Observations on the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Rob Stampfli — June 2013
Toyota Camry Hybrid
The 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid

I recently traded a 1996 Avalon (a great car) on a new 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid (TCH). After six months of ownership, I've had the opportunity to utilize the Camry on trips, around town, and in a variety of road and meteorological conditions.

The TCH comes in two model designations, the LE and XLE. The LE is the base version of the car. It has no option packages, but gets slightly better gas mileage. The XLE is priced about $1500 more, but that $1500 buys a nice set of additions: An auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass, leather wrapped steering wheel, a power driver's seat, a 2nd 12V outlet, alloy wheels, enhanced Bluetooth capabilities, rear seat vents, heated outside mirrors, and fog lamps. The XLE also has several option packages which can added: A convenience package (consisting of a rear-view backup camera, an car alarm system, and a HomeLink built-in garage door opener), a sun roof option, a pseudo-leather (ultrasuede) seat option, an enhanced stereo option, and a navigation option. The options are sequential. For instance, the pseudo-leather package requires that you include the sun-roof option, which in turn requires the convenience package. While, I'm sure this uncomplicates things for Toyota and helps hold the price down, it means you seldom can equip the car exactly the way you want and you'll probably wind up buying more options for the car than you desire. The same Hybrid Synergy Drive system is standard across both the LE and XLE lines.

I opted for a base model XLE, although in retrospect, I wish I had gotten the convenience package. Most XLEs, though, come more fully loaded, so finding one with just the convenience package might have been difficult.

I use my TCH both as a daily commuter and touring car. What follows are some facts about the car that I've gleaned from having used it regularly plus my overall impressions of the TCH, both good and bad. My impressions are, of course, my opinions, and may be different from yours.

Some initial observations about the Camry TCH

The initial fit and finish is superb: The car seems to be built to Lexus standards. The seams are all micrometer straight and aligned. No exposed welds. The doors open and close effortlessly, yet solidly, and I've noticed no squeaks or rattles to date. It's one tight car.

Less routine maintenance, but more expensive oil changes: The TCH appears to be an amazingly low-maintenance vehicle. Although Toyota wants you to bring the car into the dealer every 5k miles, except for the tire rotation most of what this entails are inspections that many people could do themselves. Toyota has raised the oil change interval to 10k miles for this car (at least in the US), although it requires a 0W-20 weight synthetic oil (5W-20 may be substituted with restrictions) which means the overall price of the oil changes should average out to about the same as for a conventional car. If you prefer to change the oil yourself, be aware that the oil filter is located on the underside of the engine, making it necessary to put the car on jacks. The filter is also a cartridge type, which is messier to deal with.

Aside from this, the only other parts that Toyota deems it necessary replace in the first 100k miles are the engine and cabin air filters, which according to the manual should be changed every 30k miles. The spark plugs get changed out at 120k miles and the antifreeze -- there are two reservoirs for the engine and inverter coolants respectively -- is good for 150k miles (amazing, but that's what the sticker under the hood says). The engine has a timing chain, not a belt, so that should be good for the life of the car. The transmission oil needs to be "inspected" every 30k miles, something that is complicated by the fact that the transmission has no dip stick. However, this fluid is mainly there as an internal bearing lubricant and possible coolant, as opposed to a working fluid, so it should not be subjected to the trauma the fluid in a conventional transmission is and thus it is reasonable to expect it to last a long time. In short, I expect the first 100k miles to be relatively uneventful from the perspective of routine maintenance.

It's a car designed around the driver: Toyota has cut some corners to keep the cost down, and opted to design the base XLE around making the driver comfortable, sometimes at the expense of the passengers. For example, in my car, only the driver's seat is powered; the front passenger's is manual. The driver's window has an auto up/down feature while the rest lack this option. (On the other hand, the rear windows do roll down completely, a minor nit I had with the Avalon.)

TCH Instrument Cluster
The Toyota Camry Hybrid Instrument Cluster

The Instrument Cluster is well designed: OK, I'll admit it: It took me a while to become acclimated to the TCH's instrumentation, but I've come to appreciate Toyota's design. The speedometer is large, centered, and easy to read, and reads 70mph straight up, which is what I prefer. The ECO meter, which replaces what would ordinarily be a tachometer in a conventional automobile, gives a good indication of the instantaneous overall powertrain efficiency. There are three small LCD readouts in the cluster, all used to advantage. There are more idiot lights than the law allows, but they all relay useful and necessary information. I've thought to myself more than once that the TCH's efficiency is derived to no minor extent from its instrumentation, which gives the driver instantaneous feedback as to how efficiently the car is being operated. I rather suspect that the gas mileage on any car could by improved merely by equipping it with a similar set of readouts.

