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The Toyota Camry shares much of its engineering with its Lexus ES cousin but, as Jonathan Crouch discovers, this spacious medium-sized saloon is also very much its own car. Here's the improved version.
Toyota's making a habit of re-introducing its best-selling nameplates into our market. First, there was the return of the Corolla and now the Camry name is back too. As before, it sits on the boot lid of a Mondeo-sized saloon but this time, there's hybrid power beneath the bonnet - and that will be this Toyota's biggest selling point.
You might never have heard of the Toyota Camry. Between 2004 and 2019, after all, it wasn't sold here and during that period, we missed a couple of model generations. In the US though - and in many other international markets - the Camry is big news for the Japanese brand: in America alone, over 400,000 Camrys are sold each year. It was canned in the UK just after the turn of the century because of Toyota's inability at that time to offer a diesel option. So it's a touch ironic that the demise of diesel led to its return in 2019 as a 'self charging' petrol/electric hybrid that shares most of its engineering with the more image-conscious Lexus ES. That car was updated a year on to create the model we're going to look at here.
Under the bonnet sits a 2.5-litre four cylinder petrol engine aided by an electric motor powered by a battery of the 'self-charging' (ie non-Plug-in) variety. Total output is 218hp. In other words, in class terms it's just like a Ford Mondeo Hybrid. But unlike a plug-in Volkswagen Passat GTE or Kia Optima PHEV. As with those cars, you'll miss the in-gear flexibility that a diesel would give you. But that's the trade-off for saving the planet. The engine and/or the electric motor drive the front wheels via a sequential Shiftmatic auto gearbox. And of course the suspension is set up for comfort rather than for any kind of dynamic drive, though the stiffer platform of the car's GA-K chassis means it shouldn't be embarrassed if there's a need to push on round the bends. So what's the Camry experience like? Very quiet, is the answer. There's silence when first you begin and push the starter button. Silence when you ease through slow-moving rush hour traffic, the engine cutting in only above 25mph, unless you've a particularly heavy right foot. Like most hybrids, the car can trickle along powered by the battery pack only (as it is from start-off) or more usually, with a combination of both battery and engine, something you can monitor via a graphic display in the centre of the dash.
Visual changes to this revised model have added a bit of extra overtaking presence. The front grille and bumper have been restyled and there are new finishes for the lower grille and side ornamentation, plus restyled 17 or 18-inch alloy wheels and revised tail lamps. Otherwise, it's much as before. There's nothing especially arresting about the look of this Toyota but a slightly bigger size than the Mondeo segment norm does give it the look of a saloon from the next class up, which is no bad thing. Unlike rivals, there's no station wagon variant. Back in the Nineties, there was a Camry Estate but there are no plans for that version's return. Inside, the main change lies in the addition of a larger 9-inch 'floating' multimedia centre-dash infotainment display, including 'Apple CarPlay'/'Android Auto' smartphone-mirroring. Otherwise, apart from a restyled instrument panel finish and smarter leather upholstery, things are as they were. It's as roomy and spacious as the exterior dimensions suggest this car would be. Leather upholstery is a given, as are heated and power-adjustable seats (this is a car designed for the American market after all). There's loads of room in the back, where there's space for three adults and a superb amount of legroom. Not quite as much as is offered in a rival Skoda Superb saloon, but a lot nonetheless. You get a big 524-litre boot too, which interestingly is far bigger than this model's mechanically-identical Lexus ES cousin.
There's just one saloon body style and one hybrid engine option for Camry buyers, but you do get a choice of trim levels - 'Design' (which costs around £32,000) and plusher 'Excel' (which will set you back around £2,600 more). There's lots of kit included as standard, with both versions getting leather upholstery, powered seats and the 'Toyota Touch 2' 9-inch centre-screen with Go multimedia and navigation system. This incorporates DAB reception, 'Apple CarPlay'/'Android Auto', Bluetooth phone connection, audio streaming and Advanced Voice Recognition. Customers can choose from different instrument panel finishes: a black engineered wood with an organic base pattern overlaid with straight lines, and a Titanium Line pattern, a low-contrast, regular geometric pattern with a three-dimensional effect. There are also restyled 17 and 18-inch wheels, the former with "twisted-V" spokes and the later comprising paired slim and twisted spokes with contrasting bright machined and dark finishes. This improved Camry now gains the latest Toyota Safety Sense features, adding Lane Trace Assist with steering assistance to help keep the car centred in traffic lane; Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control, which links with the Road Sign Assist to automatically bring cruising speed within the enforced limit; Emergency Steering Assist; and Intersection Turn Assistance, which recognises oncoming traffic or pedestrians crossing the road in the path of the car as it makes a turn at a junction.
This hybrid is of the non-Plug-in kind: which is why it's so much cheaper than hybrid rivals who only offer Plug-in technology. On to the figures. A Camry manages up to 53.3mpg on the combined cycle (WLTP) and up to 120g/km of CO2 (WLTP depending on wheel size). In comparison, a Ford Mondeo 2.0 EcoBlue diesel auto model would manage 55.4mpg on the combined cycle and 132g/km of CO2. As you'd expect, to get the full benefit of the potential efficiency of this Toyota, you've got to do your part as a driver - and that means proactive use of the various modes and systems provided. To get anywhere near the figures being quoted, you'll need to keep the car locked into the 'Drive Mode Select' system's 'Eco' mode, which moderates throttle response and engine power output while tweaking the climate control. Plus you'll also need to keep a very careful eye on the Hybrid system indicator that replaces the usual rev counter on the dash, making sure that the needle stays as often as possible in either of the blue 'Eco' or 'Charge' zones. Garage visits should cost you significantly less than would be the case with a diesel rival, thanks to the low maintenance requirements built into the Hybrid Synergy Drive system. As part of this, there's no starter motor or alternator to go wrong, no drive belts to break, a maintenance-free timing chain, no particulate filter to get clogged up with diesel fumes and of course, thanks to the CVT auto gearbox, no clutch either.
The Camry's charms aren't difficult to identify. Hybrid power, obviously. You might wish it was one of those models of a plug-in persuasion, but then it would be far pricier. Aside from that, the Camry falls back on the same attributes that sold its Eighties and Nineties predecessors. Namely the fact that it offers more space for rear seat passengers and luggage than the Mondeo segment norm. Amongst saloons anyway. And it's better equipped for the money. If these advantages pique your interest, go right ahead and try this Toyota. Hybrid tax breaks will certainly reward you for doing so. Other rivals are more dynamic. But you might well feel that a Camry just makes more sense. Camry owners always have.