Road Test Special Report: Is It Worth Buying A Hybrid To Save Money On Fuel?

Road Test Special Report: Is It Worth Buying A Hybrid To Save Money On Fuel?

05.11.2009: We Take the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid On A Summer Holiday To Get The Answer Text & Images: Iain Shankland

We Take the 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid On A Summer Holiday To Get The Answer

Text & Images: Iain Shankland

A couple of years ago I drove a Toyota Camry hybrid on an extended run of a whirl-wind trip from Niagara Falls to the Road America Racetrack  in Wisconsin. We wanted to get there as fast as possible and return even quicker. To that end we succeeded in averaging 6.7 L/100km during our hour upon hour of highway driving at or in excess of 130 km/h for the vast majority of the trip. To say I was impressed would be an understatement – not just with the fuel economy, but also with the car as a whole.

Since that eventful trip, I’ve tested quite a number of hybrid vehicles, but no other hybrid impressed me like quite the Camry – in fact, most didn’t even warrant the extra expense of purchasing a hybrid over the tradition vehicle, because the fuel saving were less than impressive.

Time to re-visit the Camry hybrid me thinks! There are a couple of reasons for this week’s road test:

1) Originally we were going on a long-ish road trip. First to Mont Tremblant in Quebec for a race, and then down to New Jersey to pick up our new puppy. Approximate distance: 2,000 kms

2) My wife, although having Canadian/Polish/Ukrainian background - is in fact the cheapest Scotsman I’ve ever encountered besides my dad. Therefore a very economical vehicle had to be employed for this trip.

3) Most importantly, with the price of fuel being what it is, and more people are travelling for their summer holidays – fuel economy is of utmost importance to the majority of North Americans.

I figured all of this made for a good story and an even better road test for a hybrid …. So I contacted Toyota and asked for the Camry hybrid for two weeks.

The trip was all planned out. But that all changed the week I picked up the Camry. Our puppy was ready to go a week early, so we decided to pick him up before going the Mont Tremblant! This made the trip an even more important story. What was to be one trip, now had to be turned into two long trips – in less than a week.

So here’s the new plan…

Pick up the Camry from Toyota’s Canadian head office on the far-flung outskirt (for me) of Toronto and come home. Round trip time of about 3 hours. Then we would head off to New Jersey sometime around 6 pm, stopping overnight near the New York/Pennsylvania border (travel time approximately 4 hours).

: Continue trip to New Jersey (3 hours) to pick up our new family member and make a sprint back to the border (approximately 7 hours).

Wednesday & Thursday recover.

Friday night, head off to Quebec in the evening to arrive very early Saturday morning (approximate time 7+ hours).

Saturday & Sunday
– shoot the Champ Car Atlantics race.

Head home (approximately 8-10 hours, depending on traffic jams around Montreal & Toronto). Should be home around midnight Monday/Tuesday.

I picked up the Camry on the Monday morning and had to make a pit-stop on the way home to test drive the new Subaru WRX STI car that was being launched that day. Usually these types of things last ½ an hour to an hour. Not this time – 2 ½ hours of driving the car down twisty back roads at break-neck speeds was the order of the day!! We had a blast driving the Subaru, but it set us back a couple of hours for our road trip – not only that but with all the driving ahead of me – the last thing I really needed was more time behind the wheel of a car!!! Anyway……

We left around 9pm and got to our destination at 1am. One thing I didn’t figure into the driving equation was road work. Fortunately, in the U.S. they know how to plan and execute road construction with the least amount of inconvenience to the driver. (In Ontario the goal is to piss-off as many people as is possible).

Our main goal for this excursion was to achieve the best possible fuel mileage in the Camry. To that end I came up with a plan. A plan that may be simple for some people, but excruciatingly painful for yours-truly: drive at or very close to the speed limit whenever possible. When I drive, my whole point is to get to the destination as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter if I’ve got 1 hour to make a 30 minute drive – I HAVE to get there as soon as possible – it’s just me. To concentrate on driving slow would be a major challenge for me, but I had to do it for this experiment to work!!

In Ontario the speed limit is 100 kilometres per hour on the freeway – I usually travel at 125 km/h. You can see how this is going – don’t you? On U.S. Interstates it’s 65 mph, so they are very close to Ontario. I set my goal of 110 km/h or 70 mph. I know you get better gas mileage driving at 100 km/h or thereabouts, but I’m not going to push it that far – besides the truck drivers are generally limited to 100 km/h by governors and I didn’t want to get in their way. Most families puttering around my area on vacation are usually clogging up the freeways doing 100 km/h or less – I couldn’t bring myself to be one of them for this experiment.

The trip to our overnight stay in Binghamton, N.Y. was uneventful and we crashed into bed at 1:30am. For this part of the trip I kept to my pre-determined/self-punishing speed limit. It took a little longer than anticipated, but the Camry is a terrific car to spend hours upon hours of mindless freeway driving. It’s extremely quiet, with just a whisper of wind coming off the outside mirrors. The more than adequate stereo system kept the journey livable as we sang along to songs we hadn’t heard in a while.