The Hybrid Synergy drive train packs some punch: I bought this car partially because I was used to driving a 200 HP vehicle. I didn't like the tepid acceleration of the 4-cylinder Camry and didn't like the gas mileage of the V-6 (plus I don't need the 268 HP). The Hybrid drive train really performs when you need it, such as when you are merging or passing at speed. In these situations, it feels sprightlier than my old six-cylinder Avalon. It's actually a fun car to drive on the West Virginia Turnpike, where it handles the mountainous terrain with seemingly little effort. If you're not paying attention, it's very easy to find yourself going 80mph without realizing it.

The TCH can be a quiet automobile, especially on smooth roads when it is running in electric mode which is often the case on surface streets, and even with the engine turning the noise level is subdued in most driving situations. That said, the interior noise level is quite dependent on the road, with certain road surfaces tending to transmit a lot of noise into the cabin or causing resonances in the suspension which have a similar effect. Furthermore, the engine can get rather loud under full-throttle accelerations, and while the car performs, it does not do so with the seeming effortlessness of the V6. Wind noise is minimal at slower speeds, although it does become more pronounced, though never objectionable, at speeds in excess of 65 mph. On the whole, though, I have found the TCH to be an acceptably quiet automobile.

Excellent ride quality: I find the TCH suspension to be a good compromise between handling and ride. In normal driving (which is the only kind I strive to do), its ride is supple and refined and it handles most road imperfections with aplomb. Emergency handling is controlled. (But see below for the issues I have with highway steering.)

The base XLE stereo sounds great: It has plenty of bass. Some find this low end boomy, and it can be on with some music, but I prefer it to the complete lack of bass of my previous car. It comes with the obligatory CD player, AM, and FM, as well as Bluetooth, USB, and Audio inputs. The USB dock will handle both USB sticks and iPods, although the stereo only recognizes MP3 and WMA encoded audio files on a USB stick. (It will not play AAC-encoded media.) Producing a USB stick is challenging in that the files are played in the order they appear in the directory, rather than alphabetically as we have come to expect them to be listed, and there are limits on the number of files per directory. Also of note, the system seems to have trouble finding some subdirectories on my USB stick if there are lots of material in the root directory. All this said, though, I now transcribe Audiobooks to a USB stick and find listening to them this way more pleasant, as well as much less distracting, than shuffling a bunch of CDs.

All the radio controls are accessible via the center touch screen, and the more useful ones are duplicated on the steering wheel. The sound system has an option to vary its volume with car speed. Missing is an option to compress the dynamic range of the source material, and as a result, with some CDs, I find myself constantly fiddling with the volume control. The CD, USB and audio inputs only show up when they have media ready to offer, but annoyingly, the Bluetooth source is always present in the rotation, even if you haven't registered anything with it, and this means you must cycle through it to find the source you're looking for.

And some disappointments...

Poor Stability on the Highway: The highway steering of my TCH can be tricky, and I'd have to rate it the worst of any car I've owned. In a nutshell, the car has a large dead zone in the center of steering where the car does not want to self-center. At highway speeds, it will track straight enough once you get it aligned in your lane, but any small perturbation will cause it to wander to the left or the right. Thus keeping the car centered in the lane requires the constant attention of the driver. Cross-winds exacerbate the problem as does steering with one hand.

Mind you, it's not sloppy or loose steering. Indeed, if anything, it appears that the steering is too tight: If you slightly turn and then release the steering wheel, at least at highway speeds, the car will not straighten up by itself and track a straight line, but instead, it will continue to track a curve. On some slight curves, the steering even seems to pull itself into the turn, requiring back-pressure on the wheel to keep the car in its lane. Technically, the car exhibits a neutral-to-oversteer tendency in slight turns, rather than the understeer which has been the norm in modern cars for decades.

My Toyota dealership claims this is just the way the electric steering works and there is nothing they can do about it. I don't believe them. Other TCH owners claim that changing some of the alignment parameters helps. This latter point may have merit, as the problem seems to affect some Camrys more than others, but adjusting the alignment may also adversely affect gas mileage and tire wear. In any event, it is the one area I rated my Camry Hybrid Below Average on the latest Consumer Reports survey.

The glass on my car came with some serious optical distortions, with noticeable ripples in the windshield, the back, and even some of the side windows. These distortions are severe enough that I have to wonder how they passed Toyota's otherwise stellar quality control. On the other hand, I do appreciate the stenciled-on appliqué Toyota applies around the perimeter of the windshield, and especially around the rear-view mirror where visor coverage is scant, and which serves to keep the sun from blinding the driver when it is in that area of the windshield.

The key fob is ridiculously expensive: The Camry comes with two key fobs and dealers generally want over $400 for a third, or a replacement, fob. By way of comparison, Honda dealers charge less than a third of that. A word to the wise: When buying the car, bargain hard for a third key fob if you'll need one! Otherwise, expect to dish out some serious cash for it.

