Hybrid motoring comes to the mainstream Indian automobile with Toyota introducing its Camry Hybrid armed with its famous Hybrid Synergy Drive System. Adil Jal Darukhanawala gets behind the wheel to understand why 5.5-million Toyota customers have embraced this concept
Two of the greatest model names in the Toyota portfolio are without an iota of doubt the Corolla and the Camry and while the former is an accomplished performer and seller here in India, the bigger and larger not to mention more upscale Camry has been lagging behind its smaller sibling. Not for anything but for the fact that the onus to push it strongly in the marketplace was tempered by Toyota’s measured approach to doing just so much and no further.
Have things changed therefore with the launch of the Camry Hybrid was the question on our lips when we got to grips with the new luxo-saloon flagship of TKML’s range last month. In fact, given a probably bare cupboard of offerings new within TKML, the Camry Hybrid is a techno tour de force and while it is remarkable for being so simply understated, almost unremarkable if you should know up front, and that is probably where TKML and potential buyers do it the disservice of not getting to have it on their short list of prestige saloons in the sub-Rs 30-lakh range.
This is the car the Camry should have been from 2012 but then Toyota’s rigid step-by-step movements have infuriated its loyal band. But in this lies the global giant’s mantra to keep on adding incrementally and push the essence in a class where it still sees itself lacking the charisma to take on the Europeans at their own game.
However, and this is huge, the new Camry Hybrid is a big step up and into a whole new universe where Toyota has invariably reigned supreme. The outward silhouette and form does retain the same chiseled look while sporting the same large proportions with ample glazed surfaces to denote a spacious cabin with typical Toyota accouterments but it is all about what resides under the ample bonnet which makes this Camry so special and also the harbinger of change. Let me explain.
It is without an iota of a doubt that the first name which springs to mind whenever one speaks hybrid automobiles is Toyota. Thanks to the path breaking work done in this vein with the Prius, Toyota is the acknowledged leader in hybrids but then it hasn't let this technology stay exclusive to the Prius, letting it proliferate across the range, to even more mainstream best-sellers like the Camry. No wonder then till June 2013 the Japanese numero uno had managed to sell over 5,423,168 hybrid cars all over the world!
However for India, the Camry Hybrid gets pitch forked right into mainstream Teutonic territory and while the earlier model was great value as well it just didn't have the gravitas to carry itself among the hordes of BMWs, Mercs and Audis plus with a smattering of VW Passats thrown into the mix as well! Now though, armed with very effective and pleasing techno-muscle of the world-beating kind TKML might just have the right key to open the door to the exclusive prestige saloon club and more importantly carve out a space all its own.
Effective to all this is the marriage of the familiar 4-cylinder in-line, 16-valve, DOHC petrol engine married to a more powerful permanent magnet synchronous motor. The 2494cc large-four comes with Toyota’s VVT-I top end feature and in this guise it is good for 160 PS (at 5700 rpm) and 213 Nm of torque (at 4500 rpm). The power output gets a hike when the electric motor chips in to deliver a combined 205 PS output arming it sufficiently to help move a most refined block of an automobile with regal ease.
The electric motor or rather the part of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system in Toyota-speak makes it possible for the car to be driven in certain situations and for limited duration on battery power alone while at the same time the battery can be brought into play when added push is needed to overtake or accelerate depending on the driver’s inputs. The Camry Hybrid comes equipped with a 6.5 Amp.hr nickel-metal hydride battery and the electronic management system for the motor has the built-in regenerative capability to capture and store the energy required to work the motor.
Since the first generation Prius debuted more than a decade and a half ago (in 1997 to be precise), Toyota’s engineers have made massive strides in effecting the power delivery combination from a petrol engine and an electric motor to be not just linear but also intelligent so that the true benefits of this combine can be experienced in tangible real world terms.
So while there are three operational modes which are dependent on the driver’s right foot and inclination to push a button on the central console of the dashboard, the adoption of the E-CVT (acronym for electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission) is a step forward to deriving not just the tangible benefits but also make for unrestrained but overwhelmingly refined performance for the class of buyer it is targeted to.
It takes a bit getting used to for when you punch the starter button there is no sound from under the bonnet and nothing is even needed for the simple reason that you can get going using the battery power alone! With the electric motor getting the car moving (term this the EV mode), the battery can keep it moving as long as one doesn't exceed 40 km/h and also the battery has the required juice to feed the motor. It is eerie but it works and that too very well! Especially if you have a fully charged battery and puttering around in door-handle-to-door-handle traffic, it makes perfect sense to motor in this manner – pun purely coincidental!
Keeping to this very save-the-environment nature of its performance capability, the Eco mode is where the mix of electric motor assist and petrol engine combine to operate in a band where silken torque makes for smooth power delivery and ample traction, especially in the low and mid-range which is where the Indian driving cycle is at its most demanding. There is a certain feel the driver experiences when transitioning from just electric assist mode to petrol power or with both combined when necessary.
All in all, the key to getting the best out of this mode is to have an eye on the road ahead for better anticipation and a silken touch from the right foot so as to lay the power in one seamless uninterrupted flow while also being aware enough to ensure the generator is charging the battery at the same time. The graphic display on the large touch screen panel on the centre console of the dashboard makes a clear case for the energy usage levels and also how the hybrid synergy system is performing. All in all it might look as a case for the techno-nerds and might not come across as very flattering at the word go but spend some time behind the wheel and you can master the process and get the car to deliver mightily.
