2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid First Drive

The 2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid gets near-Prius-level fuel economy, and the trim level with the best battery is the cheapest one.

Toyota’s replacement for its popular hybrid sedan – whose sales had been falling off this year – comes along with the thorough overhaul of its entire Camry line. After years of cars that were reliable, efficient, and perceived by some to be boring, Toyota wants the new car to be reliable, efficient, and fun to drive. No, really. Toyota is selling the new car as being an emotional choice, not just a rational one. Chief Engineer Masato Katsumata called it “visceral.” A strong word for a family sedan.

The all-new car is the first to completely embrace Toyota’s new global architecture, or TNGA. The platform was first seen under the 2016 Prius, but the Camry is the first to use the new engines, transmissions, and double-wishbone rear suspension that make up the ethos of TNGA.

With the new Camry Hybrid comes a new hybrid system. This uses the new Toyota Hybrid System II, the successor to the Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The engine is a 2.5-liter inline four that has variable valve timing, runs on the Atkinson cycle, and has a near-diesel 14.0:1 compression ratio. It also uses a new super lightweight 0w16 grade oil that further reduces internal friction and losses. Toyota touts greater than 40-percent thermal efficiency for the new engine.

By itself, the gas engine generates 176 horsepower and produces 163 pound-feet of torque over a wide range from 3,600 to 5,200 rpm. The electric motor makes 188 horsepower and 149 pounds-feet, for a total system power of 208 horsepower.

Like the Prius, it uses either a 4.0 amp-hour, 259-volt lithium-ion or 6.5 Ah 245-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack, depending on trim. But where the Prius uses the li-ion battery on the more expensive Eco trim, the Camry puts the lithium battery on the base LE trim.

Toyota thinks that the people most concerned with fuel economy and value will be buying the base trim. The SE and XLE are more expensive and heavier, so eking out every last tenth of a mile per gallon isn’t the priority. Putting the lighter li-ion battery in what is already the lightest car makes a big impact on fuel economy.

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The Camry Hybrid LE has a Prius-beating EPA-rated 53 miles per gallon highway. The city number is impressive too, at 51, with 51 mpg combined. Sportier SE and luxury XLE models get 44 city, 47 highway, 44 combined. In my drive loop in an SE model, the computer reported 53 mpg on mostly rural highways. That was maintaining the speed limit, but not really trying to hypermile. Driving it like I wanted to empty the tank still achieved around 43 mpg.

Both battery packs are new, and smaller than before. Combined with the new platform, the packs go under the seat instead of in the trunk. The Camry hybrid has the same 15.1 cubic feet of trunk space as the gas-only car, and has a full-size opening when the rear seats are folded.

Toyota is offering the Camry Hybrid in the sporty SE trim, in addition to the LE and XLE luxury models. The SE is where I spent most of my day, and it’s nice to see a hybrid choice that has a sport trim available.

Unlike Camrys of the past, this SE really is sporty. It looks the part, with a new unique nose, 18-inch alloys, and vents on the rear. It also has a firmer suspension, one that actually makes this (as promised) a fun car to drive. The Camry is well damped, no longer floaty.

It will roll in corners, but it’s light-years ahead of the old one. In my admittedly short drive, I thought it felt better than the 2017 Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima hybrids. I’d put it in the same class as the Mazda6 for fun-to-drive.

The hybrid system is now completely seamless. The on/off of the gas engine is only noticeable at full throttle, and then only because you can hear it. The switch from regenerative to hydraulic braking is felt with a slightly more snug grab from the brakes, but it’s still smooth.

The electric motor can propel the car at higher speeds than before, and offers a great shove of torque for merging and passing. Feel of the CVT is greatly improved, and it responds quickly. It now offers one of the best CVT experiences on the market.

Toyota has also removed all of the strange noises the old Camry Hybrid made. No more symphony of whirrs, hums, and clicks while driving. It doesn’t make strange noises after you shut it off anymore either.

The LE and XLE trims offer a slightly softer ride, and a different nose, but still ride and handle well. The new Camry is stable, composed, and solid.

Inside, the interior is a massive improvement in design and materials from the last generation. The asymmetrical center stack may be polarizing to look at, but it’s well laid out and easy to use. Seats are comfortable, and despite the 1-inch lower roofline, there is still lots of space for passengers – even with the available panoramic roof.

The infotainment system uses Toyota’s newest Entune software. It doesn’t have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but Toyota says that’s to help protect user information and privacy. If demand is there, then Toyota can add those apps in later. At launch, it has Scout GPS, NPR, Slacker radio, and Yelp. It also has a new available Safety Connect system that gives emergency assistance much like GM’s OnStar system.

Toyota steps up the Camry in every way for 2018. It’s better to drive, better to look at, and better to use. Most importantly for hybrid buyers, it’s more efficient too. It’s a win for what has been the best-selling car in America for 15 consecutive years.

The 2018 Camry is on sale now. The hybrid starts at $28,685 for the LE, $30,385 for SE and $31,135 for the XLE model.

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