2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid front 3/4 view

The Toyota hybrid effort has long been dominated by the amazingly efficient Prius. As a dedicated hybrid, the platform has basked in the warm glow of headlines and celebrity love since the second-generation debuted in 2003. The plucky Atkinson hatch has easily overshadowed other Toyota hybrid efforts, including the Camry Hybrid.

That's partly due to the fact that in the past, the hybridized sedan hasn't been anything to brag about. At over $6,000 more than the base four-cylinder model, the sixth-generation Camry Hybrid was capable of returning vastly improved in-city fuel economy, but just three more miles per gallon highway than the four-pot. As a result, buyers were left wondering why they should bother with the battery pack at all.

For 2012, the Japanese automaker has turned up the efficiency and the power in the seventh-generation Camry Hybrid, giving it the fuel economy credentials it needs to best its chief rival, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, while improving overall drivability, too. The 2012 Camry Hybrid can finally hold its head high at the Toyota dinner table.

CLICK HERE to read Autoblog's First Drive review of the non-hybrid 2012 Toyota Camry.

Like the rest of the Camry line, the 2012 Camry Hybrid rides on an all-new platform, though its dimensions remain identical to the outgoing model. As a result, the vehicle looks fairly similar to the outgoing model despite having 100 percent new sheetmetal outside. Unlike the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, The Camry Hybrid is nearly indistinguishable from its non-hybrid counterparts. The sedan doesn't rely on differentiated bodywork, fascias or side sills. Instead, the vehicle comes equipped with the same fresh nose as the standard LE and XLE models. Up front, that means a swept chrome grille with integrated headlights similar to what we've seen from the revised Toyota Highlander, as well as a somewhat jutting lower air inlet and trapezoidal chrome fog light bezels.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid side view2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid front view2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid rear view

Toyota plans on allowing Camry Hybrid buyers to choose between LE and XLE trims for the first time next year. Outside, that translates into the 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels of our tester, though XLE buyers will enjoy slightly larger 17-inch alloy wheels. Those options are the same available to non-hybrid LE and XLE buyers, and both are wrapped in low-rolling resistance all-season Michelin rubber.

Though the exterior of the vehicle is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the Camry line, there are a few indicators to differentiate the hybrid from the pack. A rash of unique badges are scattered across the front fenders and trunk deck, and the front Toyota emblem is also trimmed in blue instead of black, just like the Prius fleet. Additionally, comprehensive underbody aerodynamic cladding helps the hybrid slip through the air. Toyota engineers say the vehicle boasts a .27 coefficient of drag.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid headlight2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid fog light2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid badge2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid taillights

Indoors, the Camry Hybrid utilizes a unique instrument cluster with an analog fuel economy gauge as well as power-flow display to let you know when the battery is charging, discharging or the vehicle is in Eco Mode. An animated graphic is also accessible via the infotainment system. Speaking of Eco Mode, for 2012, Toyota has incorporated the same drive modes found on the Prius. Drivers can switch between Eco and EV modes with a press of a button. Eco Mode electronically smooths throttle inputs, modifies the air conditioning operation and reduces the total throttle opening to 11.6 percent of maximum.

Out of all of the available drivetrains in the Camry line, the hybrid is the only vehicle to receive a significant engineering update for 2012. The Atkinson cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine now turns out 156 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 156 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm – increases of 9 horsepower and 18 lb-ft of torque over the outgoing vehicle.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid interior2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid front seats2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid fuel gauge2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid shifter

The engine isn't burdened by any accessory drive belts whatsoever thanks to an electronic air conditioning compressor, water pump and power steering pump. It's also mated to a hybrid transaxle with integrated motor and generator components for a seamless transition between internal combustion and electric power. Combined, the two are good for 200 horsepower while returning an estimated 43 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway. If you're counting, that should average out to around 41 mpg combined in LE trim. The gearbox is also completely bereft of clutches, bands, valves or hydraulics of any kind.

The 2012 Camry Hybrid even benefits from a redesigned battery pack. Toyota is continuing to stick with nickel-metal hydride cells for now, but the more compact design is over an inch shorter and two inches narrower compared to the last iteration. As a result, the pack's position was moved up 5.5 inches to provide more trunk space. That area has grown from 10.6 cubic feet in the 2011 to 13.1 cubic feet in the seventh-generation car, though total battery mass is still around 150 pounds. The system uses a new inverter as well with cooling tech borrowed from the Prius family.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid engine

Thanks to the bump in power, the Camry Hybrid feels only slightly slower than its siblings equipped with the 178-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. That's no surprise given that the battery-equipped sedan weighs 3,417 pounds – nearly 220 pounds heavier than its non-hybrid counterpart. Even so, acceleration is more than adequate for jaunts around town or dueling with traffic on the interstate. In fact, the vehicle hardly drives like a stereotypical hybrid until you press the Eco Mode button. That's when the powertrain gets really stingy.

In fact, the Camry Hybrid only suffers from one stereotypically hybrid problem – its brakes. The regenerative stoppers still aren't very linear. While not as grabby as less refined systems, there's still the sense that coming to a stop requires more effort and distance than the non-hybrid Camry. That could be a product of the extra weight, however.

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid rear 3/4 view

We'll have to spend a little more time with the newest member of the Toyota hybrid clan to accurately judge fuel economy, but if Toyota has managed to come anywhere near the vehicle's estimates, the Camry Hybrid should put a dent in Ford Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid sales. While we still aren't convinced that hybrids and EVs are our best solution ecologically, the Camry Hybrid makes a good case for itself economically.