By Nick Yost
Toyota’s hybrid-powered vehicles have become pretty commonplace since the Japanese manufacturer introduced the first Prius to United States motorists back in July of 2000.
Nevertheless, I remain fascinated each time I get behind the wheel of one by the way such an extraordinarily complicated power supply translates to such a routine driving experience.
Consider the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid I recently put through its paces.
Sure, there are some subtle hiccups, but that’s really nothing when you think about all the things that are going on beneath the Camry’s sheet metal.
A 2.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine, modified to run on the less powerful, but more fuel-efficient Atkinson cycle, generates 147 horsepower. A 40-horsepower electric motor is on hand to give an assist as needed and that raises net horsepower to 187.
To maximize fuel mileage, the computer brain inside the Camry decides when the gasoline engine should operate by itself, when the electric motor can provide the power by itself and when a combination of the two is required.
To further improve efficiency, a continuously variable automatic transmission is used to transfer the power plant’s output to the Camry’s front driving wheels.
In addition, the engine shuts off at stop signs and traffic signals. When it’s time to move again, the driver simply steps on the accelerator and the car begins moving briefly on electric power until the gasoline engine cuts in automatically.
When the Camry is coasting or under braking, the gasoline engine shuts off (saving fuel and eliminating pollution) and the vehicle’s electric motor reverses itself to become a generator that produces electricity that recharges the powerful nickel-metal hydride batteries.
If the power demand is high, the gasoline engine will also automatically divert some of its power from moving the car to generating electricity. And if demand is low – say on a low-speed, level road or one with a slight downgrade – the Camry can cruise up to a couple of miles on electric power alone.
Amazingly, it all goes off without a hitch.
As I was cruising around in the Camry, I was also struck by how hybrid cars tend to change me. Instead of exploring the Camry’s power, examining its handling capabilities and testing its brakes, I found myself hanging out in the right lane, coasting up to traffic signals and generally feather-footing it wherever I went. A hybrid car just seems to demand that it be driven in the most fuel-efficient way possible.
There’s no doubt I annoyed more than a few motorists who happened to be trapped behind me, but I managed in one 50-mile sojourn to nudge the trip meter over 40 mpg.
After two days, I decided to change my style. Obsessing over fuel mileage is hard work, and it’s occasionally dangerous, too. Most people who buy hybrids can’t possibly sustain such driving habits over the life of the car.
They might not be pushing their Priuses beyond 100 mph like an Al Gore Jr., but it’s equally unlikely they are driving with the windows up and the air conditioner off on a hot summer day and tailgating tractor-trailers to lower wind resistance.
So, instead of being Mr. Frugal, I decided to tool around like Average Joe. I kept up with traffic, passed when appropriate, maintained my speed on hills and set the cruise control at 75 mph out on the interstate.
The first hundred miles were driven in urban and suburban traffic conditions. I averaged 35 mpg. The next hundred miles were on the open road on a windy, rainy day. I averaged 35 mpg.
I was quite satisfied, considering that the EPA estimates fuel consumption at 33 miles per gallon city/34 mpg highway.
Despite what you may have read about EPA fuel-consumption estimates, my experience with probably 1,500 different cars over the years has shown that the average family-size, five-passenger sedan with a conventional gasoline engine can’t come close to those numbers. Think 20 to 30 mpg, at best, and generally significantly less around town.
And, remember, there’s more to those 35 miles per gallon than saving money at the pump. The less gas burned, the less pollution comes out of the exhaust pipe. Considering all that, the Camry Hybrid has to be considered a resounding success.
Another important thing to remember is that, like every other Camry, the hybrid is a transportation appliance, not a sports sedan. Yes, power is more than adequate, handling is predictable, brakes are sufficient, safety equipment abounds and the same five people who fit in a standard Camry will fit equally well in the hybrid model.
But there simply is nothing about the Camry Hybrid that encourages a spirited drive on a winding back road
And, there is one other caveat. Trunk space is somewhat limited by the intrusion of the battery pack.
Base price of the Camry Hybrid I drove is $25,850, and that included a number of comfort and convenience features -- smart key with push-button start, dual zone climate control, cruise control, automatic on/off halogen headlights, six-speaker am/fm/cd/MP3 sound system and a multi-information display to monitor fuel usage and the interaction of gasoline engine and electric motor.
Options, which brought the price to $28,130, included an upgraded, 440-watt, 8-speaker sound system with Bluetooth, satellite radio kit and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Yes, there is a price premium for a hybrid Camry, and it is no longer eligible for a tax credit, but a buyer is getting important benefits that can’t be found in a traditional car at any price.
For many car buyers, the practical pluses will far outweigh any minuses in cost or the driving-for-fun part of the equation.