Although the Toyota Camry existed in the carmaker’s line in the 1980s, it was only in the early 1990s that it became a global model when it was designated as the second ‘World Car’ after the Corolla. Toyota invested some A$400 million to build a brand new factory in Australia which would be a global production hub for the model. As a global model, the Camry achieved something which the Corolla did not and that was to become the best-selling passenger car in the USA, then the world’s largest car market.

The Camry was introduced in Malaysia in June 1994 as a successor to the Corona and sold well because of its size and also its appearance which some regarded as being somewhat like the first generation of the Lexus LS400 which had been introduced in 1989 (in America). The appealing design of the Camry was partly due to the insistence of senior executives in Toyota’s US subsidiary who rejected the prototype that had been developed which had the boring boxy lines typical of Japanese sedans of that period. Fortunately for them, the top management of Toyota supported them and ordered the chief engineer to come up with a design that would be more acceptable internationally, especially to Americans.

Today sees the launch of a mid-cycle update of the current Camry generation which has been on sales in Malaysia since June 2012. Normally, changes made in the middle of a generation are cosmetic, to refresh the looks and a few extra features might be included. However, for this update, there is significant change as, for the first time in the history of the Camry sold in Malaysia, a hybrid powertrain is offered. In fact, it is also the first time that a Toyota hybrid model is assembled locally. And with the duty-free incentive still available for locally-assembled hybrids (under the current National Automotive Policy), the pricing can be attractive too otherwise it would cost around RM250,000 which would be unacceptable to buyers.

Prices include insurance premium and GST

Besides the hybrid powertrain, it is also significant that there is also a brand new engine with direct fuel-injection replacing the previous 2-litre unit. Normally, engines don’t change during a product cycle and sometimes, they are even retained for two generations. But it’s perhaps a reflection of how competitive the industry is and also the faster pace of technological innovation that allows companies to introduce new technologies faster.

With the introduction of the hybrid variant, UMW Toyota Motor has dropped the Camry 2.5 which was previously available so the Camry Hybrid is the flagship in the new generation. The other options are two variants which have the 2.0-litre engine but where the smaller engine sold in the largest numbers before (for the Camry range), UMW Toyota Motor is now expecting the Camry Hybrid, which has an engine with a 2.5-litre displacement, to account for almost 80% of total Camry sales.

The introduction of the Camry Hybrid is not a surprise as it was announced a few years ago. It was part of the planning when it was decided to resume local assembly of the model in Malaysia. Although the hybrid variant was also assembled in Thailand earlier, its engine size of 2.5 litres did not qualify it for the duty exemptions earlier which were only for models with engines smaller than 2000 cc, so it would have been expensive even with the import-duty exemption under the AFTA agreement. However, due to the time needed to prepare the plant with extra equipment needed to assemble a hybrid model, UMW Toyota Motor decided to wait till the mid-cycle facelift to introduce the hybrid variant.

Compared to the 2014 Camry, the new one has substantially changed looks at the front end. Where the previous ‘face’ was more ‘majestic’ like the Crown’s, the latest one is sportier and follows the design approach which first appeared on prototypes about 3 years ago and has since been used for models introduced in the past few years (eg, Vios, Corolla Altis and even the latest Mirai FCV). It’s a look that is said to blend ‘a heightened emphasis on dramatic design and modern elements of high technology to generate strong appeal’.

The radiator grille no longer has the rather conservative design and there are actually two different designs to distinguish the two variants: a lateral fin type for the Camry 2.0 and a mesh type for the Camry Hybrid. The difference is more evident in the lower half of the front end and like other Toyota hybrid models, the Toyota badge has a blue ‘glow’.

The profile is the same as before with the forward-leaning wedge shape that gives a mature, strongly defined appearance. At the rear, the bumper has been reprofiled for a more three-dimensional look. The two-section design has a lower portion in black to give a sporty look and for the Camry 2.0, there are now dual tailpipes (shown in picture above).

Under the bonnet of the Camry Hybrid is the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system Drive which is the product of almost 20 years of evolution since being first introduced in the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid car in the world. It has undergone constant improvement to increase performance and efficiency over the years and has been specially engineered to suit the larger size of the Camry.

Unlike the hybrid systems in models offered by some other brands, the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive can provide propulsion from either the engine or electric motor at any time, or use both when conditions require. In this way, the benefits of both types of propulsion systems are used to maximum advantage to achieve the best driving performance as well as fuel economy.

The system combines output from the 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder petrol engine (2AR-FXE) and a small high-torque electric motor. The system produces a total output of 205 ps with up to 213 Nm of torque available from the engine and 270 Nm from the electric motor. Typically, only the electric motor is used when starting off, reducing fuel consumption as well as exhaust emissions. In certain conditions and up to about 40 km/h, it is possible to drive in pure electric mode (EV mode) which means absolutely no fuel is consumed and noise levels are very low as well. This is great when moving around carparks looking for a space as no fuel is wasted.

