By Steve & Tamami Laser
When Americans aren’t buying crossovers or pickups, they’re putting their hard-earned cash on the hoods of midsize sedans. And the top-selling car in the class remains the Toyota Camry. Last year Toyota chalked up 428,606 Camry sales in the U.S. topping the second-place Honda Accord at 388,374 units.
For 2015 Toyota gives the Camry a major mid-cycle refresh. According to the automaker, every body panel is new except the roof. That’s a pretty speedy update considering the seventh-generation Camry was introduced just three years ago.
Toyota offers a wide array of Camry models with LE, XLE, sporty SE and top XSE trims. There’s a choice of a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine or a 3.5-liter V6 driving the front wheels via a standard 6-speed automatic transmission. Toyota’s hybrid system is also available in Camry Hybrid LE, SE and XLE editions.
The most noticeable change on the outside is up front where the Camry wears a sporty new face with an aggressively styled grille flanked by sleek new headlights. LED low- and high-beams with static auto-leveling are available along with integrated LED Daytime Running Lights. New taillights that wrap around the corners are connected with a wide chrome molding.
We decided to test the Camry Hybrid SE to see how the fuel-stingy powertrain teams up with the promise of increased sporting potential. Toyota’s Hybrid system is so popular, with more than 8 million total sales worldwide, that it almost needs no introduction. Yet we’ll go ahead and talk about the key points for those who may be considering the switch to hybrid power for the first time.
Toyota’s system delivers remarkably seamless performance. Through a special transaxle, Hybrid Synergy Drive combines output from a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder engine and a small high-torque electric motor for a combined output of 200 horsepower. Toyota quotes 7.6-second 0-to-60 acceleration placing it midpack between the non-hybrid gas 4-cylinder and V6 engines.
Regenerative braking converts the electric motor to a generator that captures kinetic energy when the brakes are applied, storing it in the hybrid battery pack. Hillstart assist control is a handy feature that helps to prevent the car from rolling backward when starting off on a steep hill and the driver releases the brake pedal.
Driver-selectable modes are designed to help squeeze the most out of every gallon of gas. The ECO mode optimizes throttle response and air conditioning output to help prioritize fuel economy. Selecting EV mode allows the Camry to run on the electric motor alone for up to 1.6 miles at speeds below approximately 25 mph. For example, we made it from our house to the grocery store without using a drop of gas.
The base Camry Hybrid LE carries an EPA estimated rating of 43 mpg city, 39 highway and 41 combined. With its sportier attitude, our SE test car is rated at 40/38/40. We drove about 200 miles during our week-long test on a variety of roads including freeways, highways, city streets and country lanes. Before returning the car to Toyota, we filled up the tank with regular unleaded giving us an impressive 40 mpg for the week.
We didn’t use fancy driving tricks like excessive coasting or keeping the car in the ECO mode all the time. We kept our eyes on the Eco gauge located on the left side of the instrument cluster where a tachometer normally would live. The key to achieving the best fuel economy is to drive the car smoothly without pressing too hard on the accelerator pedal. The ECO mode showed us how to do this by making the gas pedal feel “stiffer,” yet we turned it off and just pretended that there was a “raw egg” between our foot and the pedal. We monitored our progress by trying to keep the needle in the green “Eco” section of the gauge instead of the “Power” section.
Ride and handling was improved compared to Camrys that we’ve driven in the past. Camry SE Hybrid features sporty suspension tuning, a unique stabilizer bar, shock absorber valve structure, and control arm bushings. Toyota says that the vehicle stability control has been retuned for smoother intervention and a more natural driving feel. A piano-black mesh lower grille, dark chrome coating on the headlight moldings, 17-inch alloy wheels with graphite finish, a color-keyed rear spoiler, and chrome-tip exhaust are also part of the SE’s enhancements.
On the inside, Camry gains upgraded materials plus new seat coverings that range from premium fabric to leather and Ultrasuede with high-contrast French stitching. Satin chrome trim adorns the cabin for a more upscale appearance. The redesigned center stack looks better integrated with the interior while the center console gains increased storage plus an available wireless charger for compatible smartphones.
Our test car was fitted with a standard 8-way power driver’s seat, leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio and Bluetooth controls, backup camera, redesigned TFT multi-information display, smart key with push-button start, and dual-zone climate control. With a base price of $27,995, our SE tester added Entune Premium Audio with navigation and App suite including the Entune multimedia bundle with a 7-inch touchscreen display.
Six speakers, USB 2.0 port with iPod connectivity, advanced voice recognition, HD Radio, predictive traffic and Doppler weather overlay, AM/FM Cache Radio and SiriusXM with three-month complimentary trial are included. A power moonroof, wireless phone charging and floor mats brought the bottom line to $31,335.
All the changes to the Camry this year enhance its already broad appeal. If you’re in the market for a midsize car, be sure to put this revamped best-seller on your shopping list. We also recommend the Camry Hybrid, especially for first-time hybrid buyers. It’s easy to drive, the SE model adds a dash of sport to the game, and its fuel-stingy character provides a hedge against rising gas prices.
Camry Hybrid SE press fleet vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. (Prices and vehicle information applies to models sold in the U.S. at the time of publication. All information including prices, features and specifications is subject to change without notice by the automaker.)
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