Toyota's redesigned Camry sedan arrived for 2012, and along with it - or actually, a few months later - came the also-reworked gasoline-electric hybrid version.
The car's Hybrid Synergy Drive system has been tweaked to give it 30 percent better fuel economy than that of its predecessor, with new EPA ratings of 43 mpg city/39 highway for the base LE model ($25,990 plus $760 freight) and 40/38 for the uplevel XLE version ($27,500).
Those numbers are a considerable jump from the 2011 Camry Hybrid's ratings of 31 city/35 highway. Toyota also lowered the base price for the car by just over $1,000 for the LE and $700 for the XLE.
The starting price is only slightly above those of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid ($25,795) and Kia Optima Hybrid ($25,700), and well below the Ford Fusion Hybrid ($28,775).
The Fusion, Sonata and Optima don't have combined city/highway EPA ratings as high as the Camry LE's, which is 41 mpg. The Fusion is the closest, at 39 mpg, followed by the Sonata and Optima, at 37. The Kia and Hyundai, which share their drive systems, have a lower city rating than the others, 35 mpg, but a higher highway rating than the Camry and Fusion, 40 mpg.
Also competing with the Camry Hybrid are the Volkswagen Passat diesel models, which have EPA ratings of 30 city/40 highway/34 combined. Prices begin at $25,995 for the Passat TDI with a manual transmission and $27,895 with an automatic.
General Motors has no full hybrids in the sedan segment, but there are three cars with the company's new eAssist mild-hybrid system that compete against the Camry Hybrid. They are the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco ($25,235, 25 city/37 highway/29 combined), 2012 Buick Regal ($29,055, 25/36/29) and Buick LaCrosse ($30,170, 25/36/29).
Also coming is a hybrid version of the redesigned 2013 Toyota Avalon, which is a full-size, stretched version of the Camry. No prices have been announced yet for that vehicle, but it will have the same drive system as the Camry Hybrid, with EPA ratings of 40 city/39 highway.
The auto editors at Consumer Reports, whose opinions don't always agree with mine, have chosen the Camry Hybrid at the best midsize sedan for 2012. After a week in this vehicle, I really can't argue with their choice, although there are some excellent competitors in this class.
My test of the Camry came back to back with a test of the Optima Hybrid, and the Toyota wins that matchup, but just barely. While the Optima is an excellent choice in this segment, the Camry has the edge in city fuel economy, and it drives a bit more smoothly, as well. Styling is a toss-up between the two, but the Camry has better accommodations for the rear-seat passengers.
Of course, true hybrid fans will surely point out that Toyota's own groundbreaking Prius, with EPA ratings of 51/48/50 and a starting price of $24,000, is still the champ. But the Prius has less interior space (9 cubic feet) than the Camry Hybrid, and has a rear hatch rather than a conventional trunk. It also has a strange look, with a rear-end design seemingly borrowed from the long-departed Pontiac Aztek.
With the redesign, the Camry Hybrid comes with EV mode, which allows the driver to force it to operate on the electric motor alone for up to one mile at speeds below 25 mph.
It also has an Eco mode, which helps the driver maximize fuel efficiency by limiting jackrabbit starts and holding down the air conditioning.
The base LE model comes with a long list of standard equipment, such as 10 air bags, projector-beam headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless entry and pushbutton start, steering wheel audio controls, metallic tech-grained interior trim, and tone-on-tone fabric seats.
With the XLE model, which we tested, you'll also get the new 6.1-inch audio touch-screen system with phone-book access and Bluetooth music streaming, along with 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lights with chrome trim.
Our vehicle came with the optional Display Audio/Navigation/Entune package ($1,050), which included CD player with MP3 playback, USB and auxiliary inputs, six speakers, HD and satellite radio, and Bluetooth phone connection with advanced voice recognition.
Also included were the Convenience Package ($695), which added a backup camera, theft alarm and universal garage opener; the power tilt/slide moon roof ($915); and a carpet and trunk-mat set ($225).
Total sticker price was $31,045, including freight and options.
Other available options for the XLE include a premium JBL audio system, with a 7-inch split screen; blind-spot monitoring; and leather seats (heated in front).
My tester came with an attractive Clearwater Blue Metallic exterior, and light gray cloth seats with darker gray inserts.
There is room for up to five passengers, but when only two are riding in the rear they can use the pull-down center armrest with cupholders. Our rear passengers - 14-year-old twins - had no complaints about their comfort, and they reported plenty of legroom.
The front bucket seats were likewise quite comfortable, with an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat.
The combination of the 2.5-liter gasoline engine, with 156 horsepower and 156 foot-pounds of torque, and the electric motor give the Camry Hybrid a total of 200 horsepower. With the electric motor boosting the engine on startup and when passing or merging onto the highway, the car has the feel of a V-6.
Electric power steering is standard, and is surprisingly tight and responsive. The ride is cushy, but the suspension strong enough to aid in tight turns.
Included is Toyota's Star Safety System, which brings electronic stability control with traction control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, and the Smart Stop technology, which shuts off the electronic throttle when the brakes are applied.
Toyota has reduced cabin noise significantly by adding sound-absorbing materials, acoustic glass, and insulating foam in the roof and door pillars.
Prices for gasoline-only Camry models for 2012 begin at $22,055 for the L model with a 178-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and range as high as $30,115 for the XLE V-6 model, which has 268 horsepower.
2012 TOYOTA CAMRY HYBRID SEDAN
The package: Midsize, four-door, five-passenger, front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder gasoline/electric hybrid sedan.
Highlights: The hybrid version of the nation's best-selling vehicle was introduced in its latest generation for 2012, with better fuel economy than its predecessor, and a starting price that is affordable for many non-premium new-car buyers.
Negatives: Trunk space is less than in many midsize sedans.
Base prices: $25,990 (LE); $27,500 (XLE), plus freight.
Price as tested: $31,045, including freight and options (XLE).
On the Road rating: 9.3 (of a possible 10).
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