With fuel prices in flux and environmental concerns deepening, the seductive song of the hybrid sirens is louder than ever, despite increasing skepticism about hybrid vehicles' positive effects on wallets and the environment. Perhaps the problem is that there hasn't yet been a fuel-sipping hybrid sedan for the common family man. The current hybrid sedans are either too conspicuous (Toyota Prius), too small (Honda Civic Hybrid), or too focused on performance rather than economy (Lexus GS450h and Honda Accord Hybrid). But Toyota's latest gasoline/electric model, the Camry Hybrid, is a fastball grooved right down the everyman's strike zone. With it, Toyota aims to bring hybrid ownership to the masses; after all, the 2007 Camry on which it is based is the successor to the best-selling car in America.
The Camry Hybrid is a comfortable and unassuming machine as long as you drive it calmly over smooth pavement, where you'll enjoy generally placid ride characteristics. But stay away from pockmarked roads, where the Hybrid's body control goes limp (likely due to the extra weight of the hybrid system), poor damping allows unwanted vibrations into the cabin, and severe bumps cause kickback through the steering wheel.
One of the Hybrid's oddest attributes is the relationship between its throttle, engine speed, and engine sound. The accelerator has long travel and is desensitized to all but the most urgent stomps; when you mash the pedal, the continuously variable transmission revs the engine endlessly, making it sound not unlike a broken food processor. All of this makes the car seem unbearably sluggish, but in an extremely scientific test-OK, a drag race-the Hybrid outpulled its conventional four-cylinder twin by a hefty margin.
Over a day of driving in urban and suburban settings, the Camry Hybrid returned 37 mpg, which is close to the EPA's combined estimate of 39 mpg. (Unlike the Accord Hybrid, the Camry Hybrid will run solely on battery power for several minutes if you go easy on the gas.) But before you fill out that Sierra Club application, consider that a regular four-cylinder Camry LE with a five-speed automatic achieved 31 mpg on the same route.
It would seem almost foolish to opt for the Hybrid, if not for its compelling price. Most hybrids command a lofty premium over nonhybrid versions of the same vehicle, but at $26,480, the equipment-heavy Camry Hybrid is only about $1500 more than a similarly outfitted four-cylinder Camry XLE. Is 6 mpg worth the additional cash? It almost doesn't matter, because the Hybrid's negatives-including its smaller trunk, due to the hybrid system's components-won't be enough to dissuade people from plunking down the extra money if they really want one. Simply put, hybrids make a lot of people feel good, and, in the end, that's just as valid a reason to buy a car as avant-garde styling or world-class handling.