Road Review: 2007-2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid

The Toyota Camry is not an enthusiast’s favorite car.  It’s not a sporty car, it’s not a car that will draw throngs of fans on the streets as it drives by, and it’s certainly not a car that people buy for its driving style (whatever that means to Camry owners).  But, for everything that the Camry is not, there are two things that the Camry is, to both its buyers and to auto buffs.  It is reliable, practical, profit-generating, and inoffensive, as well as a reliable and safe automobile.  So I may hate it for its lack of flair, but I like it for what it does well.  My family owns a 2007 and a 2011 Camry Hybrid. I drove this 2007 model for about 6 months, until I gave it to one of my brothers, who drove it all over Indiana earlier this year.  As of now, my other brother has driven it since June and will be shipping it out to California in a few days’ time.  This review is chiefly about that 2007 model, and why I think it’s one of the best Toyotas to buy if one wants a hybrid and a real car in one package.

We got this car to replace a forsaken (translation: General Motors) minivan that caused our family nothing but trouble (it nearly killed me on an icy night in New Jersey, sacrificed two transmissions, and grenaded its battery and starter at least once).  I was not initially happy about the car, as it was the typical Camry color (beige) and was a rather boring car.  Nonetheless, it was cheaper than the van was and my mother drove it everywhere, while I occasionally borrowed it when the car I shared wasn’t available.

For a hybrid, the Camry Hybrid is rather anonymous.  The Camry in itself is not a showy car and the Hybrid model only makes do with a special grille (so that the CHP can tell if it belonged in the carpool lane, believe it or not), a few “Hybrid” badges, and a “Hybrid Synergy Drive” emblem stolen from the Prius on the trunklid.  Other than that, it’s a Camry at first glance.  This gives any owner a distinct advantage in not having to scream, “Look at me! I’m saving the environment!  I’m so much better than you!”.  Instead, the Camry Hybrid says, “I want to save the planet and get good gas mileage, but I don’t shout about it and would prefer not to drive a political statement.”  The Camry Hybrid comes with an Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder engine hooked up to an electric motor as a series hybrid, putting out 187 combined horsepower.  The Hybrid exclusively used a CVT gearbox, in an identical layout to the Prius.

In 2007, the Camry leapfrogged past its competition to such an extent that Motor Trend gave it the Car of the Year award, which it more than deserved at the time.  Looking at how the car has aged after more than 5 years and over 110,000 miles, I think they were right.  Nothing major has broken in that time, the gas pedal hasn’t gotten stuck (in fact, the Hybrid was built in Japan, which spared it from the parts which were under the recall notice), and it never let us down.  The Desert Sand Hybrid we purchased has taken more than 20,000 miles per year, but nothing has broken in those 5 action-packed years of ownership.

When Toyota redid the Camry, they were careful about making sure its newest bestseller had enough appeal for anyone and everyone.  Three engines were offered, including a 2.4L I4, the hybrid system, and a 3.5L V6.  The Hybrid model at the time cost us around 27 large and at the time, was a great value, including a JBL audio system, Bluetooth, power driver’s seat, keyless-go, CD changer, dual-zone automatic climate control, and alloy wheels.  Unfortunately, Toyota gave the Hybrid a price cut and removed all of these niceties from the standard equipment list around 2009.  Few changes were made on the inside between 2007 and 2011, including an updated radio display, USB port, and automatic up/down for all four windows.  The Camry has been cheaper to own than the minivan before it, thanks to its similar monthly payments but much higher gas mileage.

The Camry’s exterior is never going to win a beauty contest.  It looks, compared to both the 2006 and the 2012 models (its predecessor and successor), overweight and far too big for its size.  Toyota improved the styling somewhat with a more aggressive front end in 2009, but it still looks too large at the sides, as if it has a slight “muffin-top” appearance.  The interior, however, is proof that the Camry rises above a lot of its competition.  The quality of the plastics is on the level of Lexus.  The shut lines and the feel of the materials are also at a price level above the car’s sub-30K retail price.  In addition, the interior is laid out very well and is ridiculously easy to figure out.  The radio is controlled by 2 simple knobs and a few presets, with standard redundant controls on the steering wheel.  The climate controls are just as simple, with just 2 knobs and a few buttons.  Clearly, Toyota designed the 2007-2011 Camry for middle America, and hit the nail on the head.  The seats are soft and yet supportive on long trips, even though they lack side bolstering.  The back seat has more than enough room and has the same feel as up front.  This being a hybrid, the trunk is compromised.  However, the Camry does the battery positioning better than Ford–while Ford jams the battery against the rear seat (which opens up the trunk space more but does not allow for the rear seat to fold down), Toyota lies the battery flat against the back of the trunk floor, which does not help trunk space but still opens up a very useful pass-through and keeps a split-folding rear seat, thus making their hybrid sedan more practical.

Of any car I’ve driven, even the Rolls-Royces I’ve had the privilege to pilot, the Camry has always been one of the smoothest automobiles I’ve driven.  Toyota’s had more experience than anyone in developing hybrid drive and it shows behind the wheel.  The transition between electric and gasoline drive is utterly seamless, and the continuously variable transmission is a champ.  Of course, this is no sports sedan, and the steering feels rather light and lifeless.  It’s accurate, but it overtly insulates the driver from the road.  Despite the hybrid stigma, this sedan doesn’t feel lacking in power.  The electric motor contributes to instant power off the line (and several embarrassing moments involving green-light FWD tire squealing over the past year) and the way the engine responds to driver input allows for plenty of highway power–something the Prius simply can’t do without putting up a fight.  It may not have the Prius’s aerodynamics, but at 40MPG, it doesn’t have an issue.  The Prius also has the blind spots the Camry doesn’t have–the Camry’s visibility is particularly good, and lightens the cabin considerably.  The handling is poor, in that with the lifeless steering, the only idea of the car’s direction is looking at the road ahead, but the car does go where it’s pointed.  Grip is limited thanks to the energy-efficient tires and the traction control loves to interfere when the fun begins.  The brakes are effective and the pedal travel rather short (this is an effect of the car’s regenerative braking).  The ride, however, is fantastic.  Despite the soft ride quality, the damping is well-sorted and the car does not start to bob up and down over bumps like a Ford LTD.

There are pitfalls to this car, of course.  It’s no sports car, and it’s not as good on gas as a Prius.  However, for a midsize car buyer, the Camry Hybrid represents a car that brings in the best of two or three worlds with excellent gas mileage for its size, comfort, reliability, and a feeling that the owner is saving the environment but not beating those who are not with a stick.  The hybrid model is a good value, but of course, if you plan on buying a used one, order an extended warranty on the battery–otherwise, you will be out a large sum of money when the battery does go (the standard warranty is 7 years, 100,000mi).  Otherwise, this has been a great car for me and for the family at large, offering up a nice dose of comfort, economy, ease of operation, and just enough performance for the daily driving obligation.

-Albert S. Davis

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