To understand the Camry Hybrid's position in its segment, you need only realize that both the Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima's powertains are based on Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive (Nissan actually licenses the technology, Ford's setup is independently developed but essentially identical). If that's not enough, recall that the Camry has been the best selling car in America for eleven of the last twelve years. Clearly, the Camry is the car Nissan and Ford designers had at the center of their sights. Unfortunately for Toyota, both have been quite successful. While the Camry Hybrid is still a strong choice, its age is starting to show.
Unlike Toyota's Prius, which oozes with about as much environmental street cred as Captain Planet, the Camry keeps a low profile. Subtle badging and, in our case, green metallic paint are the only signs this is a $30,000 hybrid, rather than a low-priced four-cylinder model. Simple touches like dual exhaust - ala Altima and Fusion - might create a more upscale appearance in keeping with the hybrid's place in the model range.
The hybrid touches are likewise minimal inside. An easy to read, analog gauge to monitors fuel efficiency, but the rest of the interior is standard-fare Camry. That means a user-friendly layout and good materials but a rather bland appearance. Compared to the Fusion in particular, it feels, Spartan, dated, and again, rather less special than one expects from a high-tech sedan.
None of these vehicles are a revelation on a curvy road, but the Camry is by far the least inspiring. Its 2.4-liter, 187 total horsepower powertrain is refined and plenty strong, and its pillow-soft suspension tuning gives it the most comfortable ride of the three. But push it at all, and you can expect loads of understeer through sharp turns and unnerving nose-dives during heavy breaking. The lack of feedback from the steering wheel and brake pedal do little to add confidence.
At the same time, the Camry seemed the most difficult to drive efficiently. Unlike the Fusion and Altima, which can rather easily be coaxed into EV mode during normal driving, the Camry's internal combustion engine seemed determined to rev up for all but the slowest crawl. The result is a 34 mpg combined fuel economy rating from the EPA that just matches the more powerful Altima and falls well short of the Fusion's 41/36 mpg numbers. On the plus side, the power transfer from gas to EV, when it happens, is so smooth that it's nearly imperceptible.
The Camry Hybrid is still comfortable, efficient, and, in normal driving situations at least, pleasant enough behind the wheel. It also is receiving some cosmetic enhancements for the 2010 model year and at $26,870, will retain a lower starting price than either the Fusion or Altima. In terms of dynamics, efficiency and overall appeal though, the least impressive mid-size sedan to use Toyota's hybrid technology is the one wearing the company's own badge.