Thoroughly Modern Camry

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2006

Want to buy the best-selling family sedan in America, one that has every imaginable safety feature and is thoroughly modern, showing other automakers the way?

But wait. You say you've got the heebie-jeebies about skyrocketing gas prices, so you want a car with remarkable fuel efficiency-but no subcompacts or compacts. Is there anything out there that is safe, reliable, affordable, roomy, comfortable, good to the environment and extremely fuel-efficient?

There is. It's even made in America. It's the new 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid.

In years past, the gas-powered Camry-America's best-selling car and also its most trouble-free-won hearts by simply being better than the competition. Now comes a gasoline-electric Camry Hybrid that returns 40 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway on regular gas. More hearts are fluttering.

You'll pay $1,200 more for the hybrid than a gasoline-powered Camry XLE, to which the hybrid most favorably compares in terms of standard equipment. The hybrid's base price is $25,900. (To compare mileage: a V6, gas-engine Camry returns 22 mpg city/31 highway.)

Today, Toyota owns almost all of the patents on hybrid technology and other companies pay for the privilege of using its technology in vehicles they are developing. The Camry Hybrid joins the immensely popular Prius and the new hybrid Highlander in Toyota's lineup.

Toyota has become a winner as gas becomes expensive because Detroit bet on hydrogen fuel cell cars. But it's hit so many bumps during development that few believe hydrogen will ever be a popular car fuel. So it's good-bye hydrogen fuel cell, hello something else as the world gulps its crude oil supply and fuel prices rise. In Europe, the "something else" is diesel. Today, more than half of all cars sold in Europe have diesel engines. In America, it's 1 percent. In Europe, you can buy diesel cars from just about any automaker. In America, you can buy a Volkswagen.

Diesels are less complicated than gasoline engines, are 30 percent more efficient, and easily last 250,000 miles or more. Those VW diesels that are sold in America-and you'll have to get on a waiting list to buy one-often top 40 mpg in mixed driving situations. I averaged 52 mpg in a New Beetle TDI on a 1,600-mile trip. No gasoline engine can match the diesel's efficiency or economy.

So why aren't there more diesel car choices in America?

Blame General Motors. GM ruined diesel's reputation here with several disastrous engines in the late '70s. Back then, GM cut corners and created "diesel" engines from gasoline engine blocks. About a million were sold. About that many also blew up, and GM made a mass settlement with buyers, refunding 80 percent of costs. That failure convinced Americans that diesels were unreliable, dirty and stinky.

Tell that to Europe today, where clean, highly reliable and efficient diesel cars outsell gasoline-powered cars. Europeans simply shake their heads at Americans' penchant for humongous, gas-guzzling SUVs. Why would anyone want one? Of course, some Europeans are already paying $8 a gallon for gas. That's our future, too.

But America's interim answer on the way to biodiesel-powered hybrid cars is the gas-electric hybrid. Americans will most likely buy every Camry Hybrid built in Georgetown, Ky. What irony. Some of us remember Detroit's dismissal of Japanese competition many years ago with the demand, "You want to sell in America, then build in America." That would end the "import car" threat.

Toyota said, "Thank you. Don't mind if we do." And the rest is history.

As for the Camry Hybrid, there's little more any buyer could ask in a car.

The hybrid setup means the gas engine cuts off when the car comes to a stop. When the car needs to take off, the electric motor provides initial power. Sometimes, cruising at about 30 mph, I could feel that the car was running solely on the electric motor. It's in start-and-stop traffic that the hybrid shines. It has only a slight advantage over gas-only cars when cruising an interstate.

The air conditioning and power steering are both electric-powered, by the way, since the engine cuts off when the car in not moving.

Safety needs to be mentioned since it, along with fuel efficiency, is now a top concern when buying a new car. The Camry Hybrid has dual front air bags, side air bags, a head curtain air bag and driver's knee bags. It has tested well in crash tests.

There is no compromise when driving a hybrid. And, no, you don't plug it in to recharge batteries. Power for the electric motor's batteries comes from energy created during braking.

The Camry Hybrid's two power plants create the equivalent of 187 horsepower, more than enough. The power is sent through a continually variable automatic transmission. No shifts.

And every facet of the Camry Hybrid nods kindly toward the environment. This car is 70 percent cleaner than the average new car. Only a handful of cars, including the Prius, meet the strict emissions standards called AT-PZEV.

It's quiet, too. Not only because it is well built, but because it has a 0.27 coefficient of drag when moving through the air. That's extremely low for a family sedan, a figure most often associated with sports cars.

Its front end is pedestrian-friendly, unlike some of the slab-fronted behemoths being sold as "macho" today. Everything about this Camry Hybrid appears well-thought-out.

It even has push-button starting. Just keep the remote fob in your pocket and your Camry knows it's you pushing the start button.

It's wrong to think of the Camry Hybrid as tomorrow's car. It's today's car, the right one at the right time. It just beat the competition to market.

And tomorrow? Toyota is working on a diesel-electric hybrid, but VW will beat them to market with one for 2008. VW already sells a European diesel that returns 81 mpg. Imagine pairing that with an electric motor for around-town efficiency.

Bottom line: If you're looking for today's best compromise on all counts, this 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid is your car. Own it for a few years and then buy Toyota's diesel-electric hybrid. After that, it's anyone's guess. 

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