AFTER MUCH ANTICIPATION, Toyota has launched the 2010 Hybrid Camry in Australia, the first locally-built hybrid car and one of the most efficient cars in its segment.
Toyota Australia chief Dave Buttner hailed the car's arrival as one of "the most significant events in Toyota Australia's 50-year history", while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said late last year that the local production of the Hybrid Camry would give a "$90 million boost" to South Australian and Victorian parts industries.
Largely based on the Hybrid Camry that's been on sale in the USA since 2006 (which has so far sold in excess of 33,000 units), the Australian-market model features a unique suspension tune, new steering hardware and a new stability management calibration.
Toyota invited us to Melbourne to sample the car on public roads - our first proper taste of the company's latest addition to its hybrid line-up. It did not disappoint.
Sources at Toyota had previously suggested that the Hybrid Camry would likely be priced at under $4000 more than a similarly-specced Camry Ateva.
Toyota has confirmed that the Hybrid Camry, which will be offered in two trim levels, will start from $36,990 (plus on-road costs and charges).
Out on the road, the Hybrid Camry offers a very different driving experience to the regular cooking-grade Camry.
The change in weight distribution, the retuned suspension, the regenerative brakes and electric power steering all collaborate to endow the Hybrid with a sharper, more focused feel. A sportier one? Perhaps.
The Camry is no performance car, but the extra grunt of the hybrid powertrain, the stiffer suspension and the faster steering rack make the Hybrid Camry feel far more sprightly than other models in the range.
Off the line performance is good, with the electric motor supplementing the petrol engine and delivering a handy amount of torque from go. The CVT however tends to take a while to find its optimal ratio, meaning rolling acceleration is still somewhat leisurely.
The electric power steering and VDIM system work in concert to minimise torque-steer, and the results can be felt at the wheel.
While torque steer is still detectable under hard acceleration (particularly while cornering), it's damped quite well . On the flipside, the Hybrid Camry's tiller (like most other electrically-assisted racks) is not a very talkative one and doesn't transmit much feedback from the road to the driver's hands.
The added weight of the battery pack over the rear axle plus the retuned suspension helps make the Hybrid a more competent handler, and cornering performance is good.
There is still a deal of body roll, but grip is high and the Hybrid can be hustled in a manner that might otherwise feel dangerous in a Camry Altise, Ateva or Grande.
Overstepping the limits of the tyres results in the VDIM system intervening to regain traction.
Being a fully-integrated system that merges stability control with traction control, ABS and EBD, VDIM is designed to offer seamless responses to potentially hazardous situations and it worked well on the sealed roads that comprised out test route.
However the core appeal of the Hybrid Camry isn't in how it responds to steering inputs or how well it fares in traffic light drag races. It's how much (or little) fuel it sips during gentler driving that is far more likely to entice buyers into Toyota showrooms.
On the route we drove during the Hybrid's national media launch in Victoria, 6.3 l/100km was achieved without much thought to economical driving and 5.8 l/100km was recorded after a run through the hills around Arthur's Seat.
At 100km/h the car's various aerodynamic enhancements saw instant fuel economy hover between 4-5 l/100km, however urban start-stop driving can use no fuel at all if your right foot is gentle enough to keep it in electric-only mode.
In terms of average consumption the Hybrid Camry is still far from the likes of the Prius, Cooper D and Fiesta Econetic, but compared to its peers it's definitely impressive.
There are some negatives though. With an 'EV mode' button absent from the Hybrid Camry's dash, it's difficult to convince it to operate on battery power alone for a substantial distance.
Toyota says maximum EV range is roughly 2km on a full charge, but we weren't able to accelerate over 40km/h without the petrol engine kicking in. Above 70- 80km/h, the petrol engine runs constantly and EV-only operation is not possible - even during downhill coasting.
The cabin is blissfully silent at urban speeds, but because of the well-muffled engine and extra NVH equipment, wind noise is more apparent on the highway.
There are other noises too.
When accelerating hard the engine tends to drone (the CVT pegging it at a constant rpm makes it a particularly unattractive sound), and when decelerating the electric motor/generator sounds like a tram slowing down. But, that said, at cruise it's both quiet and refined.
The entry-level Hybrid Camry is priced from $36,990, and the Hybrid Camry Luxury from $39,990 (add on roads to each of those prices).
A $3000 option pack is offered with the Hybrid Camry trim level, featuring a premium audio system with eight speakers, satellite navigation and a premium three-spoke steering wheel with Bluetooth controls.
The Hybrid Camry Luxury has its own option pack priced at $4500. It features electric tilt-and-slide moonroof, premium premium audio with eight speakers, satellite navigation, premium three-spoke steering wheel with Bluetooth controls and rear personal reading lamps.
For additional peace of mind, the battery pack also carries a 160,000km/8 year battery warranty and is designed to last the life of the vehicle. When it's no longer serviceable, Toyota has a recycling program in place that strips the batteries locally before sending components to Korea for further recycling.
Is it worth the expense? Toyota Australia says that when adjusted for spec, the Hybrid models cost a premium of around $2000.
Given the extra refinement, more muscular powertrain and improved handling the Hybrid Camry is certainly an enticing package . Couple that with its segment-beating fuel economy and the value proposition rises further.
Toyota Australia is hoping the Hybrid Camry can help raise its private buyer share from last year's figure of 22 percent to 30 percent by the end of 2010.
Downsizers, young couples, empty-nesters, retirees and existing Camry owners are all squarely lined up in the Hybrid Camry's sights. Toyota reckons all of them can expect to save around $15 per week based on a 20,000km yearly commute.
The company believes some existing Prius owners and potential Prius buyers may migrate to the Hybrid Camry. With early-adopters and the eco-conscious the key targets for the Prius however, Toyota doesn't expect the Camry to cannibalise too many Prius sales.
On the downside, the Hybrid Camry's interior still feels somewhat downmarket and the badge may deter more image-conscious buyers. There is however no escaping the fact that the Hybrid is easily the best Camry in the line-up today.
If you're looking for a frugal, spacious, well-equipped and easy-to-drive car that's priced well under most of its competition and comprehensively beats nearly all of them on fuel consumption, look no further.