The 2017 Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid surprises with its competence and yes, power! [Review]

The Toyota Camry surprised me again.

The first time I drove a Camry, I had very low expectations. But it not only exceeded them, it blew them away. Now the 2017 Toyota Camry XLE hybrid I’ve been driving for the past week has done it again.

My first Camry was a 2016 SE Special Edition. It was the first time I’d ever driven a Camry, and I had low expectations coming in. I mean, it’s a Camry, it’s the definition of beige. But almost immediately, it impressed me by being not only comfortable – that’s a given in this segment – but also stylish and sporty. I had more fun than I though possible in a Camry.

When I got the Camry Hybrid, I had equally low expectations. Part of it is because of the SE I tested earlier. How can a hybrid be more fun than the sportier SE? Then there’s the fact that I drove a car with this same exact powertrain – a 2015 Lexus ES 300h – that didn’t impress me at all.

But man, was I wrong. And I realized it as soon as I mashed the throttle.

Styling

Camrys have looked the same for a while. 2017 is the last model year for this generation, and it still looks the same as it did when it got a major refresh for the 2015 model year. As such, though, it’s a good looking car. I liked the SE and I like the Hybrid. It’s a simple, understated design that I still think looks better than the Honda Accord, even though it’s not as nice as a Mazda6.

The test car is painted Ruby Flare Pearl (ignore the silver car in the photos – those are from the manufacturer) and it doesn’t pop like the SE’s blue, but since this is the XLE version – the highest trim in the luxury Camry line – it fits the car’s personality. Like all Toyotas, the paint is deep and free of any defects.

Inside, the Camry is starting to look a little dated, but it’s still a fine place to spend time. The center console’s large buttons give it a Jitterbug-esque look, which doesn’t do anything to help fix the Camry’s reputation as a retiree’s car, but at least they are simple and intuitive.

The steering wheel is wide and reassuring. A fake metallic center strip and gently curved character lines give the Camry’s interior some visual appeal, and as usual materials and fit-and-finish are first-rate. Toyota knows how to screw together a vehicle.

Performance

Under the hood of the Camry Hybrid is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 156 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to an electric motor that makes 105 kW (140.8 hp) and 199 lb-ft of torque. The combined maximum horsepower of the sealed unit is 200 horsepower. This horsepower number makes it actually more powerful than the base four-cylinder Camry, which makes 178 hp.

The big difference, though, is the electric motor’s torque, all 199 lb-ft of which is available instantly. Mashing the throttle in the Camry Hybrid brings a satisfying surge of power as both engines work to propel the 3,585-lb sedan with authority. It brought a huge grin to my face the first time I floored it. Maybe it’s because I just spent a week in the forward-momentum-challenged Corolla, but it’s a sensation that I don’t think I’d ever get tired of.

Putting that power to the front wheels is an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. CVTs usually kill off the fun of any car they’re in, but to me, the Toyota’s hybrid drivetrain – whether in a Camry, a Prius, or anything else they stick it in – fits perfectly with a CVT. It adds to the electrical nature of the power delivery. No one complains that a Tesla doesn’t have gears, and although the Camry has nowhere near the ludicrous speed of a Model S, it has a very similar feel.

Ride and Handling

Camrys always ride well – they’re pretty much Lexuses, after all – but, as I experienced in the Camry SE, they can be fun, too.

I wouldn’t necessarily call the Camry Hybrid tossable, though – its extra weight precludes that – but it is buttoned down and predictable through the corners. It’s not a sports car, but it won’t make you pucker if you hit a corner too fast.

Although I don’t have proof of this, I would think that the extra hybrid weight necessitates a stiffer suspension. I didn’t feel much difference between the Hybrid and the SE, but I would have to drive a gasoline-powered XLE Camry as a final comparison. Worse case, if this is how the non-sport Camrys handle, they still hold their own quite well.

Steering is much the same as the SE, too. It’s numb, for sure – most cars are these days – but it never feels sloppy and it’s just as accurate as the SE’s steering. It tracks straight and true and has just enough weight to be engaging.

One area Toyota still hasn’t perfected on their hybrids is braking, and the Camry is no different. It must be difficult to balance mechanical braking with electric motor regeneration, because the Camry’s brakes – just like the Prius’ – are grabby and difficult to modulate. It’s something that can be learned, but it never feels quite as natural as the brakes on a regular gas-powered car. The SE’s brakes were strong and predictable.

Utility

Camrys are first and foremost family sedans, so they have all the utility one would expect for that role. The interior is vast and can handle four normal-sized adults with opulent ease. A long trip for two couples would be no problem in this car. Three can sit in the back in a pinch, and with decent comfort for a short trip.

Storage space abounds in the cabin, with a large center console compartment under the adjustable armrest, door pockets that can fit large water bottles on each door, and an additional compartment with retractable door in front of the gear selector for cell phones.

This Camry has the optional Qi wireless charging, but like the SE, it’s too small for my large iPhone 6S Plus, but those with smaller phones – and the ability to charge wirelessly – should have no problem. A standard 12v outlet and a USB port can handle any other power needs.

The trunk is slightly compromised by the electric motor’s battery pack, but Toyota engineers were still able to carve out a small pass-through for long items. Most people won’t miss the two less cubic feet of space over the standard Camry, as at 13.1 cubic feet it’s still plenty big enough for most normal use cases.

Comfort and Convenience

The Camry’s front seats are a bit stiffly padded – not as coddly as in other luxury cars – but are still long-distance comfortable. They’re a little wide for my frame – I slide around a bit in fast corners – but that means larger drivers should still feel comfortable without being pinched.