To maximise fuel-savings, there is an ECO mode which can be manually activated by the driver. When the system is in this mode, accelerator pedal response is ‘dampened’ so that rapid inputs at low speeds do not impact consumption. The air-conditioning characteristics are also modified although comfort is still maintained. However, the performance characteristics in ECO mode are different from the normal mode and the mode can be left off if the driver does not require maximum fuel-savings.

As with other Toyota hybrid models, the Camry Hybrid uses an Electronic Continuously Variable Transmission (E-CVT) to deliver power from the Hybrid Synergy Drive to the front wheels. The E-CVT is a power-splitting mechanism which transmits power from the engine to the generator as well as to the wheels. It is the latest generation of such units developed by Toyota and offers enhanced driving performance, reduced energy drain and lower noise levels.

Unlike some other models in the market, when the system is not running (eg when stopped at a traffic light) or when running in EV mode, the air-conditioning system continues to operate as normal. The occupants will therefore not experience discomfort as the air-conditioner compressor is driven electrically to continue cooling down the incoming air.

Although hybrid battery pack is at the back, boot space is not sacrificed

The battery pack uses nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) and not lithium-ion which is becoming more common these days. Although some Toyota hybrids do have lithium-ion batteries, Toyota prefers to use the NiMH type which has proven reliability and also costs less (it makes all its batteries at its own subsidiary company in Japan). Of course, battery technology has improved a lot since the 1990s and the packs are more compact with a higher energy density too. For peace of mind, UMW Toyota Motor gives an 8-year warranty on the battery pack.

As for the new 6AR-FE engine in the new Camry 2.0, it’s a brand new unit and as mentioned earlier, it’s the first engine in a locally-assembled Toyota which has direct fuel injection (DFI) for its fuel-delivery system. DFI systems were first used in Toyota engines in 1996 and eventually became known as the ‘D-4S’ system. While the concept of injecting fuel instead of using a carburettor is not complex, injecting it directly into the combustion chamber has taken a while due to the higher cost of using such a system. Compared to indirect injection which occurs in the inlet ports, the injectors for DFI, being within the combustion chamber, must be able to withstand the high temperatures and high compression. Thus, materials technology had to become more advanced and less costly in order for wider adoption of DFI which is also referred to as ‘GDI’ or ‘Gasoline Direct Injection’.

Over the 20 years of producing engines with DFI, Toyota has constantly been improving the technology and the D-4S system used in the engine of the latest Camry has many advancements. Its system combines DFI with port injectors used when the engine is idling after warm-up so as to have quieter operation, while a high compression ratio of 12.7:1 enhances combustion efficiency. The engine was tested extensively on Malaysian petrol and can achieve the maximum output with RON95.

VVT-iW system is a more advanced variable valve timing system on the intake side

The new variable valve timing system in the engine’s cylinder head is a far more advanced system than the original Variable Valve Timing – intelligent (VVT-i) which has featured in many Toyota engines over the past decade. Known as VVT-iW (Variable Valve Timing – intelligent Wide), it features standard VVT-i on the exhaust valves and VVT-iW on the intake side. The latter has a mid-position camshaft lock mechanism which retards the continuously variable valve timing. This allows the engine to run in the Atkinson cycle at low revs for improved fuel economy and lower emissions, and in the Otto cycle at higher engine speeds, for enhanced power delivery and performance, whilst delivering high torque output throughout the rev band. The ability to run two types of cycles is something unique as the Atkinson cycle has only been used in the hybrid model petrol engines. So Toyota’s engineers have drawn on their vast experience in hybrid powertrains to improve the conventional engine.

With the high compression ratio, the new engine generates 167 ps/199 Nm, a 13.9% increase in power over the previous 2.0-litre 1AZ-FE engine. Yet it is also claimed to be  16% – 20% more economical.

While increased performance and fuel efficiency were targeted, the engineers were also told to reduce noise, vibrations and harshness (NVH) as much as possible so that travelling in the Camry would be a more pleasant experience. Besides modifications to the body structure, much effort also went into reducing noise and vibrations from the engine. A balance shaft was adopted to cancel out inherent vibrations. The balance shaft uses resin gears which have low mesh noise. Additionally, the inertia mass of balance weight has been optimised to reduce booming noise perceived by passengers. Other measures include making many structures in the engine more rigid and the addition of stiffening ribs within the intake manifold. The surge tank volume has also been optimized to provide a combination of high output and quietness.

The transmission is a new Multi-Mode 6-speed Super ECT automatic transmission with a torque converter. Lighter than the previous unit, it has features that reduce power losses and fuel economy is enhanced with the use of a flex-start control system. When starting off, the lock-up clutch is proactively engaged so that power transfer is stronger, and the engine speed can be lowered. Additionally, the system can continue operating after upshifting to second gear for enhanced driveability.

