2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Most popular midsize sedan.
The Toyota Camry is not only the most popular midsize car in America, it's been the best-selling passenger car in this country for the last eight years and 12 of the last 13. It does everything very well and is known for its quality, reliability and resale value. It's comfortable, easy to operate and an easy car to live with in a hectic world. It's pleasant to drive in all circumstances.
The Camry seats five in comfort yet it's relatively compact and easy to park. It's smooth and quiet, but it can accelerate with vigor. Its cabin is attractive, functional and refined, while its styling is aerodynamic and shows vitality.
A wide range of models runs from the well-equipped base Camry to the near-luxury Camry XLE. In between are the popular Camry LE, a modest step up from the base and available with the V6, and the SE, decked out with suspension, tires and trim to please the sporty crowd. All Camry models offer good EPA mileage ratings and low emissions in their respective categories.
The Camry Hybrid offers the best fuel economy, featuring a hybrid gasoline/electric powertrain with an efficient continuously variable transmission. The Hybrid is a good performer and one of the most fuel-efficient mid-size vehicles anywhere.
The Camry comes standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Equipped with Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i), it's rated at 169 horsepower for the Camry, LE and XLE trim levels and 179 horsepower for the sporty SE. The four-cylinder can be matched with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission, and it offers ease of driving away from stoplights, running with freeway traffic and climbing hills. Camry V6 models get a 268-horspower 3.5-liter engine and a six-speed automatic with manual shift feature, and it delivers plenty of response and performance, along with silky smoothness.
Standard Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with traction control regulates engine output and brake application to help maintain control on slippery surfaces. The Hybrid is equipped with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system that helps manage traction and stability through throttle control and brake application, and can even deliver minor steering correction if circumstances require.
For 2011, lower-rolling-resistance tires for the V6 models increase EPA fuel economy ratings from the previous 19 mpg City/28 mpg Highway to 20 mpg City/29 mpg Highway for the 2011 Camry.
Since its debut in the United States well over two decades ago, the Camry has earned a reputation for smart design, pleasing function, great build quality and long-term durability. It's not all hype. The Toyota Camry remains the benchmark by which its competitors are judged.
The 2011 Toyota Camry comes in base, LE, sporty SE, luxury-equipped XLE, and the Camry Hybrid. The base Camry ($19,595) comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning and pollen filter, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, a multi-function information display with outside temperature, a 160-watt stereo with six speakers, single CD player and auxiliary jack for MP3 devices, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat and 16-inch steel wheels. The Camry LE ($21,050) and LE V6 ($24,765) add an eight-way power driver's seat and remote keyless entry.
The Camry SE ($22,365) and SE V6 ($26,040) add a firmer, lowered suspension, flashy styling cues, unique interior trim, fog lights and P215/55R17 tires on 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels.
The Camry XLE ($26,125) features glossy wood-grain interior trim and comes standard with the automatic. XLE models add dual-zone auto climate control with an electronic ion filter, a JBL audio upgrade with 440 watts, 6CD changer, Bluetooth wireless telephone interface, power passenger seat, power sunroof, split 40/20/40 reclining rear seat, rear reading lamps, manual rear-window sunshade, and 16-inch alloy wheels. Leather comes standard on the XLE V6 ($29,245).
The Camry Hybrid ($26,400) has a 147-horsepower four-cylinder engine coupled with an electric motor and continuously variable transmission. The electric motor augments the gas engine's performance and captures energy that would otherwise be wasted as the car slows and brakes, so it can reduce fuel consumption substantially. The Hybrid is equipped comparably to the XLE four-cylinder, but adds Toyota's Smart Key pushbutton-start feature.
Options include premium JBL audio ($1,010) for the LE and SE. Stand-alone options include power tilt/slide sunroof ($890), Leather Package for SE V6 ($1,210) and Hybrid ($1,295), heated front seats ($440), auto-dimming rearview mirror ($150), heated outside mirrors ($30), and 16-inch alloy wheels ($410). Not all options are available for all trim levels.
