Friday, March 23, 2012

Latest Camry, hybrid included, remains a winner

Sacramento, California – Time to pay attention, I thought. After all, this was a new hybrid version of a seventh-generation Toyota Camry, a model with a lifetime unit sales record akin to The Beatles.

Walking up to my ride, a 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE sedan, I strained to find exterior changes from the previous generation. The changes I spotted were small and subtle, at best.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Remember back in 1995, when Ford opted to introduce a restyled, seriously swoopy, second-generation version of its monster-selling Taurus, and people ran away from it like it was disco?

So, Toyota got one thing right straight away: Don’t mess with a good thing that’s been filling the automaker’s coffers for many years.

Inside Camry, changes have produced a roomier interior, but the layout remains simple and to-the-point. Everything is within reach, is easily understood and works well. More positives, to be sure.

Power for the tester came from a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. At speeds below about 25 miles per hour, the electric system can move the Camry on its own. Working in tandem, the powertrain systems do an advertised 40 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.

On the move, the Camry Hybrid was extraordinarily smooth and quiet, and responsive too. The electronic continuously variable transmission functioned flawlessly. Steering was pleasantly firm, enabling the Camry to turn and cut with easy agility.

And this latest-generation Camry is loaded up with the kind of standard perks that have long made it so popular among motorists seeking affordable, practical transportation.

The short list includes dual-zone climate control, an eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat, 10 air bags and folding/heated/power exterior mirrors. Even on a standard feature-loaded XLE hybrid, the starting price is an easy-to-take $27,400.

For the record, my tester was dressed up with an obscene number of extras that brought the bottom line to nearly $35,000. So for those of you who want a Camry with a Toyota Avalon level of luxury, it can indeed be had.

Surprise of the test: Trunk space that looked way bigger than the advertised 15.4 cubic feet. If you’re thinking of renting a 2012 Camry on the road, it’s worth remembering that it will easily tote the baggage of a family of four … not always a given in the midsize sedan segment.

All in all, the Toyota Camry -- even in hybrid form -- retains everything that has established its universal popularity, and added things that, in my view, will only enhance that popularity.

A very good car gets even better for 2012. No need to hold your applause.

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