It's a question that 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid drivers are bound to hear ? and frankly, it's one we initially struggled with ourselves. After all, the Prius gets 12 more combined miles per gallon (46 versus 34) according to the EPA, and it boasts a more versatile hatchback layout while offering comparable passenger room. Its base price is also about $3,000 lower. And hey, [insert your favorite celebrity's name here] drives one.
But here's the thing about the Camry Hybrid that we kept coming back to: It's a real car. Unlike the Prius, it never gives you the sense that you're driving a science experiment. The Camry Hybrid is every bit a Camry, except it uses less gas. Make that a lot less gas ? the regular four-cylinder Camry only registers 25 combined mpg. At 12,000 miles a year, you'll be saving 127 gallons of gas per annum if you opt for the hybrid. That's going to add up over the years, particularly if recent trends in gas prices persist.
Less thirst usually means less performance, too, but we're learning to suspend our knee-jerk assumptions when hybrid technology is involved. The 187-horsepower Camry Hybrid scoots from zero to 60 in 8.3 seconds, which is about a half-second quicker than the base 158-hp model can manage. As for the 110-hp Prius, fuggedaboudit ? after some seat time in the Camry, it feels for all the world like an extremely sophisticated golf cart.
OK, so the Camry Hybrid isn't a perfect substitute for a regular Camry. That battery pack had to go somewhere, and Toyota opted to put it above the rear axle, which necessitated some space-eating protuberances in the trunk. The rear seatbacks do fold down, which helps mitigate the compromised cargo volume (10.6 cubic feet versus 15 for the non-hybrid Camry). But if you plan to haul a lot of stuff in your hybrid, the Prius' hatchback design and flat loading floor make it a far better pack mule. Even Nissan's Altima Hybrid, which shares Toyota's hybrid technology, sports a somewhat more usable trunk.
Miles-per-gallon mavens will no doubt keep flocking to the incomparable Prius. Nonetheless, the 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid makes a compelling case for itself as an alternative to conventional gas-powered family sedans. It's nearly 27 percent more frugal than a normal four-cylinder Camry and out-hustles it as well. That's a lot of automotive virtue, especially at a base price under $26K.
The front-wheel-drive 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid is motivated by a 147-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that works in tandem with a 40-hp electric motor, yielding a maximum of 187 hp. A specialized continuously variable transmission (CVT) is tasked with routing this power to the pavement. EPA fuel economy estimates stand at an excellent 33 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 34 mpg combined; we averaged 32.8 mpg over nearly 1,400 miles of mixed driving. Our California-spec test car's green credentials were further burnished by its status as an Advanced Technology Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicle ? the cleanest possible emissions rating for a gasoline-burning car.
The Camry's hybrid system is arguably the smoothest out there. Press the dashboard-mounted "Power" button and you'll hear nothing more than a barely audible hum as the electric motor springs to life. The gas engine doesn't turn on until you ask the car for more power than the electric motor can supply, and it turns itself off under light throttle applications and while you're coasting. It's possible to drive under electric power alone at speeds up to 30 mph, though in practice it's difficult to do so without holding up traffic.
When the gas engine wakes up, you hear it rather than feel it ? that's how seamlessly this powertrain operates. The only mild annoyance is when you're running solely on electric power and need a sudden burst of acceleration. There's a noticeable delay in such cases, as the dormant gas engine requires a couple beats to rouse itself. It's a bit like turbo lag ? you put your foot down, wait, wait a little longer...and then you're off.
We think that's a small price to pay given how much you're saving at the pump. Moreover, once that gas engine comes to life, the Camry Hybrid almost feels fast. Its 8.3-second 0-60-mph sprint doesn't tell the whole story, because this power plant isn't at its best off the line. Where it really shines is in passing situations on the highway, when both motors are working in tandem to reach the 187-hp maximum. We were surprised at how quickly the hybrid's speedometer needle swung rightward at higher speeds ? and at how firmly those 187 horses pressed us back into our seats.
Outside of the engine room, the hybrid drives like a Camry with a few hundred extra pounds of technology in the trunk. That means a forgiving ride, lifeless steering and secure but decidedly nautical handling. We're not really complaining ? the hybrid is a family sedan, and most buyers are bound to value comfort over dynamic sharpness. Less forgivable was our tester's disappointing 134-foot braking distance from 60 to zero mph, which is 12 feet longer than the 122-foot stop we recorded in a 2007 Camry LE. We suspect the low-rolling-resistance tires and added weight of the battery pack are collectively to blame.
Wind noise in our Camry Hybrid was minimal, and road noise was nicely quelled, though the Camry's sound insulation isn't quite Lexus-like. The driver seat has no lateral support to speak of, and its cushioning was a bit spongy for our tastes; the standard power lumbar support is pleasant, however, and the telescoping steering column makes life easier for the long of leg. Backseat accommodations are beyond reproach, with ample leg- and headroom for even our tallest staffers. Unlike the Prius, whose front seats in particular make our lower backs cringe, the Camry Hybrid delivers the seating comfort that midsize sedan buyers expect.
Toyota has had a lot of practice at ergonomics over the years, and it shows ? everything the driver needs in the Camry falls readily to hand. The hybrid features a fuel economy meter in place of the standard Camry's tachometer; like the rest of the gauges and readouts, it's clear and easily read at a glance. Stereo and climate controls are a model of simplicity. The standard six-speaker sound system is distortion-free but just adequate in terms of sound quality.
The 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid passed our real-world usability tests, but intrusive humps courtesy of the rear-mounted battery pack render the trunk less usable than a regular Camry. Our suitcase and golf bag fit fine; however, when one of our staffers put his golf bag in a hard-shell travel case and tried to squeeze it in, he succeeded, but only after considerable effort and without a millimeter to spare. That wouldn't happen in a non-hybrid Camry, and it's something that prospective buyers should keep in mind. There were no such problems installing our car seat, of course, as the rear seat is standard-issue Camry.
Design/Fit and Finish
For the most part, the current-generation Camry is innocuously styled, no more likely to offend than it is to excite. The interior has been criticized for lacking customary Camry quality, but we were pleased to find that our tester's dash top was encased in a rich-feeling soft-touch material. The unpadded door-mounted armrests are econocar-grade, though, and the plastics elsewhere on the dashboard and on the center stack do not impart a sense of quality. To Toyota's credit, panel gaps were fairly uniform, and we noticed no objectionable squeaks or rattles while behind the wheel.
Who should consider this vehicle
Consumers who want all the functionality and performance of a top-rated family sedan along with fuel economy that trumps that of even the most efficient gas-powered compacts. They'll have to pay for it, though. For reference, a four-cylinder Camry LE with an automatic transmission starts at $21,075, which is nearly $5,000 less than the Camry Hybrid's base price. However, it lacks the latter's standard keyless entry, dual-zone automatic climate control and eight-way power driver seat ? and of course its fuel economy can't compare.
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