Safety features on all Camrys include a full complement of airbags: dual-stage front airbags, a driver's-knee airbag, upper body-protecting side-impact airbags for front passengers, and head-protecting side air curtains for the front and rear seats. All models come with anti-lock brakes (ABS), which aid steering control during a panic stop. The ABS features Brake Assist, which applies the brakes more forcefully and consistently when it senses the onset of a panic stop, and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which balances brake application front and rear for optimal stopping distance. A tire-pressure monitor is standard, and Vehicle Stability Control with Traction Control is standard on all Camrys except the Hybrid.
The Camry's front end is the boldest design element, with sharp points, curving cut lines and entertaining surface planes. The hood dips broadly through the middle, pushing visual heft out over the front fenders. There's a Toyota emblem above horizontal slats. The single-piece fascia blends all the diverse elements into a smooth aerodynamic look that's several steps away from looking like just another midsize sedan.
The side view is less fashionable and somewhat bulky looking, with a high beltline, symmetrical windows and square doors, graced with a barely discernible character line running through flush-mounted door handles. The wheel openings are circular, which on a car with a lower profile might suggest sporty intentions. On the Camry, they draw attention to the expanse of sheet metal between them, and instead whisper sedate.
The rear end, which looks somewhat like a miniaturized copy of the squared-off trunk lid of the BMW 7 Series, finishes the side profile. That bustle-like hump gives the trailing edge of the trunk a slight aero-lip that suggests it's there to reduce rear lift at high speeds. An oversize Toyota emblem perches atop the license plate recess. The taillamps repeat the theme of the headlamps and are nicely detailed. The bumper wraps around the back end, capping the corners beneath the taillights and sweeping into a soft, horizontal indentation that, on the V6-equipped models, finishes in cutouts for the chrome-tipped dual exhausts.
The Camry SE is the easiest model to distinguish, and perhaps the boldest of all. The inference of aero treatment on the trunk lid is boosted on the SE with a true spoiler. A full body kit flares the lower edge of the car outward, emphasizing the sport model's lower ride height. Six-spoke, 17-inch aluminum wheels fill those circular wheel wells nicely.
There's aerodynamic massaging not obvious to the eye, particularly on the sport-tuned SE and the other specialty Camry, the Hybrid. Engineers focused on making the underbody as flat as possible to smooth airflow under the car and reduce noise.
On the SE, they also tuned the flow to balance downforce, or the aerodynamic force that presses the car to the pavement, nearly equally over the front and rear tires.
With the Camry Hybrid, the aerodynamic focus was on efficiency. Unique wheel spats and underbelly pans reduce the coefficient of drag (Cd) to a low 0.27. This reduces the amount of energy required to move the Hybrid at a given speed, and in turn helps increase fuel economy.
Inside, the Camry offers a welcome counterpoint to its exterior styling. While the outside has been touched with a splash of pizzazz, the inside has been brushed with shades of elegance. The treatment is not quite up to, say, Lexus-level luxury, but, especially in the top-of-the-line XLE, this Camry sets a high bar on interior polish for mid-price, mid-size sedans.
The cabin is trimmed with a brushed metallic finish in the base, LE, SE, and Hybrid. Real-looking glossy wood grain is used inside the XLE, including surrounds for the door-release handles.
The fabric upholstery combines breathable, waffle-texture insets with smooth bolsters and backing. The leather upgrade isn't quite kid glove, but it feels expensive. On the less positive side, the hard plastic covering the roof pillars looks cheap, and the mouse fur headliner disappoints.
The Camry is a roomy sedan, with comfortable seats front and rear, though the seat bottoms are short on thigh support for taller occupants. Rear-seat passengers in the XLE enjoy a luxury rarely seen in this class: Reclining seatbacks.
The sloping hood delivers good sightlines from the driver's seat. The thick C-pillar (that part of the body supporting the roof behind the rear doors), looks less imposing to the driver than from outside the car. Low-profile rear-seat head restraints leave the view in the rearview mirror mostly unblocked. Outside mirrors are placed farther rearward than we'd like, forcing a turn of the head for quick checks instead of just glancing sideways.
