Ads touting fuel economy in the upper 30s or even 40 miles per gallon are commonplace today. Nearly every sedan midsize and smaller reaches these numbers.
But if you drive in the right conditions, you might be a good candidate for a hybrid – the type of car whose gas engine is complemented by an electric motor. Most cars are marketed for their highway mileage, but hybrids’ low-speed electric assistance helps them typically do far better than their gas-only counterparts in the city.
Toyota’s iconic Prius defines the hybrid segment, but alternatives abound for buyers seeking more space and luxury than that compact model can provide. Several popular midsize family sedans are also sold as hybrids: the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima twins, and the tested Toyota Camry.
Of those, the Camry is the best-seller. It’s understandable enough – the gas-only Camry has been hugely popular for decades, and the Prius also established Toyota’s hybrid cred. To see if the Camry Hybrid is thriving based on more than reputation, this reviewer spent a week in the newly overhauled 2015 model.
The most important thing that the 2015 Camry Hybrid did well was sip fuel. The tested SE model averaged 38.4 miles per gallon in mixed driving, in cold weather that tends to be harder on hybrids. That’s in line with its EPA ratings of 40 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. It also benefits from the new styling, upgraded interior, and improved driving dynamics that graced all 2015 Camry models, as well as the longstanding virtue of a spacious interior.
That said, the Camry Hybrid doesn’t feel as fancy as most competing midsize sedans. The interior is neither as elegant nor as plush as other cars in this price range – especially once you’ve added the costly hybrid innards that push the tested car to nearly $33,000. A comfortable but pedestrian feel pervades much of the experience.
Furthermore, although real-world results have varied, the Camry Hybrid’s EPA fuel economy ratings are trumped by the gas-electric Fusion and Accord. This reviewer hasn’t been able to sample those models, but the Sonata/Optima – despite lower EPA ratings – demonstrated the advantage of switching into electric-only mode even on the highway. (A redesigned 2016 Sonata Hybrid hits the market later this year with Camry-beating ratings, especially on the highway.)
Of course, when all these models are getting gas mileage in the 40s, the difference in fuel used is relatively small. It’s perhaps best to choose among these midsize hybrids based on other considerations:
The Camry Hybrid has the best blend of value and interior space, but it feels the least like a premium car. The Fusion Hybrid feels the sportiest and the most upscale, also at competitive prices, but it doesn’t have an especially roomy interior or a user-friendly dashboard. The Accord Hybrid is thoroughly pleasant, very spacious, and decently upscale, but it’s the most expensive. The Sonata/Optima, at least pre-redesign, is generally average across all these metrics, while lacking a price advantage over more modern, more fuel-efficient competitors, but is a suitable contender if the others are eliminated for other reasons.
Note also that unlike nearly every competitor, there is no plug-in hybrid version of the Camry. A plug-in includes a larger battery that can power a car all-electric for 20 miles or so, which you recharge with a wall outlet rather than by running the gas engine. (There is no plug-in Sonata/Optima Hybrid either, but a 2016 Sonata plug-in goes on sale this coming fall.)
As noted earlier, the tested Camry Hybrid SE returned an observed 38.4 miles per gallon, measured manually during a fill-up. (Incidentally, in-dash trip computers often inflate a car’s mileage, but the Camry’s was spot on based on this test.)
That figure results from a mix of driving conditions, but during most of it this reviewer was driving the car carefully to maximize its fuel economy. That goes beyond ordinary gentle driving that benefits all cars, but also includes careful attention to keeping the gasoline engine off. A dial next to the speedometer tells you roughly how hard you can push on the accelerator while only using electric power; you can also summon a bit of extra low-speed electric acceleration using the center console’s “EV Mode” selector.
This reviewer conducted a not-quite-scientific test run of an approximately 23-mile commute. It’s a mix of exurban and suburban thoroughfares with speed limits mostly in the 40s; a short stretch of interstate; and then lower-speed inner-suburb and city conditions.
The first run included almost fanatical attention to the car’s hybrid components and yielded 45.5 mpg per the trip computer. Note that it can even be enjoyable to coax out the best mileage, and if you can relate you’re a great candidate for a hybrid.
The second time, this reviewer drove the Camry Hybrid with studious inattention; it wasn’t flogged hard, but there were no glances at its eco gauge, no feathering the throttle, no application of EV Mode. The result: 40.1 mpg, which is still respectable but represents a difference of over 13%. This run was also further helped by congestion on the interstate portion of the route (it flowed freely the first time), as the Camry Hybrid does better in heavy traffic than at highway speeds whether you’re paying attention or not.