Another nit, although it doesn't affect me: Apparently, the fobs are mated to a specific car, and cannot be registered to multiple vehicles. So, if you have his-and-hers Camrys, you will be forced to carry two fobs apiece.

The Camry performed poorly in the new IIHS Small Overlap Crash Test. The Camry, and by inference, the TCH, received a Poor rating in the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's Small Overlap Crash Test, a crash test designed to show how well the car handled a driver's-side glancing frontal impact — i.e., one involving about 1/4 of the left frontal area of the car. The principle problem seems to be that the vehicle suffered too much passenger compartment deformation, especially around the A-pillar. This, coupled with the fact that the impact caused the steering column to twist towards the center of the vehicle, resulted in the crash dummy's head glancing off the frontal air bag (rather than hitting it squarely in the bag's center), whereupon it was deflected between the frontal and the side curtain airbags directly into the A-pillar. Instead of protecting the occupant, the airbags, if anything, seemed to exacerbate the injuries in this type of accident. In addition, the parking brake pedal, located in the foot-well, was pushed further into the passenger compartment, where it caused probable leg injuries. An aside: I personally dislike a foot operated parking brake, and especially a push-on, push-off design, which may work fine for parking (although I rarely use it myself), but which becomes difficult to modulate if it ever has to be used as an emergency brake. I'd prefer that Toyota go to a hand-operated parking brake instead.

Addendum: In response to this Poor designation, Toyota made changes to the entire Camry line in 2014 which earned it an Acceptable rating in a retest. The cars with the improved design are designated as 2014.5 models. Toyota has also announced that it will be bringing out a redesigned Camry for the 2015 model year.

The Hybrid Synergy Drive

The Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) is an amazing feat of engineering. In effect it substitutes two motor/generators and an inverter for the transmission, the starter, and alternator. While it's too complicated to explain here, if you'd like to understand more about how it works, these references may prove useful. They are presented from the perspective of the Prius HSD, but they are pertinent to the Camry as well:

Eco Mode or no Eco Mode: There is a Eco switch on the TCH which alters some of the ways the car responds to driver inputs. Basically, it retards the gas pedal throttle response as well as lowering the aggressiveness of the climate control system: The A/C compressor output is reduced, as is the fan speed, which reduces the climate control system's energy consumption, but at the potential expense of passenger comfort, at least initially. Eco mode is designed to improve gas mileage. Whether it actually achieves this goal is questionable. While it may improve the car's MPG in some situations, it definitely decrease the fun factor of driving it, and many long-term TCH drivers contend that, with proper driving technique, the non-Eco mode can be just as efficient. The conventional wisdom is that brisk acceleration is actually beneficial to gas mileage when used to get the car up to a speed which will be maintained. I have not observed any salient difference in MPG between Eco and non-Eco mode in my personal driving experience, though I must confess I rarely use it.

Driveability: Toyota has taken great pains to make the HSD mimic what we've come to expect from a conventional drive train and to a large extent they've succeeded. The gas pedal is quite responsive and robust in non-ECO mode. There is a bit of delay due to the electronics, especially if the engine needs to be started, a feeling somewhat analogous to turbo-lag. This is hardly noticeable during normal accelerations, due to the instant torque of the electric motor, but more obvious when trying to make a quick left turn in front of oncoming traffic. Once the HSD gets going, though, it has plenty of power and torque and it is almost too easy to spin the front wheels. ECO mode exacerbates the lack of immediate responsiveness and makes the car less fun to drive. It often leaves you with the feeling that, when you give the HSD a throttle command, it responds by telling you that it will think about it and get back with you.

That spaceship sound: Some folks complain about the strange whines and tones that the HSD makes in certain modes of operating, and yes, the system does produce some audibles. Most are quite muted and easily overlooked. The most pronounced occurs during periods of regenerative braking, where the traction motor (now a generator) produces a whine which lowers in frequency as the car slows down. To me, it's not at all objectionable — indeed, I rather like it, and I've never had a passenger complain about it either — but it is different from the sounds we are used to hearing from a conventional drive train.

Regenerative braking: The braking is mostly good, but sometimes touchy: In cold and wet weather, there is an annoying tendency for the accumulator pressurization pump to engage as the car transitions from regenerative to conventional braking (which happens at about 7 mph), causing it to sometimes lurch to a stop as it might if it had grabby brakes. Also, if you don't keep firm pressure on the brake pedal while stopped, I've noticed the HSD will continue to feed energy to the electric motor, essentially wasting it.

Becoming Acclimated to the TCH Key Fobs

Camry KeyFob
2012 KeyFob

My previous car had a conventional key. It also had a key fob which locked and unlocked the doors and unlocked the trunk at the push of a button, but that was it. This Camry takes the key fob to a whole new level. Although there is a conventional key for opening the driver's door (it's built into the fob), it is really only there for emergencies. When you walk up to the car when it is locked, it senses the presence of the fob in your pocket and turns on the interior lights automatically. It also allows you to unlock (or lock) the door(s) at the touch of the driver's or front passenger's door handle. And, it allows you to start the vehicle, once inside, simply by pushing a button on the dash. For all practical purposes the key fob never has to leave your pocket or purse.

