A recent work trip meant my first chance to drive a Hybrid car, Toyota Camry, and it was revealing.
Hybrid, or compromised?
I regard hybrid technology as a poor compromise rather than the best of both worlds. An optimised internal combustion car would not lug heavy, expensive battery packs or the complex electro-mechanical hardware required to manage the mix of power sources. Pure electric can, well should, consider far more radical design unencumbered by the mechanical, cooling and transmission layout requirements of a conventional engine. Hybrid just means both powertrains are compromised to some degree to live with the other.
First problem was getting the thing started. Although not a hybrid feature I don’t really see the advantage of proximity key start/stop button systems. A petrol Camry I drove recently also had it and, maybe old habits die hard, I’d rather just have a normal key. At least you know where it is!
Next step was finding a power source for my phone, and more importantly its GPS software. I searched for ages, much to the amusement of another rental driver, trying to find the 'cigarette lighter’ or equivalent. For your future reference the power outlet is at the back of a deep lidded compartment at the base of the centre console. On a gloomy evening it took a fair bit of finding!
It was a bit odd just getting a “Ready” light and zero noise when setting off in pure electric mode. Once on the road things seemed pretty normal apart from the techno display of power being managed in the instrument panel. To be fair the Camry has a pretty conventional dash (no tree diagrams like some hybrid Hondas) and you can swap the multi-function display.
Things got a strange again at the first red traffic light. My years of driving older cars made the start/stop engine behaviour a little disconcerting. Before this car if the engine stopped in traffic it wasn’t going to start again without user, or mechanic, intervention! Thankfully the Camry burst into pure electric or hybrid life instantly depending how urgent a departure you ordered via the accelerator.
I was impressed how smoothly the transition between the various drive states occurred. A barely noticeable change when swapping between electric & petrol mix, more sound than feeling, and smooth transition from regenerative to real braking. There was more marked (akin to a conventional auto down change) when the “B” braking transmission mode was selected.
I believe this invokes a mix of conventional Otto cycle (rather than Atkinson Cycle) petrol engine braking and regenerative charging. It was certainly capable of doing a ‘no brake’ deceleration from open road to town limits in an acceptable distance or holding speed on quite steep hills.
Clever, but fun to drive!?
It may seem bizarre but this 2.5 Litre Hybrid medium large sedan bought back memories of my old Uno 45. Although a totally different era, size and style of car with much better performance the Camry was ‘fun’ to drive in a similar way.
The Uno, with maybe 45 bhp from its 999cc engine when it left the factory, was never going to be fast but was a pleasure to drive rapidly. Since you were going to struggle to gain velocity the technique was not to loose it! Achieving that required great anticipation to make the most of what ever momentum you had.
Driving the Camry encouraged a similar approach. Can I move off, how far can I go before waking the petrol engine? Can I regen-brake from open road to town limit without touching the brakes?
Without thrilling speed or particularly dynamic handling it was actually fun to drive. Although interesting technically the drivetrain wasn’t particularly rewarding. Smooth & quiet is fine but I prefer the sound, not noise, and character of a good conventional engine.
But worth it?
It may be interesting, even fun, but I still wonder about the whole Hybrid concept. The 2.5L ECVT is listed at $56,890 RRP, it’s 2.5L auto Petrol cousin a mere $44,990 RRP. $11,900 buys a fair few litres of fuel even at 2012 prices. According to Toyota figures the standard Camry will do 7.8 litres per 100km and has a Fuel Cost per Year (14,000km) of $2,180. They quote the Hybrid at 5.2 litres per 100km and $1,460/year.
At $720/year saving you’d have to keep your Hybrid for more than sixteen years just to break even. That’s assuming the battery lasts that long and there are no finance costs which mean you’d be paying interest on the hybrid premium.
Hybrid driving might be, unexpected, fun but I still don’t see how the economics stack up unless you travel huge distances. I even wonder about the environmental benefits compared to an efficient conventional car. What is the true environmental impact when you factor in the exotic materials and potential life of the hybrid power source?