Highway driving, though, doesn’t give you anything that you wouldn’t get from a regular car. The Hybrid beats the gas-only Camry by 3 mpg in the EPA’s highway rating (courtesy of lower-speed portions of the EPA test cycle), but at actual freeway speeds there’s no apparent advantage. You don’t get an electric-only mode beyond about 45 miles per hour. Choose it carefully based on your commute, and note the extra bonus you get from your driving style.
And if you have a lead foot, forget about it – the Camry Hybrid does have plenty of power, but if you’re constantly using that power, you won’t recoup the extra $4,000 or so it costs over the conventional gas model. A hybrid’s fuel efficiency comes from minimizing use of the gas engine so the electric components can do as much of the work as possible. In the Camry and its competitors, putting your foot down shifts nearly all the work to the engine.
All in all, the tested car’s best environments were cruising at a steady 40 mph on flat or downhill roads, and in stop-and-go driving that required only gentle acceleration, such as a congested freeway or a quiet urban neighborhood with a stop sign at every block. That’s when it could stay in all-electric mode for extended periods, the best benefit to gas mileage.
Note that the Camry Hybrid, like other hybrids that aren’t plug-ins, has a relatively small battery. So even in ideal conditions, the battery will eventually become depleted if it’s not recharged. The battery is charged by running the gas engine, as well as by friction from the brakes and turning of the wheels.
One niggle before moving on: The Camry Hybrid’s EV Mode shuts off at about 28 miles per hour, even though you can go all-electric for another 20 mph or so under the right driving conditions. But it stays off even after you reduce your speed again, so you have to manually activate it each time.
To look at
The Camry’s 2015 update is mostly cosmetic, but it renders the car unrecognizable compared to its 2012-2014 predecessor. The older car’s angular edginess is replaced by smoother, more flowing lines, plus a bigger grille, resulting in a look that’s more Lexus than Toyota.
The tested SE model, the Camry’s long-running sport version, is perhaps harder to distinguish from other Camrys, though. A lower portion of the grille is honeycomb plastic instead of long horizontal slats; the headlights are grayed out; and the alloy wheels have a different design. But past SEs had a more obviously different grille and more aggressive wheels. There is no cosmetic difference between the hybrids and gas-only Camrys except for the badges, including blue tinting around the Toyota logo.
One controversial styling element introduced to the 2015 Camry is a piece of shiny black plastic behind the rear side windows, ringed with the same chrome trim as the windows. It simulates an extended window, a low-cost way of revising the car’s windowline. Critics have called it tacky and cheap, but many buyers will no doubt find it unobjectionable.
The bigger reason Lexus dealers needn’t fear an exodus of customers to the low-cost division is the Camry’s interior. Though it’s a clear upgrade in design and materials from last year’s model, the 2015 Camry is simple and rather plain. The instrument panel has large buttons with large fonts – it’s user-friendly, but function clearly trumps the form that a luxury buyer tends to seek.
The clean design probably won’t win many enemies, at least, and many buyers will find it a welcome departure from some fussy competitors. And after the disappointing ergonomic mess of the Toyota Highlander, it’s a relief that Toyota kept the Camry simple and functional. They share Toyota’s Entune infotainment system, but the Camry’s screen is more accessible and has better physical buttons and knobs around it.
To be in
The unpretentious look of the Camry’s dashboard is also reflected in the interior’s humdrum materials and assembly quality. Most trim looks and feels fine – not great, not terrible. The revised center stack eliminates two large pieces of cheap plastic that plagued last year’s model.
There are some elements of cheapness. The shifter still moves clunkily, though it’s now cloaked in an attractive stitched leather boot. The volume and tuning knobs are a little wobbly. The doors don’t close with a solid thunk, and the back doors can even bounce back shut if they’re opened with any enthusiasm.
The Camry does impress for comfort. The front seats are big, spacious, and supportive. The tested car has cloth seats, eyebrow-raising for $33,000, but the material isn’t bad. Drivers have very good visibility.
In the back, the rear seat cushion is comfortable and supportive, and wide enough for three adults with minimal fuss. There’s not as much stretch-out leg and knee clearance as in a Honda Accord, though.
All hybrid sedans give up some trunk space to make room for the battery, and the Camry is no different. Volume drops from 15.4 cubic feet to 13.1, which is more in line with a Corolla’s volume. That’s still more space, though, than a hybrid Accord (12.7 cubic feet), Fusion (12.0), or Sonata/Optima (10.8).
