Friday, June 18, 2010

Camry hybrid: Green looks great

From Calgary Herald

Camry hybrid: Green looks great

By Brian Harper, Canwest News Service June 18, 2010

If the increasing numbers of hybrid and electric vehicle introductions at the major international auto shows are any indication, on top of the announced timetable for the reduction of tailpipe emissions by the U.S. and Canada, it is conceivable to imagine a time -- maybe in a generation or two -- when the purely gasoline-powered automobile becomes a distinct minority on dealership lots.

As a dedicated car guy, I have conflicting thoughts on this possible scenario. The panicky side views this as a dystopian nightmare, providing the excuse to drive every 500-plus-horsepower sports car, sports coupe and sport ute I can get my hands on before they disappear like dinosaurs. The more rational side views hybrids as a necessary evolution of personal transportation.

Helping lower my reluctance threshold is Toyota's Camry Hybrid, the very definition of the word non-threatening. Unlike the Prius or Honda's Insight, there's nothing overtly strange or exotic about the green Camry on first impression. Except for a couple of discreet badges advertising its alternative powertrain, it looks like any other Camry. This is no hardship -- Toyota's stalwart family sedan is flat-out good looking (finally), the 2010 models seeing a new grille and front bumper.

The Camry Hybrid is powered by Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which the automaker calls the most proven gasoline-electric full hybrid system on the planet. Under the sedan's sheet metal is a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a high-torque electric motor/ generator and powerful storage battery that delivers the equivalent of up to 187 horsepower. Admittedly, that's not much more than the 169-h. p., 2.5-L gas-powered four that's found in the LE, SE and XLE models, but the beauty of the Synergy Drive system is its electric motor, which delivers maximum torque (199 ft.-lbs. from zero to 1,500 r.p.m.) instantly.

Under normal driving conditions, the car never lacked the power to accelerate to speed -- zero-to-100 kilometres an hour takes about 8.5 seconds -- the system allowing the gas engine and electric motor to work independently or together as needed.

For the first few seconds, the Hybrid is powered only by its electric motor. Then the four-cylinder kicks in to supplement the electric power to the wheels and to charge the battery. Unlike the HS 250h and Prius, which have weird, video game-like shifters on their upper dash panels, the Camry Hybrid has a familiar gear lever located in the centre console to activate the continuously variable transmission.

As for fuel economy, I averaged 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres during my week with the tester, a superior number for a 1,650-kilogram, five-passenger, mid-sized sedan, although not nearly as lofty as the 5.7 L/100 km combined highway/ city rating achieved by Transport Canada. If I used the Eco mode more -- which conserves fuel by reducing energy used by the heating/ air conditioning system -- I could probably do better.

The car's regenerative braking system is the one area that needs work. When decelerating or braking, the gas engine shuts off and resistance from the braking system provides energy to charge the battery. As with a number of hybrids I've driven over the years, it's more difficult to modulate the brakes to get a smooth stop -- initial pedal feel seems soft, then suddenly very grabby.

At $31,310 for the 2011 model, the Camry Hybrid is by no means outrageously priced.

Whether the car will pay for its technology through fuel savings is doubtful. But it does serve to prove that being kinder to the environment doesn't require any huge sacrifice.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald


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