Toyota has taken great pains to prevent operator error: Normally, you cannot lock the car with a key fob inside it, something that can be problematic if you want to leave a purse in the trunk. In my view, sometimes the car over-reacts. For example, once parked, I sometimes crack open the driver's door before turning the car off, to see how much clearance I have in my space. The car doesn't like this and will commence beeping at me. Unfortunately, it will continue to beep even after I've turned it off and exited the vehicle although it does stop when I close the driver's door.

The spare key dilemma: Until now, I always carried a spare car key in my wallet. However, with the TCH, this is next to impossible, and in any event, a conventional key by itself can only be used to gain access to the car; it cannot be used to start it. My TCH required a different strategy: When travelling around-town, I now carry only one key fob with me and hope I never lose my key chain or drop the fob and break it. For road trips, I take my spare fob, stored in my luggage. But note: the spare fob must be disabled first before it can be left in the vehicle. To do this, hold its lock button down while depressing the unlock button two times; the fob should blink four times to indicate it has been disabled. Pressing any button reactivates it.

What kind of gas mileage should one expect from the TCH?

People buy the TCH for its superior gas mileage and as a result new owners tend to pay closer attention to this stat than they did with their previous cars. The official numbers Toyota advertise are 38 highway and 40 around town and combined for the XLE (slightly higher for the LE). The reality is that the mileage you get will vary all over the place, depending on your particular car, where you live, how you drive it, the gas you use, and how full you fill the tank. (Yes, it's impossible to top the tank off to exactly the same level on every fill-up.) Your mpg numbers will take a dive during the winter months for several reasons: First, the engine takes longer to warm up and has to run more to keep the cabin heated, but also in the winter gasoline is reformulated and naturally delivers lower MPG. In general, the TCH seems to get its best mileage in the spring and fall when the ambient temps are in the 60s and the engine can warm up quickly but the A/C compressor doesn't need to run a lot.

Some folks swear by using only a Top Tier Gas in their TCHes and I've seen more apparent MPG variation among the varying brands of gas I've used in my TCH than I did in the Avalon. The real MPG-Hawks are squeezing 800 mile, 50+ mpg, tanks out of their cars, but they do so by using specialized driving techniques and driving speeds most of us would find unacceptable.

I have owned my TCH for about a year now, and I have driven it in all four seasons. About two-thirds of my miles are freeway miles, although my average trip (outside of road trips) tacks less than 20 miles on the odometer. In its first year of ownership I've managed to eke out just shy of 38 mpg overall, which I must confess is a bit of a disappointment. In winter driving conditions, I average in the mid-30s, and in the summer, I see 38 and 39 mpg tanks. On a few occasions, I've managed to get 40+mpg tankfulls from this car. Under the right conditions, my TCH has shown itself capable of returning some rather astounding fuel efficiency figures: For instance, at a steady 45mph, it can achieve mpg numbers in the mid 50s. However, this kind of driving is a rarity for me. By way of comparison Fuelly lists the TCH average fuel economy at around 39 mpg, so perhaps I'm not too far off the mark. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

Optimistic MPG estimates: The TCH (of course) also provides its own readout of what it estimates its average MPG to be. I reset this each time I fill my gas tank, so my readout reflects the TCH's estimate of the mileage I am getting on the current tank of gas. On my car these estimates have been perennially optimistic, although either due to age or the warmer weather, they seem to be drifting closer to reality. Generally, they vary between spot-on and 13.0% optimistic, with the average being about 5%. I've gotten into the habit of mentally subtracting a couple MPG from whatever reading the car reports, and find this revised estimate comes closer to reality. And, of course, when I fill my tank, I then calculate and record the hard numbers.

The TCH Traction Battery

At the heart of all Hybrid designs there is a motive battery and this component is not cheap. In the TCH, this battery is a Nickel Metal Hybrid (NiMH) technology. Its current replacement cost is around $2K if you do it yourself, and more than $3K if you use a dealer. When Hybrids were first introduced, the conventional wisdom was that any savings in gas cost would be eaten up by cost of eventually having to replace the battery. This line of reasoning has largely been discredited, but these batteries do occasionally fail. Toyota warrants their traction batteries for 100k miles or 8 years, and in some states they've been forced to up the warranty to 150K miles. Hybrid manufacturers release little information on the failure rates of their batteries. I've heard Toyota estimates the life of their traction batteries at 180K miles, and many last longer. There is some evidence that battery life is more related to its age than mileage or usage. It is also interesting to note that the Toyota extended warranty does not appear to cover the traction battery.

