09/05/06 — '07 Camry ushers in new hybrid era

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'07 Camry ushers in new hybrid era

Toyota Camry (2007)

A new era of hybrid vehicles has arrived in North America thanks to Toyota, the world’s leader in hybrid technology. We see 2007 as the beginning of the third chapter in U.S. hybrid history and a turning point that may make the gas engine/electric motor automobile more mainstream than most experts now envision.

The all-new ’07 Camry hybrid shows us the possibility of building a mainstream sedan — what could be more mainstream than the perennial best-selling Camry — into a vehicle with a very small price premium, additional performance and about 20 percent better gas mileage than a comparable 4-cylinder model.

Toyota Camry, 2007

We see the restyled Camry as the pioneer in a new era in the development of these low emissions, high mileage vehicles.

The hybrid entered the U.S. in 1999 — actually it was sold in Japan a few years prior to its trip across the Pacific — with the introduction of the Toyota Prius, an oddly styled compact sedan with a power deficiency and a premium price, and the funky two-seat Honda Insight. Both vehicles featured outstanding fuel economy, but they were not the mainstream cars capable of winning over the masses.

The introduction of the mainstream Honda Civic in 2003, a so-called mild hybrid where the power sources always work together, was the start of the second stage of hybrid development. The Civic was followed in 2004 with a mid-sized Prius that featured better performance, more interior space and a better price point. Then Honda, with the Accord Hybrid, and Toyota’s premium Lexus brand, with the RX400h and GS450h, began branching out with performance-oriented hybrids that realized better gas mileage while supplying superior performance compared to their gas engine counterparts.

But these vehicles also command a premium purchase price that probably won’t be recovered in fuel savings over the life of the vehicle.

The 2007 Camry — and certainly other vehicles to follow — may prove that the hybrid is more than just a bridge from low-mileage gas engines to the elusive fuel cell car. The hybrid may in fact be a more permanent solution.

So begins the third segment of the hybrid revolution as we see it.

Here are a few facts to back up our suppositions:

(1) The top-of-the-line Camry XLE 4-cylinder retails for $25,060 including destination charge. The Camry hybrid retails for $26,535, a $1,475 difference. That’s hardly a deal breaker and certainly not the $3,000-$5,000 premium that hybrids have commanded.

Add in the increasingly popular navigation system and the percentage price difference decreases, $27,735 to $26,260. Figure in federal and state income tax breaks (check with your tax advisor) and the price of the two vehicles may be a wash.

We have compared the hybrid to a well-equipped 4-cylinder rather than Toyota’s V-6 as some other journalists have done. We think comparing the hybrid — which operates with the same-sized 2.4-liter engine as the 4-cylinder car — with a V-6 is comparing apples to oranges.

The XLE and the hybrid have virtually identical equipment including a full complement of safety devices, power windows and mirrors, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and cruise control.

You give away a little space with the hybrid. Because of battery storage, the trunk has been cut from 15 cubic feet in the standard sedan to 10.6 in the hybrid. And the rear seats do not fold down.

Summary: There is virtually no difference between the hybrid and the XLE in price and amenities.

(2) With price no longer an issue, the hybrid’s superior gas mileage is money in the bank.

So how much money?

The hybrid carries an EPA rating of 40 city and 38 highway.

For those with hybrid experience, we can read your lips — the EPA rating means nothing. Can’t be achieved, you say. But several tests have revealed that the new Camry comes as close as anything so far sold in the U.S.

A test of hybrid cars by Road and Track yielded 37 mpg. Car and Driver reported getting 33 to 34 mpg in hard driving. USA Today reported nearly 33 mpg “with little attempt to drive conservatively.”

So for the sake of argument let’s say you are a safe, relatively conservative driver and we’ll hand you an overall city/highway rating of 34.

The 4-cylinder Camry is rated at 24 city and 33 highway. Those figures have been fairly accurate in recent years. So we’ll assign 29 mpg to mixed driving.

That’s a five gallon advantage for the hybrid. If you drive 15,000 miles a year you will save 76 gallons. At $3 a gallon the annual savings amounts to $228. Over a four-year period that would come to 304 gallons or $912.

Not much, we agree. But if everyone could save 300 gallons over the four-year ownership of their car we could wreak havoc on the gross national product of Saudi Arabia.

Summary: If you can buy the hybrid for within $1,500 of a standard-issue model, you will nearly break even in four years of normal driving, and actually come out ahead if you can pick up a state or federal tax credit.

As an important bonus you will be driving one of the cleanest-burning cars in America.

(3) We all agree that many of the older hybrids yield good mileage, but they are only slightly faster than your John Deere yard tractor.

If that’s your mindset, we have big news for you.

The new Camry is propelled by a 2.4-liter 16-valve gas engine generating 147 horsepower and an electric motor realizing an effective 40 horsepower adding up to 187 ponies when both power sources are operating at the same time.

Published 0-to-60 times are widely varied from 7.3 seconds by Road and Track to 8.9 seconds by Toyota’s very conservative estimate. In real world driving, we found the hybrid performance — which comes through a continuously variable transmission — to range from sprightly to satisfying. Of course, the more you put your foot into it, the more gas consumption.

The 158-horsepower standard 4-cylinder, carried over from the 2006 model, is certainly adequate but generally slower than the hybrid. Zero-to-60 time for the is around 9 seconds.

A couple footnotes.

•Toyota is still offering an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty on hybrid-related equipment.

•There are dealers across the country marking up the Camry hybrid by an average $1,500 according to online buying services. Our recommendation is never pay more than sticker price. Our conclusions above are based on Toyota’s asking price, not on a mark up.

Wait a few months, and the price will come down. There are other Toyota hybrid vehicles that are now being offered at discounts. For example the Highlander hybrid is selling for as much as $3,000 under sticker.

Jim Meachen can be contacted at meachen@mac.com.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on September 5, 2006 9:37 AM