2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid ‘Real’ Car

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2012-toyota-camry-hybridThe Camry Hybrid XLE doesn’t make us feel like we’re giving up automotive civility in the name of economy.

The novelty of specialty gas-electric cars has worn off, so now we can focus on them as transportation instead of mere marvels of engineering.

As well, hybrid drivetrains have been put into many everyday cars, such as this Toyota Camry, which in addition to shutting off its gas engine at stops also has an ECO mode and even an “EV” switch for electric-only operation.

But in EV mode I haven’t been able to go farther than six-tenths of a mile, and that only by creeping along a flat road at less than 25 miles per hour. As soon as the battery icon shows three-quarters empty, or a hill or traffic demands more throttle, the gas motor kicks in.

So why the EV button? The Camry Hybrid can, if conditions are right, cross a mall parking lot in dead silence, sneaking up on pedestrians along the way. Or maybe it’s to reduce exhaust fumes in urban congestion? But, at least in the cities I know, if you’re not willing to goose the throttle to close gaps and dart across intersections, you’ll be sliced, diced and left for dead. Your teenagers might thank you, though, for a car that lets them sneak silently up the driveway long past curfew.

But this isn’t driving, it’s playing computer games. I fiddle with the eco settings on this car until I’ve had enough, and then I look at the road instead of the dashboard, put my foot down and drive normally. This may be what Toyota wants, as then we discover that the TCH is a pretty decent car—better even, in some ways, than the regular version.

For starters, it’s a Camry, so it should last until heck freezes over. As befits one of America’s perpetual best-sellers, it is also handsome, spacious, comfortable, quiet, neatly screwed together and priced well. Unlike its gas-electric sibling, the Prius, a Camry Hybrid doesn’t feel like an ultralight airplane; it’s a substantial, if unexciting family sedan. Unlike the Prius, it doesn’t have an annoying backup alarm that only people inside the car can hear, or a goofy shift lever, or weird, grabby brakes. And, unlike even the 268-horsepower, 6-cylinder gas Camry, the Hybrid responds instantly to the throttle with a highly agreeable shove of electrically augmented torque.

Most of the creepy shudders, silences and dynamic deadness of other hybrids have been engineered out, so this car feels quite normal. Even the continuously variable transmission behaves like a “real” automatic. The Camry Hybrid doesn’t make us suffer in the name of saving gas.

It’s not even all that expensive. Camry Hybrid prices start at $26,750, delivery included. The upmarket XLE TCH starts at $28,160 (4-cylinder gas XLEs start at $25,535); with a backup camera, a touch screen and all sorts of connectivity features, ours stickered at $30,021—a bit less than an entry-level 6-cylinder gas Camry.

The feds rate the Camry Hybrid XLE at 40 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway. (Hybrids do better at slower speeds because that’s where the electric motor can help.) The other night I drove this car on the interstate for 198 miles at computer-reported averages of 67 MPH and 35.7 MPG. Since then, I’ve racked up another 99 miles in town and on local roads, to the tune of 40.9 MPG.

The 4-cylinder gasoline Camry XLE is rated for 25 MPG in town and 35 on the highway. But on the highway, where the electrics are just tagging along for the ride, why doesn’t the gas car rate 38 MPG, same as the Hybrid? Especially since a 4-cylinder gas XLE weighs 3,245 pounds to the hybrid’s 3,441 pounds.

Maybe Toyota could create a hybrid that lets us simply undo a couple of latches and drop 200 pounds of batteries and electric motor at home before we set off on a road trip. Then we’d get 40-plus MPG in town, with electric help, and—with a lighter car—on the highway too.