It is here in this mode that the Camry Hybrid makes a strong case for itself in the Indian environs. We had a mix of drive situations thrown in and what stumped us was not just the refined and easy manner in which this car went about its business (meaning like the absolute majority of Toyotas!) but it rewarded us with fuel efficiency that was unbelievable for a petrol-engine car in its class.
Heck it even makes the diesel-engined brigade re-evaluate its purpose and calling while delivering tail pipe emissions which are mighty low in every sense of the term. The ARAI-tested fuel efficiency of this Toyota is 19.4 kmpl and we had the car running for long in and around Pune city where not only this figure was feasible but we also exceeded it on many a run! Again let me qualify it with the caveat that the man behind the wheel has to be very clued in to driving correctly to get the best out of the technology and that’s how the rewards would flow in. Anything else and it would be a case where the large four would be singing while slurping on petrol!
I will get to the fuel efficiency figures as tested a bit later for there is yet another drive mode to contend with and that is Normal which on the face of it is so incongruous because here you can get to play hooligan by getting both petrol and electric power to show off their combined 200 PS plus might! The very sight of a 1625 kg (kerb weight) automobile being given the flat out treatment is awesome but here is also where the iron fist in a velvet glove delivery is so pronounced.
On hard acceleration one can feel yourself being pinned to the seat back but from there on the punch is so well controlled that the only indication you are doing illegal speeds is watching the speedo needle swing higher and higher without there being any drama or histrionics! Maybe this is both a strength and a flaw but given its nature and capability, I can only come out emphatically on the former because this is truly a whole new way of motoring without shading the environment in any way.
The E-CVT is a critical component in the drive efficiency as well as the refined quality of the Camry Hybrid’s overall repertoire of performance. CVTs have had their issues over the years but the modern day electronic control as well as major strides in metallurgy has made this sort of transmission become a worthwhile and cost-effective unit, especially with regards to hybrid automobiles. Of course it yet shows up on occasions where you don’t get that instantaneous response you need on certain occasions but for the overall high level of refined ride and performance, the Camry Hybrid is the better thanks to the E-CVT employed.
And let’s now get to the performance delivery which includes answers to the inevitable "kitna deti hai" question. Overall we got a fuel efficiency of to 16.2 kmpl with an in-town figure of 12.6 kmpl. On the run from Pune to Satara we averaged a whopping 21.4 kmpl and mind you we were doing decent speeds which saw us matching our normal drive times in other cars over this stretch. One fact remains and I can’t stress this over and over again that it is all about harnessing the technological capability of the Camry Hybrid with some skill and loads of common sense from the nut behind the wheel to reap the benefits of hybrid drive.
Let’s also talk about how fleet and fast this corporate carrier can be made to perform and here also the Camry Hybrid comes out dishing up the goods. Zero to 100 km/h is achieved in a dazzlingly quick 8.8 seconds with a top whack in the region of 180 km/h plus. However these figures pale in the light of how refined the performance is across the operating spectrum and in this aspect the Camry Hybrid has few peers. In fact, it takes no prisoners when it comes to its cushy comfort which is the starting point for the luxury-oriented and with wind and road noise so brilliantly damped out of earshot, the experience within the cabin is very classy.
While the car may not have changed massively in style there is no denying that the entire chassis and suspension has been tightened and tweaked to make the car less floaty and more in control. The steering (electrically-assisted) is well weighted, veering just a tad on the lighter side but it is precise and thanks to the lower weight on the front end, it offers better turn-in.
Even while cornering at speed, there is no tendency for the front end to sometimes wash-out. The move to the larger 17-inch alloys wrapped with 215/55-R17 radials is a step in the right direction and this also helps deliver a fantastic ride quality which coupled to the overall body tweaks helps overall dynamic ability while not upsetting the jet setters inside the cabin. Disc brakes all around (ventilated up front and solid on the rears) are employed but the sterling ability of the hydraulically-actuated brakes makes the regenerative braking system probably one of the best there is in the automotive world today.
Featuring a full complement of driver aids and safety systems including ABS, VSC (vehicle stability control) and TRC (Traction Control), the Camry Hybrid is unique among its class of sedans to feature the Hill-start Assist Control, so very important for operating in our driving conditions.
And of course there is the cabin to pamper and please and it is large to begin with, something that makes the Camry the undisputed leader in its price band and also class of automobile. To this Toyota has added luxury and flair with cooled front seats (lovely feature this for our climate) and reclining rear seats which deliver the soothing feel to the typical executive class of punter who will buy this car. Throw in added tweaks to the climate control (a three-zone config is built in) including adjustability by the back benchers and overall the feeling of luxury and space is accentuated further by the ambience and the airiness of the cabin.
Two details did stand out for me though and both are being mentioned from the fat cat back benchers’ perspective. The first is the means to operate the front passenger seat (to slide the seat forward or recline the seat) by the person sitting directly behind using niftily placed controls on the side of the seat back. The collapsible headrest on the front passenger seat is another thoughtful feature. While these are spot on what is not is the grab rail which Toyota says is to help ingress and egress. Overall though the feel and the materials employed plus the workmanship are outstanding and while just right there is nothing one can fault in the cabin.
Brings me then to value and here I think TKML deserves high praise for pricing it at Rs. 29.75 lakhs (ex-showroom New Delhi). The obvious is to start comparing it to others in its price point but that would be doing injustice to its rivals while also not being fair to the Camry Hybrid. This is a unique car which is better in every sense of the term and cleaner, more powerful, very pleasurable to drive and be driven in, has that famed Toyota reliability and peace of mind built-in plus comes with performance and fuel efficiency of a class of car way lower in the popular mass-motoring class. I don’t think one needs to say more!