One of the reasons I chose the Camry for this journey was how comfortable the seats were on our trip to Wisconsin a couple of years ago. They were so comfortable we raved about them for weeks afterwards. Unfortunately, Toyota provided us with the base model which consisted of cloth seats, which translated to a barely-passable seat in the comfort department. The seatback – at least for the driver - was very comfortable, but the bum became numb very quickly.

The driver gets a 6-way power seat with lumbar adjustment, while the unfortunate front passenger has to make do with manual adjustments and no lumbar adjustment of any kind (the Premium Package gives the passenger 4-way power seats). At first I thought it was just due to the amount of seat time I was getting, but after living with it for more than a week, it wasn’t me - it was the car that was the problem. Bummer. This issue is easily resolved if the Premium Package model with leather seats was the chosen vehicle (that’s the model I asked for, but didn’t get. It’s also the version I had before when I raved about how comfortable the seats were – I’m assuming that the premium seats have not changed since our last test).

The only other complaint I have about the Camry is with the automatic climate control. I usually hate them at the best of times, but this one is infuriating. No matter what the settings were before you turned the car off, they have to be re-set when you start it up again. This may not seem like a big deal, but think about this. The car has been sitting in a 35 C degree sun for several hours. You start the car and the climate control starts blasting the hot air that’s been trapped inside the car for the past couple of hours!! The recirculation part of the A/C system ALWAYS comes on whenever you start the car. Unlike the seating issue, I don’t know if there is a way around this problem other than just having to live with it. Considering I could only come up with two complaints, you have to consider the Camry hybrid a fantastic car.

The next morning we were up at 5:30am and headed off to our destination of Bloomingdale, N.J., a nice little town only 80 kilometers or so from New York City. We spent a few relaxing hours by the lake bonding with our new puppy and his family. After saying goodbye, we stopped in the town to fill the car for our return journey. Although we had travelled a very impressive 847 kms, we still had just under a ¼ of a tank of fuel left!! I also found the cheapest gas yet, at $3.939/gallon ($1/litre). The fill-up cost us $50 and we got 12.7 (U.S.) gallons for that amount, making our journey an average of only 5.8  L/100 kms!!! Remember though, that was from Toronto – not our home. We live 130 kms from Toronto. This could make it a decidedly different factor on the return trip – read on.

Since we stayed a little longer in New Jersey than planned and I was so impressed by our fuel economy, I decided to amend the plan for the return trip. The trip back was going to be the same distance, but now I was going to make it back on my terms – as soon as I possibly could! What better way to see if driving conservatively versus aggressively would really affect the fuel economy?

On the way down, our trip through the Poconos Mountains certainly made the hybrid work for its money. Unlike other hybrid vehicles, Toyota’s Synergy system can use the engine in combination with the battery to drive the Camry, as well as use the electric motor/battery on its own – it’s a true hybrid. Ford’s system uses the electric motor/battery up to 30 mph and after that its 100% engine for all of your propulsion. The battery/electric motor doesn’t come on at all if you use the A/C or heating system. The GM “hybrid” vehicles aren’t really hybrids – they are just hybrid transmissions. 

Since the last part of our journey down was the most taxing in the fuel savings department, it became more obvious at the beginning of our return trip. We used well over ¼ of a tank of gas in just the first couple hours of our journey home. Unfortunately my plan to return as fast as possible hit a snag when large chunks of the journey were spent below the actual speed limit due to construction. Still, whenever I could, I drove at 130 km/h instead of the 115 km/h we did on the way down. I also spent more time burying the throttle instead of gradually letting the speed build – like a normal driver would.

So how was the fuel economy after I returned to my normal driving style? I didn’t fill up when I got home – I wanted to wait and fuel up as close as possible (distance-wise/tank level) to when we did on our first tank. The next day we went to my wife’s sister’s to show off our new family member and that helped get the mileage closer to a return trip to Toronto. The tank was as empty as I dared push my luck when I finally re-fueled the Camry and here are the results…

The return trip was only 734.7 kms– including side trips to my sister-in-law’s. The fill up consisted of 50.45 litres at $1.322/L making it 6.8L/100 kms. Wow! That was way better than I’d imagined it would be! Remember too that in general a hybrid gets the same fuel mileage whether on the highway or in the city, including traffic jams where it uses very little - if any fuel in stop and go traffic. Although the return trip was shorter I have one caveat: I abandoned my self-imposed 115 km/h and we returned as fast as possible – that meant my usual driving style. Although we hit a lot of road work, we did travel at 130+ km/h for extended periods.

Obviously, driving conservatively saves fuel – that much we’ve proven, but in the case of the Camry hybrid you aren’t unduly punished at the pumps if you get carried away with your right foot. Over the years I’ve found that most cars tend to achieve their city government fuel ratings while on the highway – which is usually considerably worse than the highway ratings. The Camry hybrid is rated at 5.7L/100 kms by Transport Canada in both city and highway cycles. When was the last time you heard of ANYONE getting remotely close to the actual ratings? Well, shockingly, I got 5.8L/100 on the trip down to New Jersey, and that included a lot of driving through the Pocono Mountains.

