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2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid Review: Go Beyond the Sales Figures

Impressive regardless of the blockbuster popularity.

Well, this is a surprise. Contrary to what I expected when the updated 2021 Toyota Camry first arrived on my doorstep, I've got a lot to say about the eternal best seller beyond the minor updates for the new model year. However, if you're already a Camry owner, or are actively looking to slide into what's remained the safe midsize choice for the better part of an eon, you're not going to learn much here aside from the black-and-white of what's new; it's mechanically identical to the 2018-2020 models, so it steers, stops, and scoots just like the million-odd eighth-gens already puttering around America's roads. Whether you're Camry-curious or perpetually dismissive of Toyota's bread and butter, stick around—this one might surprise you.

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid: What's New

For 2021 and beyond, the changes really are skin-deep. Starting later this year, the base-level Camry L is kaput, with cheapskates and bargain hunters now forced into the Camry LE at an unchanged $25,965, though the gulf between the prior L and the LE was just $545, so no great loss to bargain hunters there. The front fascia is subtly remolded, working in conjunction with new wheel options and new paint colors wearing aspirational names like Blueprint and Ice Edge. The upper-level XLE trim receives reworked leather upholstery, there's a new standard 7.0-inch and optional 9.0-inch infotainment display, and all new Camry TRDs now pack standard Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Traffic Alert alongside heated exterior mirrors.

The most significant change for 2021 is an update for the standard suite of active safety systems billed as Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 Plus. Now, forward collision warning picks up cyclists during the day and pedestrians in lower-light situations, and the so-called Intersection Support keeps an invisible eye out as you enter an intersection while turning left and does its best to activate the brakes if it detects an oncoming car to help avoid a collision.

Other than that, nothing else changes. Oh, except the Hybrid can now be had in sporty XSE trim; that's the way my tester was configured. So, if you liked what the Camry offered before—and it seems like 336,978 of you did in 2019—these minor upgrades are just icing. Dealers should get the first batch of 2021s here in the next few weeks, so make sure you decide what color won't clash with your significant other's RAV4. Thanks for reading!

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid: A Tale of Two Toyotas

Wait, you're still here? Good, then I can get on with a Tale of Two Toyotas. Prior to the arrival of the loaner Camry Hybrid XSE, I had crushed roughly 4,500 miles over the course of two months in Automobile's Four Seasons 2020 Lexus LS 500, a two-and-a-half-ton mega-luxe sled that rightfully stands as Toyota Motor Corp. 's most impressive mainstream sedan, second only to the Japan-only Toyota Century. As we've enumerated in the LS' Four Seasons introduction and experienced over the course of 15,000 miles or so, driving this loaded-to-the-Spindle-grille LS 500 is akin to perpetually cruising around in international business class, minus the microwaved pseudo-wagyu and mid-shelf sake.

Presumably, replacing the weighted Lexus fob with the plastic-fantastic Camry clicker should feel like being Air Marshalled back to steerage, at least by the standards set by (purely hypothetical) historical LS v. Camry face-offs. Spoiler alert—no, the 2021 Camry cannot match the LS for presence, outright comfort, materials, design, refinement, quietness, ride, prestige, attention to detail, or finishing. Gosh, I sure hope that would be the case, considering our LS has roughly $70,000 tacked onto this Camry's tag—but I'll be damned if the admittedly optioned-out Camry Hybrid XSE didn't lay bare the rapidly decreasing technological gap between established luxury and a well-equipped mainstream car.

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid: Tech Mogul

For all the cutting edge tech spilling out of the LS, the Camry matches the mighty Lexus nearly blow-for-blow on the toys front. Here's a non-exhaustive list of commonalities shared between this not-top-of-the-line Toyota and the super-Lexus: heated/cooled seats, adaptive cruise with traffic assist, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, 360-degree proximity cameras, auto hold, head-up display (HUD), and automatic high beams. The Camry takes potshots at the LS with a substantially more user-friendly touchscreen infotainment interface versus the Lexus' wonky touchpad system, a USB-C port, and wireless charging. The LS returns fire with memory massage seats, auto windows, and a rear seating environment to match even the most spoiled CEO's custom-made Berlutis with reclining rear seats with heated and cooled massage, powered sunshades, and a touchscreen console for climate and entertainment.

