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Toyota Camry Hybrid HL: Local Launch

Leap forward in value and technology for the Camry to suit non-conformist motorists

Published: Fri, 16 Mar 2012

Toyota Camry Hybrid HL

Local Launch
Launceston, Tasmania

What we liked
>> Blend of ride and handling
>> Decent performance for moderate fuel use
>> Improved boot space

Not so much
>> CVT power delivery
>> Through loading from boot still mediocre
>> Steering too light for some
 

OVERVIEW

-- Advancing technology, receding cost
Toyota has released the latest Camry Hybrid locally in near record time. Unlike the previous model, which took two years to migrate from the US to Australia, this one has arrived in barely three months. That's a reflection of the much earlier involvement in the vehicle's development by Toyota Technical Centre Australia and Toyota Style Australia. The two local annexes — and manufacturer TMCA — were taking part in the new car's design from as far back as five years ago.

During the launch of the new model, Toyota Australia's Executive Director of Sales & Marketing, Matthew Callachor announced good news concerning the cost to taxpayers.

"It is not generally recognised that Toyota Australia secured its investment for the new model Camry, Aurion and Camry Hybrid, without government support," he said. The new $300 million engine plant has been built with co-investment from the federal and state governments, but Callachor countered any concerns about this with an on-going commitment to the company's local manufacturing effort.

"Our firm intention is to build cars beyond 2016," he said. "Camry Hybrid is an important part of our overall manufacturing and sales mix."

Just like its predecessor, the new Camry Hybrid is conservative wrapping for the exotic gift inside, a highly advanced drivetrain system. It remains a car for people who don't want to advertise to the world they're doing their bit for the environment. And with Toyota making it easier to get into the Camry Hybrid now, thanks to a lower starting price for the base model, it's that much easier to justify purchasing the car in the first place. Despite the additional drivetrain components and the higher level of electrical and electronic complexity built into the car, the Camry Hybrid is not substantially costlier to service than its conventional counterparts, Toyota claims. In fact, Callachor revealed that the price of servicing the Camry Hybrid was $130 — fixed under the Toyota Service Advantage program. This figure is the same as for the conventional car and the Hybrid's program is now extended to four years, rather than three for the previous model.


PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

-- Enhanced specification and sharper pricing to battle diesels
Two grades make up the Camry Hybrid range, as was the case for the previous model. The base grade is now known as the Camry H, selling for $34,990, and the successor to the previous Luxury flagship is now the Camry HL, priced at $41,490. Compared with its predecessor, the Camry H is $2000 (five per cent) cheaper to purchase, but the Camry HL has risen by $1500 against its predecessor, the Camry Hybrid Luxury. Changes to the pricing and model walk-up have driven the two grades apart, but Toyota also points out that the base model, expected to sell in the highest volumes, is now closer in value to its nearest conventional analogue, the Camry Altise.

The difference in price between the Camry H and Altise is $4500, but Toyota claims the higher equipment level of the hybrid means the actual premium payable for the hybrid drivetrain is less than competitors charge for diesel variants, over petrol equivalents.

Standard features offered in both grades of Camry Hybrid include electric driver's seat adjustment, dual-zone climate control, hill-start assist control, keyless entry/start and reversing camera. Camry H rides on 16-inch alloys and also features a six-speaker audio system with 6.1-inch display screen.

The extra $6500 for the Camry HL buys front fog lights, rear lip spoiler, chrome door handles, chrome rear garnish, leather trim, upgraded door trim, memory function for driver's seat, electrically-adjustable front-passenger's seat, electro-chromatic rear-view mirror and electric rear sunshade. And rain-sensing wipers, a dipping external mirror when reverse gear is selected, rear parking sensors with acoustic guidance and a JBL 10-speaker digital audio with integrated satellite navigation are also standard for the Camry HL.


MECHANICAL

-- A battery of high-tech ideas, but not a high-tech battery
Toyota remains a staunch supporter of hybrid-drive technology. As we first reported three years ago, hybrids are the building blocks for future transport technology such as hydrogen fuel cells.

But cars such as the latest Camry Hybrid amount to a bet each way. The drive system technology remains as clever as the day it was introduced in the Prius back in 1997 — and subsequently refined over two more generations of that car. However, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system (HSD) is still making do with old faithful... Nickel Metal-hydride batteries.