This raised one very big question….. could I beat my previous best?

Part two of the test is the trip to Mont Tremblant in Quebec. The big difference in this trip is the mountains. There are far fewer on this trip so the fuel mileage should be better than the New Jersey trip.

Our second trip was just as long, but had less time in the mountains as well as a less strenuous climb into them. The vast majority of the trip would be quite flat, but we would also be carrying an extra body as well as luggage for three – plus a dog and his extra stuff. The trunk was filled to capacity with weekender bags and a very heavy cooler. Also, the spare seat in the back was also fully utilized - we were fully laden. I figured this would be a very good comparison to an average family heading off on summer holiday.

We left home at 1am and I kept to a steady 110 kph for the entire trip – just like my original plan. I didn’t fill the car before departing, so there were a few city kilometers as well as highway kilometers (144 kms) included in the first fuel stop. Stopping for gas with the gauge registering between ¼ and ½ tank, the fill up came to $51.86 [39.7 litres] with 554 kms on the odometer. That works out to an average of 7.0L/100 km. What the…??? How could that be? I was being very good with my right foot – staying at my self-imposed limit for virtually the whole trip!!!

We arrived in Mont Tremblant at 10am Saturday morning, and the remainder of the day and evening was spent doing what most tourists do on holiday.  Although it isn’t very far between points in the area, a lot of the trips are up and down steep hills, such as the one our condo happened to be near the top of. The hybrid handled these climbs with ease, but when fully loaded it was a little wheezy on the very steep inclines. I expected this would also affect our fuel economy come fill-up time.

When it was time for our trip home on the Monday afternoon, the fuel gauge was still at the ¾ mark. When it finally came time for a fill, I still had a quarter-tank left, but was hoping to make it home in one shot without stopping again. Our second fill up of the weekend came to $58.22 (45 litres) and a total of 707.5 kms on the trip computer. That works out to 6.3 L/100 km. Thus far we’d averaged it out to 6.7 L/100km which is still pretty good. I dare anyone to find a comfortable mid-sized sedan that could come close to beating the Camry hybrid’s average economy numbers.

The added weight of another adult, the cooler and all the additional luggage took its toll on the fuel economy on our second trip. I expected a bit of drop, but not this dramatic. Have a look in your own vehicle – do you have anything in the trunk that doesn’t have to be there? A bowling ball, hockey equipment, mother-in-law? If so, how about leaving it out – it all adds up over the course of a year – less weight, better L/kms.

So how’d we do in the fuel-savings department over the course of two weeks?

My best average was 5.8 L/100 kms with a relatively empty car and two people on board.  My worst average was 7.0 L/100km with three adults, plenty of luggage and a heavy cooler on board.  But that’s not the whole story. For my entire 2-week road test we travelled a grand total of 3,611 kms, used 233 litres of regular fuel, shelling out $293.40 in the process. That works out to an average of 6.4 L/100 kms.

The Conclusion

I set a tough goal for myself – controlling my right foot in order to get the best possible fuel economy. In the grand scheme of things I didn’t compromise a lot. What I originally thought was going to be a painful exercise didn’t turn out to be so bad. It was actually a real eye-opener. In the end I probably went at speeds closer to my everyday driving than I should have, but one thing is clear – I know I could still do better in the mpg challenge than actually I did – I  would just have to be less eager to push the speedometer past 110km/h.

As a 4-door sedan – at any price-point - this is one very tough car to beat. Its price and fuel mileage are superb and I can’t think of any real downsides to the Camry hybrid other than it takes a while to go from 0-100 km/h (but it’s not so bad that you’d be better off getting out and pushing it). The price of fuel going to increase, and the hybrid will help pay for itself even quicker if the prices climb as quickly as they have in the past two years. Considering the Camry hybrid is at least $1,000 cheaper than it was two years ago, plus it has added content (moonroof for one) how can you go wrong?

By The Numbers…

Please visit your local dealer for the latest prices and incentives.

  2.4 Litre, Hybrid System, 4-Cylinder, DOHC, 16-Valve, Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i);

Electronic Throttle Control System with Intelligence (ETCS-i); Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD); Permanent magnet AC synchronous motor

Horsepower (Kw) : 
    Net: 139 [110 @ 6,000 rpm engine]

Torque (Nm):
          187 @ 4,400 rpm – gas engine / Electric motor: 190 @ 0-1,500 rpm

Fuel Consumption:  [Regular/Electric]

City and Highway: 5.7 L/100 kms
My best average was 5.8L/100 kms and my worst average was 7.0 L/100km.

The 4-cylinder is rated at 11.5 L/100kms City / 7.8 L/100kms Highway, and the 3.5 litre V-6 is rated at 12.8 L/100kms City / 8.7 L/100kms Highway.

Copyright © 2009 by Iain Shankland –  

This original, copyrighted material may NOT be copied, used in whole or in part in any way, cut and pasted, published or otherwise reproduced in any form or in any medium - which means DO NOT post this on another website or BBS. If you want somebody else to see this, send them a link or post a link to this page.


05.11.2009 / MaP

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