What are my thoughts on all this? It is my hope that my battery will last the life of the car. However, if it doesn't, I expect that as the Hybrid technology takes off, economies of scale, combined with a secondary battery market, will prevail to drive the cost of the packs down, while at the same time conventional mechanics will see this as a profitable area of Hybrid repair, thereby giving the dealers some much needed competition. Time will tell. And I personally believe that Toyota is missing a golden opportunity: They should extend all their battery warranties to ten years and 150k miles. If the batteries are as reliable as they claim, this should not cost them much and would put to rest almost all the reservations prospective customers might have about them.

The traction battery does consume several cubic feet of trunk space. It is situated directly behind the rear seat. While the passenger side of the rear seat will still fold down, the access between the passenger compartment and the trunk is limited to a fairly small portal. The volume of space the traction battery carves out of the trunk has not been a problem for me to date, but I have not taken a fully loaded car (with four adults) on a road trip yet either. That test will come in October.

Extended Warranties: Are they worth it?

The Camry Hybrid has proven itself a reliable car, but one that can be expensive to repair when something breaks. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that, with few exceptions, only the dealers will tackle most repairs on one. Fortunately, a Toyota extended warranty may be purchased at any time during which the initial 3-year / 36k mile warranty remains in effect. One can purchase a Toyota warranty from any dealer and some dealers specialize in offering these products at reasonable prices. As far as I can tell, there is no advantage to purchasing an extended warranty at the time of sale, or necessarily from the dealer you buy the car from. Indeed, my dealer was pushing a ridiculously expensive non-Toyota product.

Prior to the 2012 redesign, the TCH seemed to suffer from two Achilles Heels, the engine coolant pump, and the ABS actuator/accumulator. Toyota claims both of these problems have been addressed in the 2012 redesign, and indeed, the coolant pump is now electric. (Interestingly, the current generation TCH has no belts at all!) The 2012 design is too new to know if any new weak points have been introduced.

On earlier TCHes, the belt-driven water pump often started leaking at around 70k miles. Fortunately, the cost of repair was in line with that of a conventional car (around $500).

More serious, The ABS/brake actuator/accumulator unit on pre-2012 models is another known failure point, and one that costs several thousand dollars to replace. Since the engine doesn't always run when the car is in motion, a pump-driven compressed air braking system had to be substituted for the more traditional vacuum assisted braking. When this part fails, the MID shows a "Check VSC System" message, and the OBD-II throws a C1391 code. For more information on this, see this thread. I believe Toyota, either directly or at the behest of the government, should issue an extended warranty to cover the accumulator unit, since in my mind it is both a hybrid component and one necessary for the safe operation of the vehicle, but to date neither party has acted to do so.

One other thing: Be aware that the Toyota warranty is not an inclusive warranty: It lists the specific parts that they warrant rather than listing what is excluded, and this makes it difficult to discern if there are expensive parts or repairs which it does not cover. While I may be wrong, I find no indication that items such as the traction battery, the 12V battery, or the key fobs, are part of the Toyota extended warranty.

As far as purchasing an extended warranty, I've adopted a wait-and-see attitude, but will have to make up my mind in a few years. If you decide such a warranty is right for you, here's an article listing dealers that offer good prices on a Toyota extended warranty.

Other Observations and Odds and Ends

The automatic dusk/dawn headlights generally work well, much better than the design on my old Avalon. Interestingly, the headlights and dash panel illumination are controlled separately, with the panel lights responding more quickly than the headlights to ambient lighting changes. (The dash panel is designed such that its back-lighting is on fully bright during the day, but can be dimmed to suit your preference at night.) In the TCH, unlike my Avalon, there is an indicator on the dash to indicate the lights are on. Furthermore, the headlights don't flash on and off when going under a wide overpass, and the car permits you enough time to pull it into the garage without having the headlights come on. The panel lighting is much more compliant, and my only complaint, a minor one, is that they dim to night mode a little too soon at dusk. What would be ideal would be for the dash lights to gradually dim down to their night setting as the ambient light decreases, but that's probably asking too much.

The layout of the wiper controls are a step down from my old Avalon and here's why: On my Avalon, there were three degrees of freedom for controlling the wipers: Up/Down for On and Intermittent, towards the driver to cause a single swipe, and a push-button on the end of the stalk for cleaning the windshield. The Camry offers only two degrees of freedom: Up for single swipe, down for intermittent and on, and towards the driver to clean the windshield. This approach means you have to cancel the intermittent mode in order to perform a single swipe or waste some wiper fluid. Admittedly, it's a minor inconvenience, but something I miss from the Avalon.

The TCH has only two mechanical locks, one on the driver's door and the other on the glove box. I don't really care about a locking glove box, but the car really needs a third key lock for the trunk, as there is currently no way to valet-lock this compartment: if one has access to the passenger compartment getting into the trunk is as trivial as pulling a lever.