Toyota won't say when we might expect to see lithium-ion batteries in the Camry Hybrid, but it has to happen sooner or later — since the company plans to introduce the energy-dense batteries with the Prius V, come May. It's reasonable presumption that li-ion batteries will trickle down to all hybrid models in the Toyota range over the next few years. But given the Camry Hybrid has only just been released in this new (seventh) generation model, it seems unlikely we'll see the more advanced batteries in the mid-size family sedan for some years perhaps. In fact, it's possible that a Li-ion Camry Hybrid might have to wait for the following generation, which could be five or six years in the future.

Mechanically the Camry Hybrid remains largely true to the configuration of the earlier model. MacPherson struts at the front and a dual-link IRS system are complemented by ventilated front disc brakes and solid rear discs. The car's electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has been revised by moving the servo hardware from the rack to the steering column.

Internal combustion power is produced by a new four-cylinder engine, coded 2AR-FXE. An Atkinson-cycle unit, it displaces 2.5- litres, runs on 91 RON ULP and complies with the current Euro IV emissions standard. With a bore and stroke of 90x98mm, the four is an undersquare design and boasts a compression ratio of 12.5:1 for optimal combustion efficiency. Induction is by means of port fuel injection and long intake manifold runners. Peak power is 118kW and torque is 213Nm.

Sitting transversely, the engine drives through the HSD, which comprises a dual planetary gear set to multiply the torque available from the two electric motor-generator units (MG1 for generation, MG2 for traction) joined through the system. HSD's planetary gears operate on the same principle as a continuously variable transmission, but with the mechanical efficiency of gears rather than the less efficient means of cones and belts of a DAF-style CVT. Electronic control of HSD ensures the petrol engine can run independently or jointly with the electric motor.

When both power units are producing positive torque, HSD sends the combined output to the front wheels for performance acceleration. When the petrol engine alone is operating (at cruising speeds, for instance), MG1 is free to recharge the battery. In EV mode, MG2 does all the work, providing motive power to the front wheels, and the petrol engine remains switched off and locked. For this reason, the Camry, like the Prius, is deemed to be both a series hybrid and a parallel hybrid. The petrol engine recharges the batteries without necessarily driving the front wheels (series hybrid), but can also drive to the front wheels, alone or in tandem with the electric motor.

MG2 develops 105kW and 270Nm, figures similar to those of a typical, petrol-engined small car. Combined with the petrol engine, peak power is 151kW. Toyota claims the Camry Hybrid can reach 100km/h from a standing start in eight seconds. Fuel consumption in combined cycle testing is 5.2L/100km and the CO2 emissions in the same test are 121g/km. According to Toyota the Camry Hybrid achieves 5.7L/100km in the city and 4.9L/100km on the highway and has been rated a five-star car by the Green Vehicle Guide.


PACKAGING

-- Local hand in Camry's creature comforts
Toyota Style Australia (TSA) was responsible for designing the Camry Hybrid's interior.  The end result is attractive and features good quality trim materials. Seat cushioning provides a good balance of comfort and support with the added benefit of holding in place a wide range of physiques.

Another particular feature of the interior that lends prestige to the overall look and feel is the stitched dashtop, which has been handled very well in a car selling into this market segment.

There was, however, a persistent creaking noise from soft trim materials in or around the instrument binnacle. Otherwise the Toyota's build quality seemed up to the usual standard expected. Panel gaps have now been reduced from 5mm to 2.5, according to the manufacturer.
 
While the latest Camry Hybrid marks a significant gain across the board, the major improvements have been made in packaging. Boot space of 421 litres may not be class-leading, but at least it's now in the same ballpark as conventional mid-sized cars. The non-hybrid Camry's luggage capacity of 515 litres is nearly 100 litres more and betters that of Ford's Falcon for volume. Camry Hybrid's figure is shaded by the 445 litres of the Holden Cruze, admittedly one of the larger small cars in the segment. There is no doubt though that the Toyota's boot space is considerably improved — and it will meet the needs of most buyers, something that probably couldn't be said of the previous model. Furthermore you can now flip forward the rear seats to load items thicker and bulkier than ski poles, although the through-loading facility is still marginal.

Toyota claims rear-seat kneeroom is 46mm better than before, but a gain of less than two inches in that dimension doesn't really tell the full story. Adults of average height will stretch out comfortably in the rear, because there's also reasonable room for feet under the front seats. It's not quite in the same league as the Skoda Superb's rear-seat legroom, but it would be around the same as Falcon and Commodore's. Headroom in the rear seat of the Camry Hybrid is quite generous too. Over many years Toyota has been committed (or obsessed, some might say) with ensuring easy access to the cabin of the company's various models. There's simply no need to duck the head entering or leaving the rear seat of the Camry.