Almost everything inside the Camry speaks refined function. The speedometer and tachometer are large, circular and easy to scan, save for brief periods at dusk and under certain types of street lighting, when the luminescent instruments on all but the SE can wash out.
Gauges in the SE, which are black on white with sharp blue backlighting, avoid this eye-straining fade. They're part of this sporty model's unique interior treatment, which features dark charcoal or Ash gray hues and a grippy leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel.
The window switches are clustered nicely on the driver's door armrest, just below the mirror switch and door lock, so they sit right where the hand rests when the driver sets forearm on the door. However, only the driver's window switch is lit at night, and it's not very bright. That means the other switches in the cluster, including the locks and mirrors, must be located by touch when it's dark, rather than by sight.
Controls for audio and air conditioning are easily manageable, clearly labeled and logically positioned in the center stack, with audio above and climate below. The pastel blue-green lighting around the optional navigation system reminds us of Miami Beach, and we love the separate on/off switches for the audio and navigation systems. The dual switches are a welcome departure from a lot of other vehicles, many of which have single on/off switches, which means that, in those other cars, if you want the navigation but no audio, you have to crank the volume all the way down, and still run the risk of picking up interference. The Camry's dual switches eliminate this issue.
The cabin offers lots of usable cubbies for storing things. Cup holders and assorted nooks and covered bins are located conveniently about the center stack and console. A large glove box spans the lower dash between the center stack and passenger door. Only the front doors get map pockets, which are fixed, hard plastic that allows most everything stored there to slide. A similar material forms the magazine pouches on the back of the front seatbacks. A covered storage bin in the fold-down center rear armrest doubles as cup holders for rear passengers. On the SE and XLE, it also conceals a pass-through to the trunk. The SE offers only this pass-through, rather than the folding rear seat on other models, because of an extra brace behind the seat that stiffens the body for sportier handling.
Trunk space is adequate, at 15.0 cubic feet. The XLE's reclining back seats exact a slight penalty in trunk space, dropping it 0.5 cubic feet compared to other models. The Camry Hybrid takes an even bigger hit, losing 4.3 cubic feet of trunk space to its battery. The Camry's trunk is fully finished, and the XLE comes with a luggage net that keeps cargo from sliding. There's no pull-down handle inside the trunk lid to spare fingers the grime and grit that can accumulate on exterior surfaces in winter.
We've driven every version of the current Camry model and we were impressed with all of them, though they differ in character, intent and appeal. We were seriously impressed with four-cylinder manual and V6 automatic models, not only with the overall packaging, but also with the clear distinctions among the different models, both inside and underneath.
The LE with the four-cylinder engine and automatic delivers decent performance and power, and will probably be enough for most daily driving. We did feel some torque steer, a light left-right tugging at the steering wheel under full throttle. It's a common phenomenon with front-wheel drive, but we expect it more with light, powerful cars. Fit and finish are very good, with zero buzzes, squeaks or rattles, and tight tolerances between panels and parts. Yet wind and road noise are audible.
The Camry LE V6 is another story, because there is no shortage of power here. The 268-hp V6 engine eagerly spins all the way up to its programmed limiter at 6500 rpm, and it's silky smooth throughout. It pulls without stumble from 1000 rpm in any gear, and the driver won't feel as if he or she is waiting for the transmission to find the right gear so the car can get going. The LE V6 will feel familiar to longtime Camry owners, just a little smoother, tighter and more powerful than older models.
The Camry SE is fun and entertaining to drive. Steering turn-in is more precise than we'd expect in a Camry, and cornering is solid and stable, with little body lean. Brake pedal feel and travel are soft and long by sports sedan standards.
The manual transmission in four-cylinder models shifts cleanly, if not with sports-car crispness. We really liked it in the Camry SE. Clutch engagement is smooth and easily managed. The brake and gas pedals are close enough to allow heel-and-toe shifting, which enthusiast drivers enjoy, though the process is not accomplished with ease. In all, we enjoyed the four-cylinder much more with the manual transmission, because it allows the driver to keep the engine working in the rpm range where it's most powerful. It makes for an engaging driving experience.
