Thursday, May 08, 2008

Expert: Head-turning hybrid has good performance

By Terry Galanoy

(AOL Autos) -- Some car companies just can't leave well enough alone. After all, if you have the best-selling car eight of the past nine years, have projections to sell 420,000 more next year and your new model has won just about every automotive award available, except the Indy 500 Milk Bottle, why would you place the engineering equivalent of a graffiti mustache on it?

Toyota has three reasons for creating a new hybrid version of their wildly popular Camry. First, Toyota is out to retain and expand its reputation for leadership in hybrid technology that started with the "It Ain't Easy being Green" Prius.

Second, the Camry Hybrid sedan joins the new Highlander Hybrid as another model in a long-range plan to develop hybrids to fit all marketing segments.

The third is financial: through innovation, aggressive product development and offering the car shopper a wide choice, Toyota hopes to make more sales.

Completely redesigned to be more declarative and aggressive, the Camry Hybrid, which has an MSRP of $25,200, is described by Toyota as "athletic and elegant," and that it is. Today, despite the fact that thousands of hybrid Camrys are mingling with traffic on our streets and roads, the perception has not become seen-one-seen-em-all.

Although not quite a Maserati Quattroporte, the Toyota Camry can do its fair share of head turning. Its newly-designed semi-sinister (or smiling, depending on your outlook) grille features projector-headlights highlights with a low, ready-to-spring crouch. From there, a sleek, shark-swoop fender line streaks back along gracefully-curved flanks to a naturally-melding high trunk profile which seems to fit the overall design better than the BMW protruding butts. Our test car was a high-luxe metallic white with the sheen of a giant pearl.

Inside the vault-clunking doors, there is 101.4 cubic feet of passenger volume, seemingly room enough for the starting backfield of the Dallas Cowboys. The feeling of spaciousness is enhanced because the huge windshield and cleverly curved dashboard have been pushed considerably forward. The Camry rear legroom is now over 38 inches. Those rear seats now recline eight degrees and have personal reading lamps on the moonroof-equipped models. Add two jet engines and this vehicle could replace six major airlines.

The entire cockpit has a Lexus-Mercedes-Cadillac feel, enhanced by easy to understand and operate buttons and switches that make everything instantly manageable. Even the optional voice-operated navigation system will make a non-direction-asking husband fall in love. Instruments are large, readable and viewable in bright sunlight. Instead of the usual tachometer, there is a constant readout mpg gauge marked from 0 mpg to 60 and then into a range beyond the numbers when the Camry drives without engine power.

The Camry Hybrid we tested didn't miss a stop on the production line, came as well-equipped as any of its top-shelf Lexus relatives. In addition to the companionable voiced navigation system were seating surfaces covered in leather, a multi-position sun/moon roof, 12v plugs, cup holders, multiple storage bins, a display showing outside temperature, estimated range, average speed, average fuel use and trip odometer, a 440-watt JBL audio system, Bluetooth technology for hands-free cell phone calls, and a keyless push button start system for the engine which takes some getting used to.

In short, the Hybrid Camry has all the operational gee-whizzes and touchy-feely gleams and textures one usually associates with much more expensive cars.

But, as they say, beauty is only skin-deep, so after sating ourselves with surface appeals, we went hunting for our top-of-the-list musts: safety engineering, equipment and operation.

Here, the Camry Hybrid takes care of its own and, obviously, yours too.

Like the other Camrys, the Hybrid features dual-stage driver and passenger SRS airbags, seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags, even a driver's knee airbag. Toyota uses their exclusive whiplash Injury Lessening Technology on the front seats. There is also a standard (ABS) anti-lock braking system, Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist which applies enough pressure to engage the ABS if the driver has not mashed the brake pedal hard enough in emergencies.

The Hybrid is also equipped with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System that helps control vehicle traction and stability through throttle control, brake application on individual wheels and even minor steering correction, if needed. Shortly, it would seem, we will all be safer if the vehicles start driving themselves and we can all relax in on our reclined back seats.

But as fetching as the Hybrid looks and as safe as it keeps its occupants, how does it scoot down the road? We set out to see and the going was, as they say, good. On a 78 degree day, on three runs, we got 0-60 mph two-way average times of 8.2, 7.9, and 8.0 seconds. Those 0-60 times compare very favorably to several models in its class.

The dual driving forces behind this surprisingly good performance are the two parts of the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive System which carries power between gas and electricity and/or both as needed

The first half of the combined 187 horsepower (same output as the 2006 Camry V-6 3.0 liter) unit is a 147 horsepower, 2.4 litre four cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine (a more efficient engine design) mated to a CVT or continuously variable transmission. The second half is a small, high torque 40-hp electric motor with a small inverter, compact battery and a transaxle, a component that combines the transmission, differential and the drive into one integrated assembly, handling power from both engines.

Because there are times when the gas engine shuts down completely to conserve fuel, Toyota engineers have designed the air conditioning and power steering systems to be driven electrically. There is also an ECO button which can control how much energy is being used by the climate control system.

Also helping the Camry Hybrid accomplish its mpg levels are racing-inspired design elements like wheel spats and underbelly pans which help yield outstandingly low draft coefficients. The slipperier a vehicle is in sliding through the air, the better draft coefficients it has. As examples, the older boxy Volvo 960 had a Cd of .36 while the newer, sleeker model S80 went down to 0.28. The Camry Hybrid has 0.27 Cd.

The EPA estimates 40mpg city/38mpg highway for this new Hybrid. Our experience, including the mini 0-60 mph drag meet, heavy-footed runs along the freeways, shopping mall stop-and-go with lots of air conditioning and general around town cruising, was a bit less with an overall average of 34 mpg. This was generous enough, seemed to us, for a full out, good performing, full sized luxury-type sedan.

If you are still undecided about a Hybrid car and want to wait and see where the industry is headed; whether that is more look-at-me models or me-too versions, Toyota is evidently planning to cover both bases. Word is that the factory fanciers of the Prius look will soon add additional models to the existing four door sedan, including an SUV. Over at the business-as-usual design shop, plans seem to be to just add hybrid technology to existing models and demand and future product planning dictate.

Either way you look at it, Toyota will be offering consumers with more choices and we think the Camry Hybrid is a great one.

Taken from © 2008 AOL, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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