Toyota's Prius was a triumph as the first hybrid gasoline-electric car sold in America that you wouldn't be afraid to drive on Long Island - unlike the tiny two-seat Honda Insight.
Although the Prius' estimates for fuel economy (especially the 60 miles per gallon in city driving) from the Environmental Protection Agency have turned out to be overly optimistic, its real world mid-40s mpg isn't too shabby. The five-passenger sedan, whose interior classifies it as a midsize car, makes an excellent commuter vehicle, if not the primary vehicle for an American family.
For '07 comes another milestone: a hybrid version of the Toyota Camry, America's best- selling passenger car - reliable, capable and common as dirt - the Toastmaster toaster of cars, easy to like and, yes, just as easy to forget.
It's another good hybrid in that it improves fuel economy, performs seamlessly and adequately and provides another way for American motorists to do their bit to reduce the nation's oil dependence with no painful changes in lifestyle.
But if your interest is strictly to save money on fuel, it is difficult to make the numbers work, as is the case with most hybrids, especially now that federal tax incentives on their purchase are disappearing.
The hybrid Camry starts at $26,820 with freight, pretty steep, especially when one considers that conventional four-cylinder Camrys start at less than $19,000 with freight and a stick shift and at just under $20,000 with a five-speed automatic transmission.
Toyota says the hybrid's equipment level approximates that of a conventional four-cylinder in the top-of-the-line XLE equipment level, but it's not exactly the same; the XLE has about $700 worth of equipment that's not on the hybrid, Toyota says. So, using Toyota's figures, the hybrid powertrain costs $2,200 extra.
The conventional four-cylinder Camry, whose engine is rated at 155 horsepower for '07, is EPA estimated at 24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway. Working with the highway figures, that gives the hybrid model an edge of 5 mpg. Let's assume we drive both cars 15,000 miles in one year. Let's assume, further, that current low gasoline prices don't last and that gas averages $3.25 a gallon for the next few years. At 33 mpg, the conventional four-cylinder Camry uses 454 gallons, costing $1,475. Getting 38 mpg, the hybrid uses 395 gallons to go the same 15,000 miles, costing the owner $1,283, for a saving of $192 for the year. So, it would take more than 11 years to recoup the $2,200 extra cost of the hybrid - less, of course, if gasoline is more expensive than we have guessed.
There's another unknown: those federal incentives mentioned above. The Internal Revenue Service said in late summer that Toyota had hit the production threshold - 60,000 hybrid vehicles - that Congress had imposed on fuel-sipping vehicles eligible for a tax credit. The tax credits for Toyota and Lexus hybrid vehicles were cut in half, from $3,150 for the Prius to $1,575, for example, and to $1,300 for the Camry hybrid.
The tax breaks will be cut in half again April 1 and reduced to zero on Oct. 1, 2007.
So if you buy your Camry hybrid before April 1 and your accountant says you can take the credit, your true added cost for the hybrid will be only $900, with a payback time, then, of about four and a half years.
The Camry hybrid's price also is about $4,000 more than a base Prius, which lists at $22,795 with freight.
As previously indicated, the Prius gets better fuel economy. The extra dough for the Camry hybrid gets you a wider cabin, with more shoulder and hip room, a car that's about 700 pounds more "substantial" for whatever that might mean for ride comfort and safety.
But front and rear legroom and headroom are virtually identical in the Prius and Camry though the Camry is more than a foot longer overall. And the Camry's trunk is smaller, at 10.6 cubic feet, versus 14.4 for the Prius.
The Prius can't match the Camry's quietness and its elegant ride, though; the Prius gasoline engine is harsh on acceleration, and the hard and narrow tires telegraph every road imperfection into the cabin.
And the Camry hybrid is a bargain next to the Honda Accord Hybrid, which lists for $31,685 with freight to start.
On the other hand, where the Camry hybrid is an adequate performer, the Accord's 3.0-liter V-6 gasoline engine plus 14-kilowatt electric motor puts out 253 hp., making it hot. But fuel economy is only 25 mpg city, 34 highway.
All hybrids pretty much work the same way. The gasoline engine does most of the propulsion, but an electric motor can move the car at very low speeds, such as in Manhattan-style stop-and-go traffic, and also help the car to accelerate or to pass another vehicle.
In the Camry, the powertrain delivers a combined 187 hp. - as much as some six-cylinder engines.
When the car is coasting or braking, the electric motor becomes a generator, recharging the special batteries that power the motor. At very low speeds and at full stop, the gasoline engine shuts off, to further save fuel so that there is a slight stumble when the light turns green, the driver presses the accelerator and the gasoline engine restarts.