The Camry SE V6 is a car in which the driver might want to actually use the sequential manual shift feature on Toyota's six-speed automatic, and we liked it. In manual mode, the transmission will hold the chosen gear without shifting up, and it will downshift immediately with a click on the lever. The shifts are smooth, but quick and reassuringly certain.
The Camry XLE is more soft and floaty than firm and planted, though that doesn't mean it's wandering or imprecise. We were entirely comfortable and assured piloting it at a leisurely pace along gently curving two-lane byways and on lightly traveled or rush hour-packed, multi-lane highways. The XLE is a car you need not think about when driving. We found it very enjoyable, a good place to relax and enjoy the great sound system.
The Camry Hybrid tucked right in between the LE and the XLE in performance. Its hybrid powertrain combines a 147-hosepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a synchronous electric motor, yielding a net 187 horsepower. That's more than V6 Camrys offered just a few years ago. And the Hybrid can operate on just the electric motor at low speeds, a neat feature in stop-and-go traffic, crowded parking lots and around the neighborhood. The instantaneous torque from the electric motor augments acceleration. The Hybrid isn't as quick as the current V6 Camrys, which are among the strongest in the midsize class, but it's quicker than most people expect for a car with an environmentally friendly reputation. For the most part, the Camry Hybrid is just as easy to operate as any other Camry, but there is a learning curve to mastering all of its idiosyncrasies. We occasionally struggled with trying to figure out whether the car was running. For example, when you press the push-button starter the car comes to life, ready to drive, but it isn't always obvious. The Hybrid is a very quiet car at a stop. When it's started, and sometimes even when you press the accelerator, the gas engine does not immediately fire, so you won't hear it or feel its slight hum of vibration. As a result, you may not realize that this Camry is ready for action. So you'll press the start button again, thinking it didn't fire the first time, and mistakenly turn the car off. The way to tell is to look for the Ready light next to the speedometer. If it's on, and if the shift lever will slide into gear, then the Hybrid is ready to go, even if the engine isn't running. Beyond that bit of familiarization, the Camry Hybrid is smooth, with solid acceleration.
In terms of ride, handling and interior comfort, the Camry Hybrid could easily fool us into thinking we were driving an XLE, except for the visual differences. The Hybrid's gauges include a graphic display of the powertrain's status (gas, electric or both), a welcome, real-time fuel economy gauge in place of the tachometer and a unique, abbreviated shift gate. The transitions from the electric motor powering the car to operating on gasoline only, and to both the motor and engine operating together, are quite smooth. Those transitions are noticeable, to be sure, but they're heard more than felt.
Active safety features are integrated into the Hybrid's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management package, or VDIM, which is a comprehensive anti-skid and stability program. The Hybrid also has electrically assisted power steering, which will provide steering assist when the car is operating on the electric motor alone. The anti-lock brakes include Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), which balances brake force front-to-rear, and Brake Assist, which recognizes a panic-stop situation and assists the driver in applying optimum braking force. The Hybrid also has regenerative braking, which charges the battery during stops. The VDIM manages a variety of sensors, including those for steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, and wheel speed, and reduces the likelihood of loss of control.
The Toyota Camry does nearly everything exceptionally well, and nothing badly, and it delivers comfortable, pleasant, reliable transportation for up to five. There's a model for nearly every taste and budget. All are reasonably economical to operate. The Camry Hybrid is one of the most fuel-efficient mid-size vehicles available.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from Ojai, California, with J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.
Toyota Camry ($19,595); LE ($21,050); LE V6 ($ 24,765); SE ($22,365); SE V6 ($26,040); XLE ($26,125); XLE V6 ($29,245); Hybrid ($26,400).
Options As Tested
tilt/slide power sunroof ($890); 16-inch alloy wheels ($410).
Toyota Camry LE V6 ($24,765).
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