It’s hard to write the words “game-changer” without feeling like some marketing department flunky who’s just trying too hard. It might not be a hyperbolic cliché when applied to the 2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid, however.
Aside from purpose-built hybrids such as the Prius, getting a hybrid passenger car has always meant a significant trade-off in cargo volume. The first Toyota Camry Hybrid, for instance, lost almost half its trunk space to the drive battery, and forget about fold-down rear seats.
The first-generation Lexus GS hybrid was even worse, what with having to accommodate both the rear axle and a drive battery. A set of golf clubs? Perhaps. If you didn’t need to carry the bag, too.
For most passenger-car buyers, that sacrifice was simply too great. Sure, you got good fuel economy, but only if you never had to carry anything larger than a couple of sleeping bags. In a market segment where trunk space is a key consideration, such a sacrifice relegated these cars to niche status.
For 2018, a new platform for Camry and new battery technology for the Camry Hybrid — now located under the rear seat — mean the trunk space is identical between the gas and hybrid models at 427 litres. And you can fold down the rear seats on all models, too.
Camry Hybrid gets one of two battery technologies, depending on the model. The LE model gets a lithium-ion battery, while SE and XLE models get a new prime nickel-metal hydride battery, which runs at a slightly lower voltage but offers greater capacity. The lithium-ion cells deliver four amp-hour capacity, while the NiMH battery offers 6.5 amp-hours.
The new Camry Hybrid also warms up the cabin far quicker than one would expect in a car that only sporadically runs the gas engine. Like most hybrids, hitting “start” doesn’t start the gas engine immediately, but when it’s bitterly cold out, the car knows you want heat as soon as possible, so the gas engine comes to life a few seconds after.
Still, with only a 2.5-litre four-cylinder as the gas motor, logic suggests there’s just not enough thermal mass, nor enough combustion, to contribute to fast warmups.
Yet warm air starts flowing within minutes of starting out, something many Canadians associate only with V-6 or V-8 motors.
Some coolant-flow trickery helps, not only with warming up the cabin but also with warming up the engine and transmission to cut down the damage driving cold (or idling cold) can wreak. Coolant flows are optimized between the heater core, a warming unit for the automatic transmission fluid and the radiator using a combination of an electric coolant pump, electronic thermostat and shut-off valves.
Heating performance is further enhanced by a two-layer recirculation and fresh air inlet device that boosts both heating performance and fuel economy. Finally, hybrid models feature an electric heating element that helps warm the air, too.
All Camry models now come standard with heated front seats.
Toyota Safety Sense is standard across the Camry lineup, with pre-collision with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise, auto high beam and lane departure alert with steering assist. Unique to hybrid models is that dynamic cruise control is all-speed on all models. On gas models, dynamic cruise is limited to speeds over 40 km/h on some models, and operates at all speeds only on top-end models.
There was a time when the sacrifices of getting a hybrid meant fuel savings — and for some, vanity — were the only reasons to get a hybrid. For the 2018 Toyota Camry, with cargo space identical to gas models and improved handling thanks to the drive battery, fuel economy is just a bonus.
That bonus works out to a combined 4.9 (LE) or 5.1 (SE, XLE) litres per 100 kilometres. Factor in some bitter cold (it hit -29 a few days during my test) and some wheelspin, and my observed average of 6.1 is right in line with expectations.
With a starting price for hybrids lower than mid-grade gasoline models, price isn’t much of an object, either.
Game-changer? OK, that might be overused, even here. But there’s no question the 2018 Camry Hybrid might just be the tipping point towards normalizing hybrid and electric technology.