Annoyingly, the Camry doesn’t include an interior pull for the trunk. This leaves you pushing down on the exterior of the lid, which is a plastic spoiler on the tested SE.
Set aside the hybrid technology and drive the Camry Hybrid normally, and you can easily forget that the electric components are there most of the time. The Camry is pleasant to drive, with improved ride and handling composure and decent noise suppression.
While it’s more composed, though, don’t expect it to be sporty, even in SE guise. The steering points the Camry in the right direction without communicating much to the driver, and there’s no eagerness as the car approaches its handling limits. Some cars come alive the harder you drive them; the Camry tells drivers to slow down.
Enthusiasts have abhorred some past Camry models for clumsy handling; the updated 2015 model isn’t clumsy, just not lively. The SE is tuned for slightly better handling than other Camrys, but it’s still a comfort-focused machine.
Accordingly, a more important 2015 upgrade is to the ride quality, a former Camry specialty that had dwindled to mediocrity in the 2012-2014 car. The latest Camry handles bumps nicely without an overly soft suspension, which would be prone to excessive motions.
The Camry doesn’t feel especially solid, though, even compared to some compact cars. Toyota kept it light to the benefit of power and fuel economy, but the comparatively robust feel of a Fusion or Accord makes them feel more secure and upscale. That’s not to suggest it’s not safe – indeed, after an embarrassing crash test failure in the 2012-2014 model, the 2014.5 and 2015 Camry have earned high safety ratings. It’s just a matter of how the car feels, especially on the highway.
As noted earlier, the Camry Hybrid has plenty of power if you choose to use it. The ordinary car’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine joins a small electric motor for a combined 200 horsepower, run through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). This gives the car more thrust than a gas-only model would have, and the Camry’s relatively light weight helps it further.
As in other hybrids, the brakes in this Camry recapture energy to recharge the battery, which gives them an unnatural feel when you brake hard. Try to save hard slams for panic situations, though, as slower, gentler braking will give you more battery charge and feel more like other cars.
The Camry Hybrid starts at $26,790, with the tested SE close behind it – with mostly cosmetic differences – at $27,995. The tested model added $1,300 for a navigation system package, $915 for a sunroof, $359 for a security system, $75 for a wireless cellphone charging tray, $299 for illuminated door sills (lights that read “CAMRY” on the sill), $395 for “clear protective film,” $499 for a remote-start system, and $325 for all-season floormats. Throw in the $825 destination charge, and the total sticker price comes to $32,987.
Trim some of the fat, though, and enjoy the standard features: a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, a proximity key, 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, and a power driver’s seat.
The Camry Hybrid is also sold in the XLE trim, from $29,890, which adds heated leather seats. The XLE is also available with such advanced safety features as blind-spot monitoring, radar cruise control with pre-collision emergency braking, a rear cross-traffic alert, and a lane-departure warning. Those features come bundled with the sunroof and navigation system for $35,395.
You can expect to haggle about $3,500 off the price of a well-equipped Camry Hybrid, according to Truecar.com.
This reviewer hasn’t always loved the Camry. An XLE model ended up in last place of 10 cars a couple of years ago. But 2015’s improvements to safety, ergonomics, interior quality, and driving dynamics make it far more successful as the straightforward transportation appliance that it has long tried to be – pleasant, comfortable, and practical; unexciting but unobjectionable.
If that combination is to your tastes – rather than the greater levels of sportiness or luxury found in some competitors – the Camry could once more be a good choice for you.
Meanwhile, the tested hybrid version does a great job at saving fuel under the right conditions. Note that with the wrong commute or the wrong temperament, though, you won’t get that much out of the Camry Hybrid to justify the higher purchase price.
More photos of the 2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid SE
Comparison review: 10 midsize sedans
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius plug-in
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius v Three
Review: 2014 Toyota Highlander XLE
Review: 10 compact sedans
All Cars Examiner reviews
Vehicle tested: 2015 Toyota Camry
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $22,970
Version tested: Hybrid SE
Version base price (MSRP): $27,995
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $32,987
Estimated transaction price as tested*: $29,254
Test vehicle provided by: Toyota Motor Sales USA
Length: 190.9 inches
Width: 71.7 inches
Height: 57.9 inches
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Weight: 3,565 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.1 cubic feet
Turning circle: 39.2 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.5-liter I4 with electric motor
Transmission (as tested): CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 40 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 38 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 40 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 38.4 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 17.0 gallons
Assembly location: Kentucky
For more information: Toyota website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.