Road test: 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE

We’re now entering our second decade of the modern gasoline-electric hybrid car era. And despite the price of fuel at the pumps nearly doubling in that time and automakers from Audi to Volkswagen offering all kinds of hybrids in all kinds of shapes and sizes, sales of new hybrid vehicles remain a speck on the Canadian new-car sales charts.

Within the few percentage points hybrid sales make up overall, Toyota still leads the way. You can thank its iconic Prius — including the original liftback and the new-this-year Prius V wagon and Prius C subcompact hatchback for that.

Beyond the Prius, Toyota’s more conventional Camry Hybrid family sedan — which, along with the rest of the gas-only models, received a thorough refresh for 2012 — is still popular for those looking for good fuel economy without advertising their tree-hugger status.

Beyond some updated styling in and out and small gains in interior room and trunk space, Toyota’s biggest improvement with the second-generation Camry Hybrid is it’s reason for being: fuel economy.

Transport Canada ratings have improved to 4.5 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 4.9 L/100 km on the highway from the last model’s 5.7-L/100-km rating it scored both in and out of town. During my week with the 2012 Camry Hybrid XLE, I saw a real-world rating of 5.8 L/100 km. As impressive as Toyota’s improvements are, though, know that the just-announced 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid scores even better — 4.0 L/100 km in the city and 4.1 L/100 km on the highway.

Toyota says the improvement in fuel economy hasn’t been at a loss in real-world get-up-and-go. The automaker increased the Camry Hybrid’s gas four-cylinder engine to 2.5 from 2.4 litres. Mated to the main electric motor (a second e-motor is used for the stop/start feature, among other duties), combined power goes up to 200 from 187 horsepower. The result is about a half-second drop in the Toyota’s zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour run, now just less than eight seconds — or about two seconds quicker than rival hybrid family sedans such as the new 2013 Ford Fusion and the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima twins.

While the top priority with hybrid sedan shoppers is saving fuel and not burning rubber, Toyota is saying the new Camry Hybrid is more of a driver’s car. But the changes are subtle.

With the goal to maintain a comfortable ride yet improve road handling, maneuvreability, braking and overall feedback to the driver, the 2012 Camry Hybrid isn’t the sensory deprivation chamber that was the previous model.

There’s a tad more feedback from the hybrid sedan’s electrical steering system. And the Toyota four-door doesn’t float as much over large road dips. But no one will mistake it for a BMW 3 Series. The characteristic from the CVT whenever you touch the gas and the jerky reactions from the regenerative braking system have not been removed entirely. At least the Camry Hybrid’s transitions between gas and electric modes are class leading in their subtlety.

As with any of these hybrid sedans, trunk space is compromised due to the extra hardware. Toyota shoved the hybrid’s battery pack forward to gain more trunk space over the older model. But the 2012 Camry Hybrid’s trunk is down 70 litres from the gas version, to 370.

And while the gas version gets a 60/40-split fold-down rear seat, the hybrid gets what amounts to a small pass-through. If that’s not practical enough for your family car hauling needs, know that both the Prius liftback and larger V wagon have more trunk space than any Camry sedan.

Impressive fuel economy ratings aside, informed new-car buyers know premium hybrid pricing pretty much negates any savings in fuel costs. But Toyota’s aggressive pricing strategy for the 2012 Camry Hybrid means the price gap is closing.

Yes, a base 2012 Camry LE gas-engine model (that’s rated at 8.2 L/100 km city and 5.6 L/100 km highway) starts at $23,700. But the starter Camry Hybrid LE is now only $26,990. Not only is that about $2,000 less than the next least expensive Sonata Hybrid, it’s about $5,000 less than an admittedly better-equipped 2011 Camry Hybrid.

As per usual, my $28,990 Camry Hybrid XLE tester had all the available bells and whistles. The “XLE” letters added items such as hands-free phone capability, larger alloy wheels, a power-adjustable driver’s seat and leather trim. And $5,520 worth of Leather and Audio packages (highlighted by an upgraded 10-speaker sound system, heated leather seats, power sunroof and a navigation system with a backup rear camera) brought the total of my tester to $34,510.

So much for saving money.

But if you can make do with the base model, the improvements to the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid are noteworthy. They aren’t significant to make double or triple sales overnight. But Toyota Canada’s price reductions do make the hybrid a more serious challenger to the gas models for value.

Type of vehicle Front-wheel-drive mid-sized sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC four-cylinder gas engine plus electric motor
Power 225 hp
Transmission Continuously variable automatic
Brakes Four-wheel disc with ABS
Tires P205/65R16
Price: base/as tested $28,990/$34,510
Destination charge $1,565
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km
4.5 city, 4.9 hwy, 5.8 as tested

Standard features 17-inch alloy wheels, vehicle stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, hill-start assist, dual-zone climate automatic control, Bluetooth capability, AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA player/audio auxiliary jack/USB input, multi-information display, driver and front passenger knee air bags, front and rear side curtains, active headrests, tilt and telescoping steering wheel/audio controls, Smart Key system with push button start, eight-way power adjustable driver seat, fog lamps

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Photograph by: John LeBlanc, for National Post