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Into the mainstream

By certain lights, the 2007 Camry Hybrid is not particularly revolutionary. Here we have a nicely equipped, 3,637-pound, five-passenger sedan with 192 horsepower, costing about $30,000 (final pricing has yet to be confirmed). Styling reminds me of the old Merle Travis song: So round, so firm, so fully packed. The ride and handling are straight-up Pink Floyd: comfortably numb.

But, ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is the Buick from another planet. Beneath the almost laughably stately sheetmetal is a still-slightly radical, state-of-the-art gas-electric powertrain allowing the sedan to post estimated EPA fuel economy numbers of 43 miles per gallon city, 37 mpg highway, and 40 mpg combined driving.

Of course, reasonable minds can and do disagree about the real-world cost advantages of hybrid technology, how it may stack up against advanced diesel systems or how perishable hybrid batteries might be. But the Camry Hybrid inarguably tosses this alien, Left Coast technology in the laps of Middle America. After all, this isn't some refugee from "Minority Report," like the Prius, or a $50,000 luxury SUV, like the Lexus RX 400h. This is the bestselling car in America, seven out of the last eight years, the heart of the market.

And so the Camry Hybrid is deeply subversive, undercutting the automotive-identity politics that have separated hybrid technology from bien-pensant Americans who might otherwise think it's all a plot reeking of patchouli and macrobiotic ice cream.

You could not ask for a more conventional, non-threatening, more American sedan than this. (North American-market Camrys are built in Kentucky.) The new car, the same overall length as the 2006 model (189.2 inches), sits on a wheelbase stretched 2.2 inches. Overall width is up 1 inch. But because of the new, high-shouldered, bluffly horizontal styling, the car has much greater visual draft and displacement than the measurements suggest.

There's nothing rakish or aggressive about the car's new styling, no trick graphics or plunging hood lines. What the Camry is on the inside — safe, reliable, sturdy, bourgeois — it is on the outside. This car is the radon of midsize exurban transportation: odorless, colorless, invisible.

How does it drive? Quintessentially Camry-like. Unlike the spanking-quick Honda Accord Hybrid, which uses the hybrid power to boost the performance of its V6 powerplant, the Camry moves at a deliberate and unhurried pace — which is to say, it's kind of slow. Although it has enough asphalt savvy for ordinary driving, it's rather yacht-like in its cornering and steering responses.

Lush and lux. In the relentlessly improving way that Toyota has, the new Camry continues to advance the state of middle-market motoring. Its lubricious refinement, quiet and bronze-bell solidity are wonders to behold. And yet, as compared to the still-excellent outgoing Camry, the new car only feels like a better class of opium.

Which makes the fuel economy all the more remarkable. Compared to the fuel economy of the 2.4-liter, automatic-equipped LE model (24 mpg city, 33 highway) the Hybrid offers about 30% better fuel economy than the four-cylinder, even though it is heavier (by 352 pounds) and more powerful (by 34 horsepower).

As such it's the perfect delivery system for Toyota's hybrid marketing strategy, which may be called the mainstreaming of hybrids. Commercials for the Toyota Camry Hybrid — bilingual, no less — will debut during the Super Bowl this weekend. The revolution will be televised.

Industry watchers have to push their fedoras back on their heads and let out a low whistle. Toyota has played this game exactly right. The company invested heavily in its Hybrid Synergy Drive, won over early adopters with the Prius and is now amortizing the technology across its product line, all the while welding a bond in the consumer's mind between Toyota and high-tech fuel economy.

Honda — which makes excellent hybrids of its own — is running a distant second in hybrid sales, and other manufacturers are dithering at the starting line. GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz once scoffed at hybrid technology, calling it more a marketing ploy than a breakthrough in propulsion, and he was half right. Hybrids work.

This is the sixth generation of the Camry, which was introduced in the U.S. in 1983. Since then the car has moved inexorably up market until it has reached the near-luxury position it's in, nipping at the heels of Toyota's Nile barge, the Avalon. In addition to the Hybrid, the 2007 Camry line offers four trim levels with two conventional gas engines — a 2.4-liter, 158-horsepower inline 4 paired with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic; or a 3.5-liter, 268-hp V6 paired with a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

By dint of an enlarged greenhouse and a dash that sweeps away from the front passengers, the new Camry creates a feeling of unusual spaciousness, even though by the numbers — inches of legroom, headroom, hip room — it is comparable to competitors such as the Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima and Chrysler 300.

