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A spin in the Toyota Camry Hybrid gives a tubular experience

T he new Toyota Camry Hybrid I just spent five days driving reminds me of toothpaste, and not just because of the refreshing minty green color.

The Camry was actually pre-new, a prototype of a model that won't be in car stores until late April or early May. Toyota turned it over to me instead of an experienced, authoritative auto writer because -- well, I have no idea why an otherwise smart car company would do that. But I brought it back unscathed, which is more than some legitimate auto writers have done.

One of my colleagues once checked a brand-new Chevy Corvette out of the car library, skidded on an icy road and introduced $50,000 worth of sports car to a tree. Mortified, he called his contact at GM.

"Are you OK?" the contact asked. Reassured, he immediately asked a follow-up: "Want another one?"

Jeez. You'd think they had a factory or something.

The Camry Hybrid factory is in Georgetown, Ky., though my early version was bolted together in Japan. Cutting to the chase, it's an impressive vehicle, but those who reflexively root against foreign products might be heartened by an analysis from car expert Dave Cole.

Efficient to the last squeeze

Cole is a former University of Michigan engineering professor who chairs the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, and he had the Camry before I did.

"They've done a terrific job," he says, "but the fact is, everybody's doing a terrific job these days." So by that measure, the hybrid version of America's best-selling sedan is only OK.

As for the toothpaste part, it's a good thing, unless you think we'd be better off if we burned more of the world's supply of unleaded than we already do.

Among the gauges on the zippy-looking, two-tone gray dashboard is one marked "MPG Consumption." It lets you know when you're being efficient and when you're being clumsy. Trying to keep it happy, I found myself driving 65 mph on the freeway instead of 70, accelerating more slowly from red lights, and generally acting as though I was trying to squeeze the final dollop from a tube of automotive Crest.

The truth uncapped

Early EPA estimates said the hybrid would get 43 mpg in the city and 37 on the freeway. In 240 miles, about a third of them on surface streets, I averaged a more modest 30.

A performance-driving friend who piloted us to Dearborn for lunch found the transmission indecisive sometimes when it switched from electric to gasoline power. Also, the compass seemed oddly confused, sometimes contradicting the GPS. Unless things changed dramatically while I was obsessing over the Super Bowl, 12 Mile is not a southbound street.

That's it for knocks. On the plus side, I had four teenaged passengers one night, and they pronounced the back seat and legroom "sweet." Likewise the styling, instruments and sound system: "Sweet!"

Toyota publicist Bill Kwong says pricing remains undetermined. A normal, nicely dressed 2007 Camry will go for somewhere around $25,000, and the company hopes to hold the extra fee for a hybrid to somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000.

There, alas, the toothpaste analogy expires. For all the good things in your Sunday paper, there will be no Camry coupons.

Reach Neal Rubin at (313) 222-1874, nru or 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226.

A spin in the Toyota Camry Hybrid gives a tubular experience
Japanese Import Car, New & Used Car, 2007