There are no changes to the suspension layout but the new Camry is now fitted with a preload differential on the front axle. This differential increases stability during acceleration, while reducing side-to-side motion. The preload differential also offers other driving benefits as it improves control both under acceleration from a standstill and during cornering. The computer-controlled, vehicle speed-sensitive Electric Power Steering system has also been tuned to combine accuracy and precise control with better feel at all vehicle speeds.

To reduce the NVH, the shock absorber characteristics also have been fine-tuned to improve ride comfort. Increasing the amount of sound damping material within the front doors, and also increasing the amount of sound absorbing material within the front doors and beneath the carpet, making the interior quieter still to create an even more comfortable, luxurious cabin environment.

The interior of the new Camry maintains the sort of spaciousness and feel that is expected of an executive sedan. Changes include a redesigned centre cluster with bevelled surfaces on the sides and an inverted U-shape in the middle. Woodgrain is used for trim panels which gives a sense of luxury. Rather unusually (for a mid-cycle product), the instrument panel has been changed too. There is more depth with chrome plating  and clear blue illumination is now used in conjunction with white illumination for the lettering, gradations and pointers.

Between the speedometer and tachometer is a 4.2-inch colour Multi Information Display (MID) which provides the driver with information such as the gear position, shift range, warning messages, fuel consumption and external temperature. For the Camry Hybrid, the MID also has an Energy Monitor so that the driver is aware of how the Hybrid Synergy Drive is functioning. Power flows are shown in graphic form so the driver will know when the driving conditions or even driving style are optimal. There is also a Hybrid System Indicator provided which displays the output and charging status of the system in real-time. This indicator can help a driver achieve more economical driving.

Being the flagship variant, the Camry Hybrid has a more extensive range of standard equipment which includes an electrochromic rearview, wireless charging tray and even a nano-e generator that is said to improve air quality in the cabin.

The DVD Audio-Video Navigation system for the Camry Hybrid offers an advanced level of connectivity whereby the system can interface with compatible smartphones (Android and iOS) using Bluetooth and wifi to make it possible to access the internet from the vehicle. There is also Voice Recognition for the audio and navigation systems, adding to convenience. All information is shown on a 7-inch capacitive touchscreen which responds to hand and air gestures. Additional features include widget customisation and screen mirroring as well as HDMI compatibility.

Toyota gives priority to safety, both in driving as well as in occupant protection and from this year onwards, it is raising the safety provisions it offers in its products, in many cases using new and more advanced technology. The Camry Hybrid has some of these new safety technologies which have already been seen in some Lexus models which are more expensive.

Besides the usual active safety systems like ABS, EBD and Vehicle Stability Control with Traction Control, there is also Hill Start Assist Control and an Emergency Stop Signal which activates the hazard warning lights during hard/sudden braking.

A Blind Spot Monitor system uses radar waves to detect other vehicles around the car which may not be visible in the mirrors. It operates from 16 km/h and can detect other vehicles within a metre of the car, alerting the driver with bright illuminated on either the left or right mirror. If a turn signal is activated and there is another vehicle too close, the warning indicator on the mirror will flash to provide a stronger alert to the driver.

Blind Spot Monitor scans areas next to and behind the Camry and alerts the driver if there are any vehicles, including motorcycles, nearby in the blind spots on either side

The same system of sensors also works with the Rear Cross Traffic Alert System. This is especially useful when reversing out of a parking space and the view left and right is blocked by other cars. If a vehicle is approaching at a distance between 5.5 metres and 20 metres, the driver will be alerted by a buzzer and flashing indicators on the door mirrors. That should help avoid a serious collision and what would certainly be an expensive repair job.

For the Camry 2.0G, the active safety systems like those in the Camry Hybrid are also present but not so in the Camry 2.0E. The 2-litre variants also come with just 2 airbags (the Camry Hybrid has 7 airbags all around) but UMW Toyota Motor feels that the safety equipment level is acceptable for now, taking into consideration what other rival models (in the 2-litre class) offer. It’s an issue that often generates debate but from the business point of view, companies often do not over-provide as it costs money  – unless they want to go on the offensive to beat others.

The Camry Hybrid is certainly going to win many buyers for Toyota and the fact that it has been introduced may lead some people to think it is Toyota’s response to being beaten by Honda. Actually, things don’t happen that fast in the auto industry and what has been launched today has been planned for a number of years. It is a coincidence that it has been launched at this time but it also shows that Toyota has a ‘technological arsenal’ which it can and will draw upon to regain and fortify its position.

To locate a showroom to view/test-drive the new Camry, visit www.toyota.com.my

[Chips Yap]

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