Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid

North Vancouver, British Columbia – The fact that a gas-electric hybrid sedan could be voted “Canadian Car of the Year” by a respected group of experienced Canadian auto journalists says a lot about how far hybrid technology has come in the past ten years. Hybrids, once strange-looking oddities from Japan, are now being accepted as trustworthy family vehicles and viable personal transportation solutions to the increasing cost of gasoline and the looming global warming crisis.

The 2007 AJAC Canadian Car of the Year award winner was the Toyota Camry Hybrid, first introduced here in late 2006. Interestingly, though the Toyota Prius hybrid has been on the market much longer than the Camry Hybrid, it was never voted Car of the Year. The combination of the Camry sedan’s comfort, roominess, functionality and quality and the hybrid powertrain’s fuel-efficiency and low emissions proved to be a winning combination for the seasoned critics.

So is there anything bad to say about the Camry Hybrid, now entering its second year in the Canadian market basically unchanged?

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Well, the most frequent criticism has been that its real-world fuel consumption figures are often higher than the official Energuide numbers of 5.7 L/100 km City/5.7 L/100 km Hwy. Moreover, its fuel consumption varies widely with the weather and road conditions. In a recent long-term test of the 2008 Camry Hybrid during a period of particularly bad Ottawa winter weather, Autos Managing Editor, Grant Yoxon, recorded average fuel economy readings between 6.2 L/100 km and 10.7 L/100 km, the latter during minus 20C temperatures and snow-clogged roads.

To be fair, bad weather doesn’t happen all year, so the Camry Hybrid’s average fuel consumption over the long term would undoubtedly be better than a four-cylinder Camry LE or V6 Camry XLE. And it’s likely that regular Camrys also suffer worse fuel economy during poor weather conditions.

But as the Camry Hybrid’s main appeal and raison d’etre is its exceptional fuel economy and meager emissions, wide variations in fuel consumption must be disappointing for Camry Hybrid owners.


Pricing and standard equipment

A small price increase of $100 brings the 2008 Camry Hybrid’s base price to $32,000 but government ‘green’ incentives can bring this price down: they include provincial rebates for hybrid vehicles, and a $1,500 rebate from the federal government’s eco-Auto program.

Apart from its gas-electric hybrid powertrain, the 2008 Camry Hybrid is similarly equipped to the top-of-the-line Camry XLE V6 except that it doesn’t have the XLE’s standard leather seats and power moonroof. Standard equipment on the 2008 Camry Hybrid includes 16-inch all-season tires and alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake force distribution, Brake Assist, Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (a form of stability control that enhances braking and steering in collision-avoidance manoeuvres), Vehicle Stability Control, and Traction Control.

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Inside, the 2008 Camry Hybrid has standard dual-zone automatic climate control, a premium JBL audio system with AM/FM/in-dash six-disc CD changer/MP3/WMA player plus audio auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth capability, eight speakers and steering wheel-mounted audio system controls; eight-way power driver’s seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; average and instant fuel economy display, outside temperature gauge, power windows, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, electronic “Smart Key” with pushbutton start, cruise control, 60/40 fold-down rear seatbacks, garage door opener, side airbags, curtain airbags, driver’s knee airbag, heated mirrors, and variable intermittent wipers.

A $3,680 option package includes leather upholstery, heated front seats, power front passenger seat, and power moonroof.

My test car had all of the above, and with Freight and A/C tax, the total price came to $37,020.

Hybrid powertrain

The 2008 Camry Hybrid’s gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain remains the same as last year: a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission, 105 kW electric motor/generator, electronic controller, and 244-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack behind the rear seat. The 2.4-litre engine develops 147 horsepower at 6000 r.p.m. and 138 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 r.p.m., but combined with the electric assist, those numbers jump to 187 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque. Much of that torque is available between 0 and 1500 r.p.m., giving the Camry Hybrid better throttle response than a standard four-cylinder Camry.

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

As a “full hybrid”, the Camry Hybrid is capable of running on electricity only, gasoline engine only, or both at the same time depending on power requirements. Generally, the car runs on battery power at slow, city speeds or when coasting, and uses the gas engine and battery/electric motor when accelerating. The gas engine kicks in automatically and almost seamlessly, but not entirely. For those drivers interested in knowing when the car is running on electricity, a real-time pictograph in the gauge cluster shows power distribution. When coasting or braking, the Hybrid’s regenerative brakes re-charge the battery, and this is also shown in the gauge display. Under the right conditions, the engine will shut off automatically when “idling” at a stop sign or traffic light, thereby saving fuel and reducing emissions.

The Camry Hybrid meets the most stringent exhaust emissions standards: California’s Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV). PZEV means it is a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV), meets a zero-fuel evaporative standard, a 240,000 km durability demonstration, extended emissions system warranty, and has technology deemed to advance future fuel-cell vehicles.

In addition to Toyota’s standard 3 year/60,000 km basic warranty and 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty, the Camry Hybrid offers an 8-year/160,000 km warranty on Hybrid-related components including the battery, control modules, and inverter.


Driving impressions

My week-long test drive of the Camry Hybrid in the Vancouver area, conducted during a typical cold, wet, overcast January week, confirmed the conclusion of Autos’s Managing Editor Grant Yoxon: “The most significant factor affecting fuel consumption is weather.”