As per usual, everything works beautifully in the Camry cabin, and in the navigation-equipped models, the console is dressed in a frosted white-blue acrylic, like the fluted glass of an Art Deco breakfront. Even though the Hybrid's lump of a battery is situated between the rear seats and the trunk, Toyota designers have managed to preserve the 60/40 folding rear seats.

The Hybrid occupies the top of the Camry pyramid and, so, is loaded to the gills, including a 440-watt AM/FM/MP3 audio system with eight speakers and six-disc changer equipped with Bluetooth for hand's-free, voice-activated telephony and Toyota's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. VDIM is a sophisticated safety system orchestrating antilock brakes, traction control, stability control and steering boost systems. The Hybrid's option list is short: moonroof, navigation system, leather-trimmed interior and heated seats.

Meanwhile, as acknowledgment that cars such as the Hyundai Sonata are closing fast on Toyota's grandee, the base model Camry, the CE, is well equipped too, including seven airbags, ABS, traction control (stability control is optional, alas), 16-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes, power amenities, and tilt and telescopic steering adjustments.

Here's a talker. The Camry XLE, the wood-and-leather edition, uses an interior fabric treated with something called the Fraichir process: The fabric is coated with the emollient Sericin, derived from silkworm cocoons. So there you have it: buttered buns.

CYNICS have argued that people who buy hybrids merely want to advertise their progressive, Earth-friendly values, and that hybridizing conventional cars — Camry, Honda Accord and Civic, Toyota Lexus RX400 — doesn't offer them a green flag to wave. I think this notion underestimates the satisfactions of self-knowledge, as well the fun of saving money. In any event, the Camry Hybrid has a few distinguishing traits: some discrete "Hybrid" badging, LED taillights and blue-tinted headlight reflectors.

These same cynics may argue that the hybrid premium isn't worth the savings in gas. I disagree. In my week of rather lead-footed driving, I got 30.5 miles per gallon in mixed driving — outstanding for a big, heavy sedan but certainly nothing like the 40 mpg indicated by the government's soon-to-be-revised fuel economy tests. Even so, in a lifespan of 150,000 miles, a Camry Hybrid owner (driving like me and Don Prudhomme) would save about 1,500 gallons of gas compared to a conventionally powered Camry — remember 30% better fuel economy? — or about $4,500, assuming $3 per gallon gas, and we should be so lucky. Assuming a "premium" of $3,000, the hybrid option would more than pay for itself, albeit slowly.

As for the government's hybrid vehicle tax credit that was passed as part of last year's Omnibus Energy Bill? If you can figure it out, you may benefit. Toyota estimates the Camry Hybrid tax credit — calculated based on vehicle size and fuel saving — to be worth $3,000. However, the program is structured so that once a manufacturer sells 60,000 hybrids in a year, their vehicles' tax credit eligibility starts to wind down, beginning with the fiscal quarter after the quarter in which the threshold is reached (is this a government program or what?). For the next two fiscal quarters, the incentive is worth 50% (or $1,500) and drops to 25% the following two quarters.

It all depends on when the 60,000-vehicle trigger is reached. Seeing as how Toyota will sell more than 100,000 Priuses alone in the U.S. this year, and the Camry will not be available for a few months yet, Toyota's tax credit may be used up before many Camry buyers can take advantage of the new rule.

Further incidentals: The Camry Hybrid would not be eligible for carpool-lane access, since its combined fuel economy is less than 45 mpg (Prius and Honda's Civic and Insight all qualify). For many Angelenos, that's not so incidental.

We may agonize over the dollar-per-dollar benefits of hybrids, but I suspect most people attracted to this technology are motivated by something deeper, something grander. The United States was not always the squandering, gluttonous society it is today. In fact, thrift, economy and modesty are intertwined with the nation's Puritan DNA. Waste not, want not, a penny saved, etc.

This abstemious streak is still part of our makeup, waiting to be aroused. Perhaps it is the part that will save us.


* 2007 Toyota Camry HybridBase price: $29,995 (est.)Price, as tested: $33,000 (est.)Powertrain: Gas-electric hybrid powertrain with a 2.4-liter DOHC Atkinson-cycle gas engine with variable-valve timing and lift; 105 kW permanent magnet synchronous electric traction motor; electronically controlled continuously variable transmission; front-wheel driveHorsepower: 192 at 6,000 rpmTorque: n/aCurb weight: 3,637 pounds0-60 mph: 8.9 secondsWheelbase: 109.3 inchesOverall length: 189.2 inchesEPA fuel economy: 43 miles per gallon city, 37 mpg highway, 40 mpg combined (est.)Final thoughts: A hybrid that will play in Peoria.

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