The inside door handle grip is covered with fabric, forcing one to take precautions so as not to get the fabric dirty when grasping the handle to close the door. Thankfully, this cloth seems stain-resistant, but a soft padded plastic like what is used on the center arm rest, and which can be easily wiped clean, should have been used in its place.

The car's seat belt warning system receives a passing grade from me: It allows me (or my front passenger) to unlatch our belts without complaint at slow speeds as I pull into the driveway. It even allows a momentary unlatching while in motion without raising too much of a stink. My only complaint is that it dings five times at me when I start the car before buckling up and I prefer to do things in that order.

The TCH provides for lots of programmable door lock/unlock options, none of them entirely satisfactory. The car has a plethora of options for controlling the auto-locking and unlocking of the doors, but none are ideal for me. By default, the car locks all doors when taken out of Park, and unlocks them all when shifted back into Park. I'm usually the sole occupant and I don't always want all of my doors to unlock every time I reach a destination, so I've turned the auto-unlock option off. However, now any rear passengers remain locked in the car until the driver either releases them manually, or they figure out how to operate the stealthy manual door locks. The driver and front-passenger doors unlock automatically when the inside door-latch release lever is pulled, so they don't exhibit this problem. It would be ideal if the rear doors worked the same way. Not providing this auto-unlock option on the rear doors may be a cost reduction decision, but I suspect it has as much to do with child safety. I don't typically transport children, though, and in any event I feel that that's what the rear-door child safety locks are designed for.

Suggestion for the MID: The MID is a small LCD screen situated in the center of the speedometer. When the car detects a problem, it typically reports it on the MID. Otherwise, the MID has a half dozen screens that may be selected and which provide driver with various status information about the car and the current trip. Generally, Toyota did a good job of laying out the various MID displays. However, one screen shows a running estimate for the average MPG on the current trip. That's useful, but I'd like it even better if this screen could show more than this singular piece of information, and there is room to do so if they'd drop the graphics. Personally, I wish it also displayed the number of miles the car has been driven since it was last started.

The new EV mode could be improved: EV mode is an electric-only mode that has been added to the TCH starting with the 2012 model year. When it is selected, the gas engine doesn't run. However, the NiMH traction battery is only good for a mile or two before it depletes, so its utility is limited. Still, the mode can be useful. I use it to pull the car into the garage at night without having to start a cold engine. I also often use it to go the last mile in my subdivision on the way home.

I have several problems with EV mode as it is implemented: First, the car will cancel EV mode if you use too much gas pedal. Perhaps this is a prudent thing to do if the pedal is floored, but I'd prefer the car just go to maximum torque on the electric motor and hold it there, without engaging the engine, if you give it moderate amounts of throttle. Second, EV mode is speed-limited to 25 mph, even though the car is capable of much faster speeds when being propelled only by battery. Indeed, I find when EV mode cancels for speed, my car often continues to run entirely off the battery anyway. Preferable in my view would be to allow a 30 mph top speed. Finally, and sadly, sometime EV mode cannot be engaged, even if the traction battery is charged: The MID simply indicates "EV Mode Unavailable", or the EV mode button is simply ignored.

With a low plastic bumper, beware of high curbs: In keeping with a seemingly unwritten rule these days, most likely for aerodynamic reasons, the TCH has low-hung plastic bumpers, front and rear. These bumpers hide a Styrofoam pad which seems to work well for absorbing the force of light-to-moderate frontal or rear collisions. And they often pop back out so that such collisions don't necessarily leave much visible evidence. However, like most cars today, these bumpers only have about six inches of ground clearance, making it necessary to always be vigilant for high curbs and stop blocks when parking the car. I've already dragged the front bumper backing out of a friend's driveway. Impacts with curbs and other structures can either crack the lower bumper or break its mounting points, in either case necessitating an expensive repair.

The TCH also has rubber air deflectors in front of each wheel. Called wheel spats, they stick down even farther than the bumper and can drag when parking against even a low stop block. I've not broken one yet, but it's yet another thing one has to be aware of when parking.

All-in-all, it appears to me the Camry is no worse, but unfortunately also no better, than most other sedans on the road today, but in this respect I view these cars as a step down from vehicles of yesteryear that offered higher bumper designs which required less attention and were less likely to sustain damage when parking.

Visibility from the driver's seat: In my estimation, the TCH is about average in the visibility it provides from the driver's seat. Contrary to what is implied, there is no need for the dubious blind spot monitor. With the side mirrors correctly adjusted, there are no true blind spots there, although there are areas which require special attention.

It seems the quest for structural integrity, perhaps combined with a desire to provide a more streamlined windshield or better side airbag placement, has caused car makers to beef up their A-pillars, and Toyota has not bucked this trend. For whatever reason, the TCH has one of the widest A-pillars of any car I've owned. Indeed, the right-side A-pillar is wide enough and slanted in such a way that it can easily hide a motorbike or small car approaching from a side street, and the left-side can also be problematic, a fact TCH owners need to make themselves aware of and take into account when driving the vehicle.

