Back in 2001, we completed our first – and heretofore only – Four Seasons test of a gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle: a Honda Insight that yielded an observed 49 mpg. Our Hybrid‘s mileage fell far short of the itty-bitty Insight‘s economy figure, but the Toyota‘s twelve-month average of 34 mpg was impressive considering that–unlike the basic Insight two-seater and, to a lesser extent, Toyota’s own Prius hatchback–the Camry is a mainstream sedan capable of carrying five adults in comfort.
But comfort and fuel economy aren’t everything for automotive enthusiasts like us. Nonhybrid Camrys certainly aren’t brilliant sport sedans, and the hybrid components, which add about 300 pounds to the car’s curb weight, don’t help. Staff members complained that the Camry Hybrid offered few entertaining qualities: the handling was soupy, the steering felt artificial, the ride was bouncy, and the brakes were grabby and noisy.
“The Hybrid isn’t simply a Camry that gets better mileage and pollutes less,” noted senior editor Joe Lorio. “There are compromises: a bouncier ride because of the heavy battery pack; a smaller trunk resulting from all that hybrid hardware; and weirdly varying throttle responses due to the dual power sources and the continuously variable transmission (CVT).”
Contributor Ronald Ahrens agreed, adding, “I liken the experience of driving this car to going hiking with ankle weights on.”
Lorio elaborated on his primary complaint in a later logbook entry: “I’m still annoyed by the constantly varying throttle response when the hybrid system switches back and forth between drawing power from the battery and recharging it. It’s almost like driving into a gusty headwind or through patches of standing water. And then in city driving, you have the grabby brakes and the shudder when the engine restarts.”
Fortunately, gentle pedalwork can defer this shuddering for quite a while, since electric propulsion alone can accelerate the car to more than 20 mph; battery power also can independently maintain cruising speeds of up to 40 mph or so. And when the driver brakes or coasts for more than a second or two–at almost any speed – the engine turns off and the larger of the car’s two electric motors becomes a generator to convert unwanted momentum to an electrical current that’s used to recharge the battery. After a short time behind the wheel, it became clear that exercising the hybrid system is easily the most entertaining thing about driving the Camry Hybrid.
“It’s fun to try to obtain maximum fuel economy,” road test editor Marc Noordeloos noted on our first day with the car, “even though I felt like I infuriated every other driver on the road. `Can’t you see I’m trying to save the earth!’ is what I wanted to yell at everyone who was tailgating me.”
To grade such Captain Planet attempts, our Camry had several different gimmicks: an instantaneous-consumption meter, a basic power-flow diagram, a more colorful graphic of the energy usage, and a bar graph illustrating recent minute-by-minute mileage. Finally, the trip-computer screen provided positive reinforcement of our fuel-sipping prowess (flashing the message, “Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!”) if we turned off the car after a session in which we’d scored an average of 36 mpg or more. Yes, scored was the proper term, as a number of us found ourselves fixated, video-game-style, on these readouts. Hybridizing a vehicle has other benefits, too. The electric boost gave our Camry more get-up-and-go than you’d expect from a large sedan with a 147-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
With the 141-hp (105-kW) synchronous AC motor, the system’s overall peak output is 187 hp. That extra oomph wasn’t always available, though, since Toyota wisely built in safeguards to prevent battery damage from excessive discharging. In exceptionally hot and cold ambient temperatures, we noticed that the electric motor was slightly more reluctant to lend a hand and also that the gasoline engine directed more of its power to maintain or increase the battery’s charge.
Also, it was possible to drain the battery so much that it simply refused to assist the engine. Case in point: Noordeloos drove the Camry to GingerMan Raceway. To reacquaint himself with the track prior to jumping into a vintage GTP racing car, he steered the Toyota onto the course. After just one hot lap, he’d worked the battery so hard that it wouldn’t play ball any longer, and the car floundered around GingerMan with a noticeable lack of power.
A more pertinent problem with the power delivery resulted from the sluggish action of the droning CVT–acceleration maneuvers often required advanced planning. One staff member wrote: “It’s a good idea to wake up the engine before you turn onto a busy 55-mph two-lane; otherwise–unless you mat the gas pedal–you’ll get a moment or two of hesitation while the motor tries to move the car solo.”