My fingers wrapped around the steering wheel as I adjusted the seat and the mirrors and settled back. Foot on the brake (which felt just as responsive as a brake on any other car), I reached over and pressed the power button. The dials in front of me stirred to life, but the car didn't move - there was no thrum of an engine, no revving, nothing. I looked across at my passenger, as if to enquire whether I'd made a mistake, when the petrol engine kicked in, softly. This was the Aussie-built Hybrid Camry, a mid-sized car with the fuel economy of a compact, and I was ready to drive.
The Hybrid Camry from Toyota is the most advanced Australian-made car to date. It takes a lot of tech from the Prius, including Toyota's hybrid engine technology, and sticks it into the body of a Camry, a mid-sized car that's been around so long it's second nature to any driver, whether they've driven a Camry before or not.
The first leg of my hybrid drive was a return to Melbourne from the Mornington Peninsula. A drive that started with a series of sharp downhill turns which eventually changed into a fairly flat, fairly cruisy beachside drive.
I was attempting to drive as economically as I physically could – the Hybrid Camry has an overall fuel efficiency rating of 6L/100km, and I desperately wanted to best that. Call it stupid, call it competitive, but it meant I changed the way I normally drove. I was slower starting from a stop, and cruised as frequently as I could, relying on the Camry's hybrid engine to switch between using petrol and battery power.
The switch between the two power sources is fairly seamless. There were a number of times I felt I was cruising on battery, only to look down and see that the engine was turning over. Similarly, on occasions I'd accelerate, and look down to watch the battery doing the work, although admittedly the petrol would always kick in eventually.
On long, flat stretches though, the car would cruise on battery power. Toyota said that they were able to get it to cruise for a couple of kilometres, but it never lasted that long for me. But in the beautiful Melbourne weather, the ride was smoother than I anticipated. The dashboard of the Camry has been adjusted with the introduction of battery power - instead of a rpm gauge, there's a fuel efficiency gauge. It's big, has a green indicator between 0L/100km and about 10L/100km, and a blue section below 0L/100km that indicates when you're running purely off battery power. At first I thought it would be an unruly way of reading your fuel economy, but then it became an obsession. Every start, every stop, was an attempt to keep the needle in the green.
At the end of Monday's drive, I had an average fuel economy reading of 5.6L/100km. The best among the other journos was 5.2L/100km. When I popped the car in park and turned it off, the display in the dashboard told me "Excellent".
The following day saw a drive through the country north of Melbourne, and instead of trying to save fuel, I decided to try and burn it. Foot to the floor, the car's got some grunt. Overtaking isn't an issue, and taking off from a standing start was a lot quicker than I'd dared to hope for a car running on a battery. Toyota say that it's more powerful that the regular petrol Camry, and I won't argue - there wasn't any issue when it came to grunt.
The Camry uses electric power only for reversing, for power steering and for the aircon. If the battery starts running low while any of these things are in use, it'll kick on the petrol engine, but only to charge the battery. As a driver though, you'd never actually know. The end result is pretty much identical to driving any other car.
Still, even while I was trying to burn the petrol, at the end of my (approximately) 100km drive, my fuel efficiency metre was telling me I had an average of 6.4L/100km. The little screen told me "Excellent" once again. And that's the better test of the car - despite the fact I was trying to use as much fuel as possible, this medium sized car still managed a fuel economy better than many smaller vehicles.
I'd never buy a Hybrid Camry - even though it drives well, has enough guts to get you around and is economic on the fuel, I prefer a larger car that allows me to go off the beaten track a little bit. But as an option for people looking at the mid-sized car market, it's got a lot of the right boxes ticked.