Neither the front nor the rear of the car is directly visible from the driver's seat, but most people soon develop a feel for where these extremities are. I haven't accidentally hit or bumped into anything yet, although I admit the backup camera would have been a good investment.

One other observation: With the seats in certain positions, the front passenger's headrest can significantly impede the driver's view to the right rear of the vehicle. This is also true of the integrated rear headrests, although to a lesser degree. It's not a huge problem, but something the driver should be cognizant of.

Too many shiny surfaces: In general, there are too many surfaces in the TCH which produce reflections and glare. In the passenger compartment, from the fake-chrome Toyota symbol in the center of the steering wheel to the shiny surfaces around the gear shifter, the sun always seems to find some way to reflect into my eyes. The worst offender is the center pedestal on the dashboard which contains the clock. This pedestal is made of hard plastic, which at certain sun angles causes an annoying amount of glare. Polarized glasses help, but Toyota really should never have allowed such reflective materials to be used here, especially after doing such a fine job of designing the rest of the dash so as to minimize reflections. Do shiny surfaces really still sell cars?

The center touch screen display is also susceptible under some conditions of producing, and being washed out by, glare (as are the LCD screens in the instrument cluster). However, it is probably impossible to situate the touch screen where it is shielded from the sun, but still accessible to interact with.

The interior lighting could be improved: There is no illumination on any of the buttons on the inside door handles, with the exception of the driver's electric window control. At night you have to access these controls entirely by feel. There is also no vanity lighting for the visor mirrors (unless, for some strange reason, your car comes with a sun-roof). The trunk illumination is also wimpy. On the other hand, Toyota does provide a glove-box light, which is something the 2013 Honda Accord does not.

The area under the door sills is not protected from the weather so dirt naturally collects there and one has to take care not to allow one's clothes to contact this part of the car when entering or exiting the vehicle. On my old Avalon, the bottom of the doors had a rubber flange which covered the lower side body under the sills when the door was closed and kept it from becoming dirty.

Auxiliary Mode is inconvenient: You know what the auxiliary position is: It's for when you are waiting in your vehicle and want to listen to the stereo with the engine off. On my old Avalon, the auxiliary position was located one click to the left of the ON position on the ignition switch, an improvement over the old standard of putting it on the other side of OFF. Indeed, the stereo never even cut off during a transition; moving from ON to AUX just killed the engine.

With the TCH, there is no ignition switch, and thus no "position", so I'll refer to it a mode. The START button makes the process of engaging AUX mode more complicated: First you have to push the button to turn the car off, and then push the START button again (with your foot off the brake pedal) to turn the stereo back on. And then you strum your fingers and wait about four seconds for the car's computers to re-initialize before you hear any audio. I typically desire to use this mode when I've reached my destination and want to hear the end of a news broadcast or song, and I find the process and the delay cumbersome. Fortunately, at the end of a trip the engine is usually warm and doesn't run except as needed, so I've gotten in the habit of just leaving the car on until whatever I am listening to finishes. Another bonus of doing it this way is that it allows the all-electric climate control system to continue to operate.

Overly-Utilized Touch-Screen: The center touch-screen display is really quite amazing — it serves as a programming and readout device for the car's stereo, the NAV (if you have it), the backup camera (if you have it), the tire sensors, and the HSD/fuel efficiency screens. Plus it allows you to customize a lot of the car's features to suit your taste. But the very fact that so many systems use it means that it is a point of congestion, and you'll probably find yourself navigating back and forth through its many menus of screens to pull up what you want to see. It would be nice if Toyota provided a split-screen option so that you could display two functions at once, say allocate half of the screen for the radio and the other half for the HSD info.

I don't have the built-in NAV unit, and I'm glad I don't: If I had to share this function with everything else I use this display for, it would be quite a challenge. I prefer having a separate, independent screen for navigation, something that a portable unit affords me.

To be fair, it appears the congestion issue is a problem inherent with all of today's modern "glass cockpit" cars and Toyota has done a commendable job of laying out their screens for good utility. I like the Toyota ergonomics, and find my TCH's display screens and layout to be much more logical than my girlfriend's Honda Accord.

The steering wheel. A couple comments here: There are more buttons on the steering wheel than I can count, but it is handy to have all these controls at your fingertips. It does make the wheel fairly full, though, which means that when it is not in the straight-ahead position, it often obstructs one's view of the instrument cluster. Also, due to all these controls, it was necessary to reposition the cruise control lever to a less than optimal position, at least for me. I find the horn button placement less than optimal, too: On my Avalon, I could tap the horn with a quick press of my thumb against the center (airbag) portion of the wheel, but on the Camry, I have to move my hand to do so, a slower procedure in an emergency, not to mention that removing a hand from the wheel is not something that is desirable if an evasive maneuver may be imminent.