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

In my neighbourhood, there was no snow and the temperature was 3C, but I could only manage 10.4 L/100 km in slow, city driving during the first few days. During this time period, I drove only short trips where the engine didn’t have a chance to warm up. As a result, the Camry Hybrid wouldn’t run on battery power alone, and the idle-stop feature didn’t operate. I sat in traffic a lot of the time with the gas engine running. With the headlights on, the wipers going, the rear defroster on, the heated seats on, and the automatic climate control and air conditioning operating, power seemed to drain from the battery causing the 2.4-litre engine to do most of the work.

A few days later, the weather cleared, the temperature rose to 5C and I got out onto the freeway, and the fuel consumption dropped to 8.4 L/100 km. The next day the temperature rose to 7C, and the instant fuel economy readout showed 6.3 L/100 km. Like Yoxon, I was surprised at the difference in fuel economy readings and concluded that external factors such as outside temperature, wind, sunlight or lack of it, rain and snow, and poor road surfaces have a noticeable effect on the Hybrid powertrain’s efficiency.

Interestingly, the Camry Hybrid has an Economy mode button that minimizes power robbing features like the fan speed, but it only works in ‘automatic’ mode. If you set the fan speed manually it will shut off the Economy mode. Curiously, the button for Economy mode is located to the left of the steering wheel where it is difficult to see and is not illuminated at night.

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

In terms of performance, the Camry Hybrid is quicker in a straight line than the four-cylinder Camry, going from 0 to 100 km/h in 8.6 seconds compared to the Camry LE’s 9.5 seconds, according to figures published by AJAC. The slight hesitation in acceleration when starting out that I noticed in the 2007 Camry Hybrid seems to have disappeared but I could still feel the engine start up automatically at lower speeds.

Under ideal conditions, the Camry Hybrid offers better fuel consumption than the four-cylinder Camry. Official Energuide fuel consumption figures for the Camry Hybrid are 5.7 L/100 km City and 5.7 L/100 km Hwy, while the four-cylinder Camry with five-speed automatic transmission offers 9.5 L/100 km City and 6.2 L/100 km Hwy. The better-equipped Camry Hybrid does cost thousands of dollars more though – unfortunately, you can’t buy a cheaper, entry-level Hybrid model.

Though heavier than a four-cylinder Camry, the Hybrid rides comfortably and handles well. It’s not a sporty sedan in any way, but it does have a satisfying low-speed thrust due to the torque of the electric motor and a fully independent suspension to absorb bumps. The easy-effort electric steering makes parking easy.

With electric assist, the 2.4-litre engine runs at very low revs when cruising, so there is little noise and vibration. It’s also quiet at slower speeds when it runs on electricity only, although there is a slight whine from the electric motor. Overall, the Camry Hybrid is a very quiet and comfortable driver.

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid (top); 2008 Toyota Camry, bottom. Click image to enlarge


Interior impressions

Like the standard mid-size Camry, the 2008 Camry Hybrid is a roomy four-door sedan with room for five adults. The major drawback of the Hybrid is its smaller trunk (10.6 cu. ft. vs 14.5 cu. ft.) which is due to the placement of the large battery pack behind the rear seat. As well, the opening from the trunk to the cabin behind the 60/40 folding rear seatbacks is very small – although you could argue that something is better than nothing.

The Hybrid’s interior design is similar to the Camry LE, the only difference being an instant fuel consumption gauge where the tachometer should be, a “Ready” light to show that the car is ready to go, and a pictograph display in the speedometer showing the drive wheels, engine, and battery. As you drive, this display indicates in real time whether power is coming from the engine or battery or both, and when the electric motor and regenerative brakes are charging the battery. This screen can also display an ‘Eco-Drive’ display showing recent fuel economy performance, overall average fuel consumption, cruising range, average speed, the outside temperature, and trip odometer.

The ‘Smart Key’ can be kept on your person while you press the Start button to start the car. The gas engine may not start right away and you can just drive away on battery power. The front seats are wide and comfortable, and both front seats have seat heaters with two temperature settings. The centre instrument panel features narrow metal buttons and a green background that’s backlit at night for the radio and climate control, and separate black on white display screens which are easy to see.

Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid toyota car test drives hybrids
2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Storage areas are numerous: at the bottom of the centre console is a large covered bin with a 12-volt power outlet and an auxiliary MP3 jack inside it, and another 12-volt powerpoint in an open bin behind the shift lever. Between the front seats is a large storage bin with a pull-out tray, and near the driver’s door is a slide-out coin drawer. Two cupholders are located beside the shift lever and rear passengers have flexible plastic storage pockets on the back of the front seats and two cupholders in the centre armrest.

Safety features include five height-adjustable head restraints, five three-point seatbelts, seven airbags: two front, two side, two curtain and one driver’s kneebag. For child seats, there are two lower anchor brackets and three upper strap anchors, and rear door child safety locks.


Verdict

Combining the roominess and comfort of a Camry sedan with the fuel-efficiency and lower emissions of a hybrid powertrain, the 2008 Camry Hybrid is very economical, but poor weather can affect fuel economy adversely.


Pricing: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid


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