A fair comparison? Of course not, but it looks like the definition of luxury is perhaps veering back to the standards of the 1970s and 1980s, when sumptuous materials and alluring design played a larger role in the separation between the automotive proletariat and the bourgeoise rather than the tech-first scramble of the past 30 years. Aside from cutesy little toys along the lines of fiber-optic starlight headliner, refrigerators, gesture control, scent diffusers, and mounted tablet displays, I don't think there's a genuinely significant front-facing interior tech difference between the Bentleys, Rolls, and Mercedes-Maybachs of the world and a kitted-out Camry, Sonata, Accord, or whatever your favorite flavor of appliance is. Some of the more premium marques feature superior versions of semi-autonomous tech, but if you can get a similar system that's within eighty-percent as good in something that falls in the high $30,000 range, something's gotta give.

Again, none of this is limited specifically to the Camry, nor is this a fresh revelation, but keep this in mind next time you weigh the pros and cons of deciding between that nicely optioned Sonata and that stripper Audi A4. Back in the cosseting, creamy, tour-de-memory-foam embrace of the LS, skepticism about the value of the extra $70,000 washed away, but not without leaving behind a residual tinge of ridiculousness about the whole affair.

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid: Driving Deal

Elsewhere, the 2021 Camry continued to impress. The ride was on the cushier side of neutral, with excellent bump isolation and a nice, fat tire sidewall to soak up the worst of LA's road granularity. The hybridized 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder was predictably inoffensive and wholly unremarkable, but the combined 208 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque pulled admirably hard and squealed the eco-rubber up front when goosed from a stop. Not that it particularly matters, but the 0-60-mph sprint is handled somewhere in the high seven-second range, or far quicker than any regular day-to-day driving necessitates. What does matter is the 2021 Camry Hybrid's 44-mpg city and 47-mpg highway ratings, which mean you can have all this egalitarian finery and still pinch pennies between fill-ups.

If theoretically pitting a Camry Hybrid against the Lexus LS 500 wasn't absurd enough for you, let's push this beyond the pale. Toward the end of my time with the Camry, a friend and industry professional visited his old stomping grounds here in Los Angeles while on a business trip, and sourced a loaner 2020 Jaguar F-Type R for a very loud and very quick in-town commuter. Of course, coffee and a cruise through the Malibu hills was in order, and the suburbia-spec Camry was my only option. After a cup of extortionately priced—but very good—oat milk mocha, the Camry quietly buzzed up the coast behind the raucous Jag, down some 370 horsepower, four cylinders, one supercharger, and eight metric-tons of panache.

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid: Better Than Expected

More surprises awaited once we turned off PCH and charged into the canyons. Don't worry, no crazy hyperbole involving drifts, trail-braking, or apexing; the Camry was well out of its depth both in environment and when compared to the pace car, but not as much as I've come to expect of regular midsize sedans. Most of the time, I'll take something wholly inappropriate into the canyons as a laugh, usually slagging the brakes within the first-quarter mile of moderate driving but, occasionally, appreciating rare moments of surprising capability.

While the Jag cut a languid pace between the dusty, rock-filled canyons, I screeched and shrieked through the tight passes on the cusp of adhesion, keeping off the brakes and onto the throttle as much as I possibly could without careening off a cliff or accordioning myself against a tree. For what the Camry Hybrid needs to be, and for the type of customer this is aimed at, it handled this abuse with stunning composure. Much of this praise falls on the shoulders of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform sitting underneath that creased Camry skin, a modular platform with fully independent suspension that's consistently proved to be one of the sharper sets of corporate bones.

Alongside TNGA's baseline athleticism, the XSE trim—now available on the Hybrid for the first time in 2021—adds a sportier tune to the shocks and springs, but don't expect these adjustments to push you onto pole position at your local autocross. The XSE isn't as comprehensively prepared for the fast stuff as is the Camry TRD, but I shot back out onto the smooth and arrow-straight PCH with unroasted brakes and unscratched paint; even my Jag-driving buddy offered unprompted praise for the Camry's surprising capability, or at least what he could glean from the comfort of his rear-view mirror.

I know this foray outside the Camry's comfort zone will likely do little to persuade enthusiasts to park their butts in a fleet of leased Camrys, but I hope it can at least convince more than a handful that with the arrival of the 2021 updates the Camry is officially three years removed from the penalty box groaner it once was.

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid Highlights

  • XSE package now available on the hybrid
  • Surprisingly high tech equipment available
  • Strong value compared to some luxury cars
  • Better than you'd expect dynamically
  • Definitely not a penalty box anymore

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid XSE Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2020
PRICE $33,715 (base)/$37,405 (as tested)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve inline-4 with permanent magnet synchronous motor/176 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 163 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm; electric motor adds 118 hp, 149 lb-ft; 208 hp combined
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable transmission
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE  44/47 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 192.7 x 72.4 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 111.2 in
WEIGHT 3,580 lb
0-60 MPH  7.3 sec (est. )