The driver's seat: It seems every car I've owned has had a slightly different set of power seat controls. My 1986 Ford Thunderbird had perhaps the best. The Camry has a 10-way power driver's seat: Back and forth, up and down, seat-back position, lumbar support, and frontal-seat height adjustment. I prefer a bucket-seat layout where the seat bottom itself can be swiveled. On the TCH, there is a front seat-height adjustment, but the motor struggles to the point of stalling out to get to it's uppermost setting, which I find satisfactory, but only barely so. But overall, the TCH seats are deceptive: They are firm and not uncomfortable, but they don't elicit an "Oh yeah!" feeling either. Still, my body seems to tolerate them OK on long drives, so they must be doing something right, and I have to marvel that Toyota managed to make the seat back comfortable while also making it amazingly slender.

The gear shifter: OK, I realize Toyota's intent was to make the TCH look and feel like a conventional car, but they dedicate a huge amount of space on the center console to a gear shift knob which the car doesn't need. Although it is a mechanical marvel, with the HSD all the fancy gear shifter does is engage some switches. Push buttons on the dashboard would work just as well and free up this space for a better purpose, but I suppose this approach would be deemed too clunky for the Camry, even a hybrid one.

Clock controls: I realize this is a minor nit, but my Avalon had three buttons to set the clock: Hour, Minute, and ":00". The last one was a brilliant addition: At the push of a button it allowed one to sync the clock to the top of the nearest hour when the news came on the radio. Unfortunately, this great little innovation is missing on today's Camrys, and I think all Toyotas. I've heard it is because Americans didn't understand how to use it and it generated complaints. Grrr.

Fly by wire: The gas pedal of the TCH is of course a fly-by-wire implementation, since the HSD is at its heart completely computer controlled. Toyota has built checks into the control program to idle the HSD when one steps on the brakes. They have also engineered specific overrides that allow the operator to force the HSD to shut down in an emergency. The steering linkage still has a direct mechanical connection, and the brakes an hydraulic one, allowing the driver some level of direct control in a malfunction, even if the power assists fail.

Sophisticated software: While mechanically, it might be argued that the TCH is simpler than a conventional automobile, the software which controls this car is far more complex. And it appears Toyota has done their homework. The computers do their work seamlessly and thus far flawlessly, and it seems Toyota has gone out of their way to provide a wealth of helpful options where they could be incorporated inexpensively in the programming. Example: If you inadvertently leave a reading light on, the car will extinguish it automatically before it runs down the battery.

Cup holders galore: I think I counted 8 cup and/or beverage holders in my TCH and several more nooks that could be reassigned for that purpose. One has to wonder about the propriety of incorporating so many receptacles for beverages in a car with a 600+ mile cruising range! If you want an ashtray, though, it's an option that will cost you extra and take the place of one of the front cup holders.

In Twenty Words or Less...

Some things which have increasingly impressed me about my Toyota Camry Hybrid over time:

And some things about the car which continue to grate on me:

Closing Thoughts

The Toyota Camry Hybrid basically does everything it claims to do, and it's fun to drive, too. It delivers decent gas mileage, although it is not as stingy as the Prius models. However, unlike the Priuses, it has excellent acceleration, better outside visibility, and accommodates four good sized adults with ease. With a few exceptions, it drives and handles like a normal car. It appears to be a reliable vehicle. The Hybrid Synergy Drive has been well wrung out and has fewer moving parts than a conventional drive train, which further bodes well for the car's overall long-term reliability.

Some people have suggested that perhaps I don't really like my TCH since it appears I have as many negative things to say about the car as positive. This is not the case. It's simply that I've had daily access to this car long enough to become aware of many of its idiosyncrasies and faults, and let's face it, all cars have their share of such things. Gushing about the car's many good qualities may be personally satisfying to me and other TCH owners, but it isn't very useful. We expect todays cars to be good. I've tried to document what I've observed from owning this car — even down to some fairly trivial details — because I feel it might be useful to other potential owners. Specifically, I've tried to include the kind of things that would be difficult to discern from one or two test drives and kicking the tires on a dealer's lot, but which become apparent to someone who spends a lot of time in the vehicle. Some of what I've mentioned above may be not be germane or important to you personally, but are things which rose to a level with me that I found worthy of mentioning — things I thought might be useful to a prospective buyer.

When people ask me how well I like my TCH, I tell them to ask me in ten years, and I mean it seriously. I have never fallen in love with any of my cars; rather, I consider them just another tool. My 1996 Avalon was a tool which earned my respect over time. The TCH certainly has the potential to do the same, but the jury is still out and only time will tell how it measures up. Suffice it to say, though, that if my TCH were demolished tomorrow and I had to run out and purchase another car, I cannot think of a model I would rush out to buy in preference to another TCH. Well, sigh, maybe a Toyota Avalon Hybrid.