The high-profile Prius may get the publicity, but the new Toyota Camry Hybrid is no slouch. As the second-best selling hybrid in the U.S., the gas-electric version of the best-selling car in the U.S. has apparently found an audience in search of efficiency without exhibition.
Although redesigned for 2012, the Camry Hybrid continues to rock no boats and retains its familiar profile, replacing the jellybean shapes of last year’s car with crisper, more aerodynamic lines, but little in the way of style or ornamentation. Aside from a few “hybrid” badges, there’s not much to differentiate it from its conventional Camry brethren.
Inside the changes are relatively more dramatic, with a swoopy stitched leather-look dashboard replacing the injection-molded blandscape of old, and a prominent control stack jutting out from the center of it. Cabin size remains ample, with plenty of length and width for the (stereo) typical American family.
Under the hood and elsewhere is an updated version of Toyota’s very tried and true Hybrid Synergy Drive System, here featuring a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor mix good for a healthy 200 hp, CVT automatic transmission and nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
Toyota must know something all of its competitors don’t, because it has resisted the urge to switch to the pricey next generation lithium-ion batteries everyone else is using, while still managing to make the Camry Hybrid’s pack smaller, lighter and more potent than before.
The result is a 7 or 8 mpg jump in combined fuel economy from 33 mpg to 40 or 41 mpg -- depending on trim level -- currently best in class. The large, unobstructed trunk is a nice bonus, too. A price drop of over a thousand bucks gets you into the car for $26,750, but add more than a few of the available options, as the person who ordered my test car did, and thirty five grand approaches quickly.
Toyota has sold over 4 million hybrids worldwide, and its experience shows. The Camry Hybrid shifts between gas, electric and blended drive modes and modulates the transition from regenerative to friction braking more seamlessly than anything else on the road.
Most appreciated is a heavy helping of sound insulation that muffles the engine noise much better than the original Camry Hybrid could. Only when your foot is to the floor and the ‘gearless’ transmission sends the four-cylinder toward redline does the volume get turned up to marginally intrusive levels.
Refrain from doing that often and you can count on the Camry to deliver dependably on its MPG promise. Not every hybrid lives up to the numbers on the window sticker, but this one doesn’t seem to stray too far. Ride quality and handling are on par with the rest of the Camri, and perfectly suited for its target customer. Like the bodywork, these characteristics are a little edgier than before, but still not much to get excited about.
Defying the Camry’s persistent analog-era demographic, however, is Toyota’s latest infotainment system, available as part of a $2,660 package that also adds navigation and a 10-speaker JBL audio system. Called Entune, it integrates a suite of cloud-connected apps, including Pandora, iHeartRadio and OpenTable, that are tapped via a tethered smartphone. Although the Blackberry model I use isn’t on the officially-approved list of phones and was a little glitchy at times, when things worked they worked well. I both loved and hated the feature that reads your incoming e-mails aloud. If you have a busy inbox, you will too.
On the other hand, the car itself elicits neither emotion. It’s a white good that does its job without any fuss or flamboyance, but rarely disappoints. If you’re looking to make a statement with your car, you could do worse than that.
2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid
Base Price: $26,750
As Tested: $34,596
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Powertrain: 2.5L inline-4-cylinder with electric assist
Output: 200 hp
Transmission: CVT automatic
MPG: 40 city/38 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.