Soft-touch material abounds in any place a driver or passenger would usually touch, like the door sills and arm rests. Leg, shoulder and hip room are also plentiful. The Camry is a roomy sedan.

The only thing that might not sit well with some people – pun intended – is that the front seats don’t drop as low as one would expect. Even at their lowest settings, the front seats still higher than expected. It does give the driver a commanding view of the road, but it might turn off some potential buyers. Personally, I like sitting low in a car, so at first it seemed a bit off to me. Eventually, though, I got used to it.

The infotainment system is typical Toyota. Their system hasn’t changed in a while. It still looks dated, it’s still easy to use, and it still doesn’t have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Toyota insists on going it alone with their own Entune app system, and while it works reasonably well, it’s still not as good as the Apple or Google products.

At least it sounds good. The optional JBL system is one of the better factory systems I’ve heard, and the cavernous interior lends itself to good acoustics. The whisper-quiet cabin also helps make the audio sound better as it doesn’t have to compete with wind or road noise.

Economy

Here is where the Hybrid should shine. For the record, the Camry Hybrid is rated at 40 mpg city, 37 mpg highway and 38 mpg combined. Contrast that to 24/33/27 for the four-cylinder and 21/30/24 for the V6.

In my real-world testing, however, the Camry Hybrid only managed a little over 32 mpg, just two mpg better than I got after a week with the four-cylinder SE. That doesn’t make the roughly $4,000 premium over a four-cylinder XLE seem worth it, but I think I’ve figured out why I never get anywhere near the gas mileage in a hybrid as I should get (the last Prius Two Eco I drove being the only exception).

Although most of my test miles are in-town driving, which should be right in a hybrid’s wheelhouse, I live in a relatively small city that doesn’t have a lot of stop-and-go traffic. Most times, traffic moves relatively smoothly through even the busiest parts of downtown – thank good planning and intelligent stoplights – which means that the hybrid system doesn’t have a chance to do the things that give it that high mileage rating, things like turning off the gas engine at lights or operating in EV mode.

During my time with the Camry Hybrid, though, I took a trip to a larger city close by that has a lot more traffic and a lot more stop-and-go driving. Although I was only there a brief time, I routinely got more than 40 mpg because of all the stops and starts and the slower pace that allowed for more EV time.

Value and Competition

The Camry XLE Hybrid starts at $30,140 plus $895 destination. The test car is fairly loaded – some options good, some options not so good – that brings the price plus destination up to $37,492. Compared to its competition, the Camry is right in the thick of it. The test XLE is top-line, but the Hybrid powertrain can be added to even the lowest LE trim level.

I’ve talked about the Hybrid Tax before, which is the price of the hybrid over a comparable gas-powered model, and in this case it’s around $4,000. Like I said in past hybrid reviews, it would take many, many years to make up that difference in gas saving alone.

Based on my own experiences with gas mileage in this car, this is my best advice for whether to choose the hybrid or the gas model: if you live in an area where you will do a lot of stop-and-go driving, by all means get the hybrid. If not, save the money and get the four-cylinder, or spend a little more and get the more powerful V6.

There’s another compelling reason to get the hybrid, though, that has nothing to do with fuel economy – power. Yes, that might sound surprising to talk about “hybrid” and “power” in the same sentence without the words “lack of” in the middle, but it’s true. The hybrid is more powerful than the standard four-cylinder, and it’s that instant torque that gives the Camry Hybrid its own, unique feel. Even as my time with the Camry wound down, I still never got tired of the rush of acceleration from the gas/electric motors.

Summary

Buy itOn the TFLcar scale of:

  • Buy It,
  • Lease It,
  • Rent It,
  • or Forget It,

The 2017 Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid gets a Buy It, but with a caveat.

That caveat, of course, being mileage. If your driving situation lets you reap the benefits of the hybrid powertrain, then buy it. If not, skip the hybrid and save some money.

I have to admit, I’m thoroughly impressed with the Camry line as a whole. As I said in the beginning, it exceeded my expectations not once, but twice. To be honest, after driving a Corolla for a week, I really can’t understand why Toyota sells 300,000 of them a year.

However, I completely understand why they sell 300,000-plus Camrys a year. It’s a car that oozes quality, and it never makes you feel like you’ve been had, or that you didn’t get your money’s worth. Plus it’s a car that can surprise with its competence and put a grin on your face when it should have no business doing so. I can’t wait to drive the new one.

2017 Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid Specifications

Base Price: $30,140
Price As Tested: $37,492
Engine: 2.5-liter inline four with 105-kW electric motor
Horsepower: 156 hp @ 5,700 rpm (gas), 105 kW (140.8 hp) @ 4,500 rpm (electric), 200 hp combined
Torque: 156 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm (gas), 199 lb-ft @ 0-1,500 rpm (electric)
Transmission: Electronic CVT
Drivetrain: Front engine/front drive
EPA fuel mileage: 40 mpg city/37 mpg highway/38 mpg combined
Fuel capacity: 17 gallons
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 190.9 inches
Width: 71.7 inches
Height: 57.9 inches
Curb Weight: 3,585 lbs

Check out this older, but still valid, related TFLcar video of the 2015 Camry Hybrid vs the V6 version:

John Inama
John’s love of cars started an early age. He bought his first issue of Road & Track at age 12, and has wanted to be an automotive writer ever since. He believes in the old adage that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. When not writing about cars, John is a professional computer geek and lives with his wife and dogs on the high plains of Wyoming.