-induced unintentional acceleration, and tire pressure monitoring. This gets added on top of the usual count of standard airbags, plus two for protecting front occupant knees. If you want the benefits of an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus rating you’ll have to spend more, but the ability to do so sets the Camry apart from most competitors.
While you’ll need to move past second-rung SE trim for that privilege, I’d best share some of its upgrades before delving into my fully loaded tester’s trim level. These include a unique sport grille, a rear deck lid spoiler, unique 17-inch alloy wheels (replacing the base 16-inch steel rims and covers), a sport-tuned suspension, aluminum scuff plates, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, powered front seats, sporty SofTex leatherette-trimmed UltraSuede upholstery, and more.
My XLE didn’t include most of the SE’s sporting gear but kept the leather-wrapped controls and powered front seats, while adding a different set of 17-inch alloys. Additionally the XLE includes LED daytime running lights, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a larger 7.0-inch touchscreen display, a great sounding 10-speaker JBL audio system with satellite radio, Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charging, nice leather upholstery, heatable front seats, rear seat vents, and more.
My tester also came with a generous helping of options, including navigation and a full App Suite for the infotainment system, Safety Connect telematics, a garage door opener, a powered moonroof, an alarm, and plenty of active safety features including automatic high beams, dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system, lane departure alert, and blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
The cabin that much of these goodies comes in will be familiar territory to those exposed to the pre-makeover seventh-generation car, which was already much improved over previous iterations. Nice details like a stitched soft-touch dash top flows downward across the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger, before butting up against a pseudo gray woodgrain inlay, the latter quite nice to look at as long as you don’t follow up appearances with any physical contact—it’s as cheap and hollow feeling as fake wood gets. The door uppers are also soft synthetic and nicely done like the dash, while contrast stitched padded door inserts fold stylishly into upscale leather-like armrests.
Just like the lower dash, the lower door panels are finished in a hard plastic, which isn’t very upscale but likely durable. Likewise the Camry doesn’t offer any luxury padding on the center or lower console sides, but I love the way its edges are surrounded in satin-finish aluminum-look trim. The same treatment highlights the rings around the instrument cluster gauges, the steering wheel spokes, switchgear, and some of the door garnishes, as well as the inner door handles, while chrome applied here and there adds dazzle.
Going back to that instrument cluster, it’s a nice mix of digital and analog, the speedometer and integrated gas gauge backlit with a bright electroluminescent display, and the left dial, which is normally the tachometer, colorfully backlit with special hybrid information that shows when it’s charging, its various stages of Eco mode, when using ICE power, and sometimes lit up when in EV mode. Bridging the gap between the two is a highly legible full-color high-resolution multi-information display that can be actuated via the right-side steering wheel spoke’s toggle control, this system complete with an energy monitor, compass, audio system info, cruise control details, a message center, and car settings. Additional steering wheel buttons access the phone, voice activation, dynamic cruise control and more, the Camry Hybrid XLE loaded with features as noted above.
As far as its various driving modes go, only Toyota’s plug-in Prius Prime can be driven in full-electric EV mode for any given distance. The Camry Hybrid will back out of your driveway silently, or whisk around a parking lot at speeds below 12 mph or so, but breach that number and the ICE quietly kicks in and assists. For this reason it’s not the most fuel efficient in its class, but it’s hardly a guzzler. Still, Ford claims 42 mpg for the Fusion Hybrid (although at 188 net horsepower it won’t win any stoplight wars), whereas the Honda Accord Hybrid’s more potent 212 net horsepower ICE allows for claimed 48 mpg combined city/highway fuel economy.
We’re near the end of the line for the current Camry anyway, and for that reason we can’t be sure how a future Camry Hybrid will compete at the pump. We now know how the conventionally powered 2018 model will look, however, and if you haven’t seen it yet let me prepare you for a baleen-straked krill catching grille that’ll make this seven-gen version seem sized like the minuscule maw of pea puffer. Just the same, like today’s regular Camry and Camry Hybrid it will no doubt deliver quick, comfortable, safe, reliable, economical daily transport to hundreds of thousands of mid-size sedan buyers each year, which makes either this 2017 Camry Hybrid or the next one a very good choice for your family as well as a safe bet when it comes time for resale.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press Inc.