The touchscreen for digital audio and satnav is sensationally easy to use. Touch control icons are nice and large; there's no finicky mucking around to get the right setting. Switchgear generally — away from the virtual reality of the touchscreen — is similarly large and straightforward to operate. One of the highpoints of the interior design is the uncluttered look of the centre fascia. For those who purchase the Camry Hybrid as a cost-effective alternative to diesel-engined family cars, the lack of high-tech multifunction read-outs in the centre fascia make a refreshing change from the design in the Prius. By contrast, the instrument binnacle is a little busy, but drivers will quickly adjust to the various data outputs and what they represent. The steering wheel provides an untrammelled view of the instruments, but feels large in diameter when you're twirling it around through the bends.


SAFETY
-- Reversing the trend of driveway trauma
As for the conventional variants in the Camry range, the Hybrid models have been assessed by ANCAP and awarded a five-star crash safety rating. Some of the features that played a central role in the car's strong showing in the ANCAP testing included seven SRS airbags (dual front, side-impact, head curtain and driver's knee airbag) and seatbelt reminders for all five positions. The Camry Hybrid comes with all the mandated active safety equipment, including stability control and also features traction control and hill start assist control. Other features aimed at reducing pedestrian fatalities in driveways include the reversing camera (with additional guidance graphics for the Camry HL) and a dipping mirror when reverse gear is selected.

Toyota has developed the new car with a system that allocates priority to braking if the driver presses both the brake pedal and the accelerator at the same time; presumably in response to so-called 'unintended acceleration' claims in the USA.


COMPETITORS
-- Camry rebooted, but still falls short?
Toyota sees the Mazda6 Diesel as the principal competitor for the Camry Hybrid. Until Mazda bring out an auto-equipped SKYACTIV version of the diesel '6', the Toyota arguably has an advantage of sorts. It loses out to the Mazda for boot space — and lack of a wagon variant — but with its e-CVT drivetrain the Toyota is easier to drive. Based on a Toyota media event organised over 18 months ago with the previous model Camry Hybrid, there's reason to think the Mazda's passive dynamics with the diesel engine in the nose can't match the Toyota's in some circumstances. For most drivers it will make little difference, but it's worth mentioning anyway.

In the VFACTS medium passenger car segment, there are other vehicles that to a greater or lesser degree would offer something like the Camry Hybrid, but perhaps appealing to buyers more for various other reasons. Hyundai's i40 is a frugal wagon that approaches the Toyota's combined-cycle consumption figure and is only $2000 more than the Camry H in purchase price — with a turbodiesel and automatic combination. It has significantly better luggage compartment volume too, clearly. Reports received from staff here at motoring.com.au indicate the i40 won't match the Camry Hybrid for straightline performance — diesel or not.

Ford's Mondeo LX TDCi can be ordered as a usefully commodious hatch with the Getrag PowerShift auto box for a little more than the price of the Camry H. Fuel consumption isn't as good as the Toyota or the i40, but the Ford has generally been regarded as an engaging drive — and that might tip the odds in its favour, come purchase time. Ultimately however, the Camry's NVH qualities would place it ahead of the Ford for some buyers.

Well equipped and also offering the combination of a diesel and a dual-clutch transmission is the Volkswagen Passat 125TDI Highline, which uses more fuel in combined-cycle testing than the Camry Hybrid, but has more boot space too.

Looking further afield, both Ford and Holden now offer large cars with dedicated LPG induction systems. These cars use considerably more fuel than the Toyota, but since the fuel is a lot cheaper, litre for litre, the running costs may be comparable.


ON THE ROAD
-- Camry copes well outside its 'natural environment'
Toyota staged the media drive program for the Camry Hybrid in the northern parts of Tasmania, between Launceston and Bridport. It was a curious choice for a car that is best suited to city and suburban work. That said, the Camry Hybrid was equally at home in the country, as it turned out, and cruised comfortably on the open roads.

While the new model backs up Toyota's claim to offer V6 performance and the response from a standing start is quite brisk, the occasional change from one drive mode to another can have the effect of softening the power delivery. This is no cause for criticism as such, since Camry Hybrid drivers will care little about it, but exit speed from a turn suffers when the car's Hybrid Synergy Drive system makes the change from regenerative mode on the way in, to power mode from the apex.

