A Gas-Electric Hybrid Camry for Middle America

Toyota has added a gas-electric hybrid Camry to its fleet of automobiles. The price is reasonable and the gas mileage good at an estimated 43 mph in the city. Madeleine Brand speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times automotive critic Dan Neil about the new Camry, and whether the best-selling car model in the United States will convert a hybrid-averse middle American market.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

President Bush has called for Americans to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. Well, the solution could come from a foreign-owned car company. Toyota has done well with its hybrid cars; the Prius has attained near-cult status here in Los Angeles. But now, according to Dan Neil, the automobile critic for the Los Angeles Times, Toyota is about to unveil its Trojan horse for the rest of America.

Dan Neil, welcome to the program.

Mr. DAN NEIL (Automotive Critic, Los Angeles Times): Nice to be here.

BRAND: What is this Trojan horse?

Mr. NEIL: Well, it's a familiar name. It's the Toyota Camry, and this is the sixth redesign of that product in the American marketplace since 1983. And this version of the car will have a hybrid variant.

BRAND: A hybrid Camry?

Mr. NEIL: Mm-hmm.

BRAND: And this, you suggest, could revolutionize the car market?

Mr. NEIL: Well, not so much in terms of numbers, but in terms of moving the needle of public acceptance and opinion. The thing about hybrids is that it's been a very left-coast kind of, granola technology. And it hasn't been accepted in, let's say, middle-America. And that's because they're unfamiliar. And this car couldn't be more familiar, or more traditional. This is a very big, mid-size, traditional sedan. So, this Camry is just a Trojan horse. It's a delivery system for this technology.

BRAND: And, tell us about this car, in particular. What kind of gas mileage does it get? What does it look like, what does it feel like?

Mr. NEIL: It drives much like any other big, barge, from a mid-sized car company. I call it the Buick from another planet.

BRAND: You also called it the radon of mid-size, ex-urban transportation; odorless, colorless, invisible.

Mr. NEIL: Oh, that was a happy phrase, wasn't it?

BRAND: And yet, so unappealing.

Mr. NEIL: Oh, unappealing, are you kidding me? Toyota sells millions of these cars. I mean, it's crazy how many cars they sell that are called Camry.

BRAND: Well, you anticipated my next question, and that is why, GM and Ford, why haven't they jumped on this bandwagon? Looking at how popular the Prius has become, looking at what Toyota's going to do with Camry, why not?

Mr. NEIL: Ford did jump in earlier, they did build a hybrid version of the Escape, which is a small SUV. And, General Motors has generally been, not so sanguine on the technology, and has instead emphasized their work on fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen. As of now, hydrogen seems like kind of a non-starter for lots of reasons, both economic and political. So, GM also is pursuing hybrid technology.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about cost with this Camry hybrid versus the regular Camry. First of all, how much does it save in gas costs?

Mr. NEIL: I reckoned, by my experience, that it saves about 30% over a four-cylinder version of the same car. So, by my calculation, you would save about $4,500.00 in the life of the car, if you drove this over the four-cylinder. In the long term, the hybrid option would pay for itself in gas savings.

Now, the price premium for a hybrid is hovering around, they haven't announced prices, but it looks to be like about $3,000.00. Then you have to add on the energy bill, last year's omnibus energy bill, offers a tax credit for people who buy hybrids. It's a very complicated formula, but what it comes down to is, if you can take advantage of it with the Toyota, you will get a $3,000.00 tax credit. So that right there zero's out your extra cost.

BRAND: So, this car is going to be, as I understand it, unveiled to the public at the Super Bowl.

Mr. NEIL: Yeah, oh yeah, they're going to have a really, an interesting bi-lingual commercial for the Super Bowl. The idea is that the bi-lingual hybrid language is like the bi-lingual hybrid technology. And, you couldn't ask for a more middle-America than to advertise in the Super Bowl.

BRAND: Dan Neil, automobile critic for the Los Angeles Times. Thank you.

Mr. NEIL: Thanks.

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