2020 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE

Making a great case for hybrids.

Occasionally I’m tasked with choosing a vehicle to review for a specific mission. Towing a trailer is an example where Toyota’s Tundra pickup would win over a Yaris subcompact. This time my mission was to transport four adults including luggage, plus a wheelchair and walker for my 95-year-old mother-in-law, on a 220-mile journey to a family gathering. The specifications I wanted were ease of ingress and egress along with comfort on the road. And fuel efficiency would be a nice bonus.

A Spacious Surprise

I’ve driven most every hybrid vehicle, beginning with the original 1997 Toyota Prius, a right-hand-drive prototype from the home market. The Prius has become quite space efficient over time, but most other models that accommodated a hybrid battery package gave up a fair amount of storage space. So imagine my surprise when all our possessions, including granny’s chair and walker, fit nicely in the trunk. Mind you, there wasn’t room left for a coin purse, but the lid closed without complaint.

I have no idea where Toyota engineers managed to hide the batteries, but there was no evidence inside the nicely appointed cabin of their intrusion. All four adults were pampered with the XLE model’s soft leather with quilted inserts, the offering usually reserved for luxury labels. And the Camry’s new interior is contemporary and stylish without losing function.

Long Legs

Most hybrid vehicles tend to achieve their highest fuel economy in the city driving cycle where the gas engine shuts off frequently. The new Camry Hybrid begins with an excellent 44 MPG city, then follows with a 47 MPG highway for a combined rating of 46 MPG. That’s remarkable for a large mid-size sedan but if you want even more, sacrifice the luxury trim levels for the basic LE model, shedding a few pounds and donning skinnier tires, the EPA fuel economy leaps to 52 MPG combined. But I was perfectly happy to sacrifice a few MPGs for the XLE’s comfort and handling, and the 620-mile range from 13.2-gallons of fuel was easy on my wallet and our planet.

While some automakers are plunging into pure battery electric vehicles, responding to a combination of Tesla’s marketing success and government regulations, Toyota is taking a more measured approach. Despite the hype, pure EVs are just one-percent of the new car market and while 20% of new car buyers will consider pure electric, the $70,000 median cost, recharging and range limitations are obstacles. In my nearly 500-mile journey, an EV would have taken recharge planning, and if lucky, would not become a real hassle.

Driving Excitement?

A few years ago, Toyota chief Akio Toyoda declared that all the company’s vehicles would add more enthusiasm to their performance and handling characteristics. The hybrid models were not exempt from this injection of enthusiasm. Don’t get me wrong, the CVT gearbox and software written for the Camry’s remarkable economy will not cause anyone to think “sports sedan”. If that’s what you want, the new Camry TRD model is the right choice. But you’ll get just half the fuel economy for that pleasure. And the Tesla may be even quicker, but it’s twice the money and half the range of our test car. Perhaps that’s why Camry is still the leading car in its class.

THE FINE PRINT

2020 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE

TYPE:  Gas/Electric Hybrid 

ENGINE:  2.5-liter I-4

HORSEPOWER:  176 @ 5,700 RPM

TORQUE:  162 lb.ft. @ 5,200 RPM

ELECTRIC MOTOR: 88 kW

BASE PRICE: $32,550

AS TESTED:  $39,819

FUEL CONSUMPTION:  44-city, 47-highway, 46-combined