On the overrun the petrol engine ceases to run and all power is provided by the motor-generator unit, including the supply of power to recharge the Nickel-Metal Hydride battery for the electric-based motive power. There's the tiniest of hiccups felt when the HSD system cranks over the petrol engine, if the car is on the move. From standstill — particularly when the engine is cold — there's a distinct rumble on start up. But the petrol engine fires up much more smoothly than most auto-stop-equipped cars, especially the diesels that are most likely to come close to the Camry for performance and fuel economy.

When the petrol engine is already running and the electric motor joins in for added kick, there's no question of 'soft' performance. Acceleration is likely to be a shock to first-time drivers of the Camry Hybrid — and in a good way. During the drive program the Camry Hybrid HL tested proved to be a bit of a jet; relentlessly building speed to overtake slower vehicles with ease. It's no C 63 Merc for straightline performance, but nor will it invoke the ire of civic-minded residents roused from their slumber as it 'blasts' through their communities.

Driveline noise is practically non-existent when cruising, but the engine has a pleasant growl from the exhaust when it's working harder, yet it's not coarse or harsh; there's little vibration to be felt. It's more refined than the 2.4L engine in Honda's Accord Euro. Admittedly, in this (hybrid) configuration, the Atkinson-cycle engine is unlikely to get anywhere near redline. Without a tacho in the car we couldn't tell just how hard it was revving. It didn't sound like it was getting any higher than about 5500rpm at any point. That then eliminates one problem driveline engineers have to address for the sake of NVH. However, that is offset by the tendency to drone, which is a pitfall of cars with continuously variable transmissions, even one as smart as this. Mostly Toyota has engineered the system for the revs of the engine to build along with road speed, but at times it still behaves like a GM Powerglide box from the 1960s.

Fuel consumption for the very eco-unfriendly drive along some Targa Tasmania roads was a commendable 7.1L/100km, per the car's trip computer. That figure briefly fell back to 7.0L/100km running in EV mode through Launceston. While the range in EV mode is only about 2km at most, according to Yukihiro Okane, chief engineer for Camry, it's adequate for slow-speed, bumper-to-bumper traffic. As we have found in the past with the Prius, it's this sort of heavy traffic environment where Toyota's more sophisticated HSD system outshines Honda's IMA system — although Honda is due a rematch with the release of its latest Civic Hybrid.

As far as performance and fuel economy go then, the new Camry Hybrid is a significant step forward from its predecessor. And that's the case also for dynamics. Staff from Toyota Technical Centre Australia played the major role in calibrating the car's suspension and steering for the local market — to the ultimate benefit of the car's cornering and ride. Despite the Bridgestone 215/55 R17 tyres specified — with low rolling resistance characteristics — the Camry HL steers well, rides better and provides conventional car levels of grip.

Over Tassie's lumpier country roads the Camry rode exceptionally well for a car that handles so flatly in corners. The EPS (Electrically-assisted Power Steering) provided a level of feedback better than many hydraulic systems, although Commodore and Falcon drivers won't rate it. Turn-in was initially slow, possibly due to the 55-series tyre profile. The Camry Hybrid's steering response improves with higher entry speeds — possibly as lateral g forces squeeze more compliance out of the tyre sidewalls. Target buyers for the Camry Hybrid will have little cause for complaint about the level of power assistance, but this writer feels it's a smidge light at higher speeds — say from 80km/h up.

The Camry Hybrid's facility to recover braking energy from even quite low speeds and thus keep the car moving forward in traffic — in EV mode, without using petrol — is as close most of us will ever come to a free lunch.

Brake pedal feel in the Camry Hybrid was firmer, less spongey, than the pedal of the Prius. It's still a little difficult to get a 'read' on the right level of braking, based on feel through the pedal. There were a few occasions during the drive program when the Camry entered the corner at a speed moderately higher than desirable.

At higher speeds, the motor-generator unit emits a turbine-like whine under brakes, but it's subtle. On the open road in the country the roar from the tyres could be described as moderate. There is a little more wind noise than expected.

But overall, Toyota's investment in the Camry Hybrid has been money well spent, we would suggest.

Maybe, like the writer, you've never considered buying a Toyota... built in Australia... and a hybrid at that. Maybe it's time to rethink that position.

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