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Winner: Family Car - Toyota Camry Hybrid

Locally made Toyota Camry Hybrid makes a compelling case for families.

PT3M25S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2adk3 620 349

The contenders

Toyota Camry Hybrid H (winner)
Ford Mondeo Zetec
Ford Falcon EcoBoost

Our changing tastes mean the traditional family car is often likely these days to be an SUV. But those same seismic shifts in taste and purpose have also resulted in a hybrid car taking home one of Drive's prestigious Car of the Year gongs for the first time in the award's seven-year history.

2012 Best Family Car of the Year is the Toyota Camry Hybrid H. Click for more photos

2012 Best Family Car of the Year

2012 Best Family Car of the Year is the Toyota Camry Hybrid H.

  • 2012 Best Family Car of the Year is the Toyota Camry Hybrid H.
  • 2012 Best Family Car of the Year is the Toyota Camry Hybrid H.
  • 2012 Best Family Car of the Year is the Toyota Camry Hybrid H.
  • 2012 Best Family Car of the Year is the Toyota Camry Hybrid H.

It would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago, when sizeable offerings from Holden and Ford ruled the roads and a tiny Toyota with a petrol-electric heart, the Prius, was little more than an odd-looking sideshow.

Perseverance paid off for Toyota when it shifted its hybrid technology into the strong-selling Camry sedan, a mid-sizer that always felt bigger on the inside. The first generation of that car collected Drive's coveted Green Innovation Award in 2010, but it was the second generation that really gelled with Drive's judges this year against a pair of capable Fords.

"The Camry gets maximum points for its drivetrain," one judge decided, referring to a system that combines a 2.5-litre petrol-powered engine with an electric motor that can power the car at slower speeds for short distances and which can contribute power at cruising speeds to cut fuel use. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) ties it all together and ensures smooth power delivery in most situations.

The result is a handy 151kW of power and up to 270Nm of torque. The 1610kg car managed 100km/h in an impressive 8.2 seconds during testing. Even more impressive, however, is the official combined fuel use of 5.2 litres per 100km, a figure one judge described as "seriously impressive".

The hybrid drivetrain proved a double-edged sword, however, with a battery pack behind the rear seats that eats into boot space and means the rear seats cannot be folded so larger items can be loaded through the cabin. Passenger space is otherwise excellent, with one of the largest rear seats in the class.

Drive judges would have liked reversing sensors on the Camry; the standard reversing camera is only useful as long as the driver is looking at it and not into the mirrors.

A foot-operated parking brake, doughy steering and wooden brakes also came in for criticism, but even they could not shift the feeling that Toyota has achieved something special with the Camry Hybrid. "It does the job, it fits a lot of people," was the verdict.

The Camry Hybrid H was also the cheapest car at $34,990 and saw off some stiff competition from the Ford Mondeo ($37,740) – former category champion – and another car with a breakthrough drivetrain, the Ford Falcon EcoBoost XT ($37,235).

The Mondeo, a four-time winner of the family and/or medium-car category, is a perennial Drive favourite and the Zetec hatch presented for testing fitted with a 2.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost engine was a strong contender.

The judges liked its "smooth and quiet" power delivery and "impressive flexibility", noting however that it was both slower (0-100km/h in 8.9 sec) and thirstier (8.0L/100km) than the Camry Hybrid.

There was also praise for accurate steering and a cosseting suspension, although one judge noted it was not as good at shielding occupants from big bumps.

A cavernous boot complete with hatchback flexibility and fold-flat rear seats drew praise. But the interior design was "dated and bland". Judges were disappointed by a lack of interior storage, especially for the big adult-sized back seats.

A second Ford, featuring a more powerful version of the same four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost engine, also posed plenty of questions for Drive's judges.

It sounds like a mismatch, but the compact engine does a surprisingly competent job of motivating the 1648kg Falcon, generating 179kW and 353Nm to produce acceptable acceleration (9.0 sec to 100km/h) and decent economy (8.1L/100km).

"Who needs the six?" asked one judge, noting however that the small engine also generates some turbo lag.

The Falcon was an impressive highway cruiser with a "great ride" on 16-inch wheels and compliant tyres, and handled better than its six-cylinder siblings with less weight on its front wheels. A previous question mark over the Falcon's safety has been addressed with the addition of standard curtain airbags across the range.

As with its rivals, the Falcon gets a family sized boot and adult-friendly rear-seat accommodation, but counting against it is the lack of folding rear seats and a driver's seat that was positioned too high for most of the judging panel even at its lowest setting.

One of the biggest hurdles of Falcon EcoBoost may face might be resale value, with estimates suggesting it might fetch just 34 per cent of its sticker price in three years. This figure doesn't take into account the systemic discounting of large cars in Australia, which might boost resale value closer to 50 per cent. "This could be the world's best second-hand car," was the quip.

But in the end it was the Toyota that triumphed over the Fords, with seven of nine votes.

Comment

The installation of a first-ever Drive Car of the Year category for an electric motor is sure to stir up some debate about the merits of a hybrid-powered family car, but what is not up for debate is the Camry Hybrid's impressive fuel use. An official figure of 5.2L/100km – something our testing has shown is achievable in the real world – delivers tangible hip pocket savings of almost 3.0 litres every 100km in an era when many cars are distinguished from one another by just a tenth or two per litre.

The Camry Hybrid H may not measure up to the Fords in terms of driving enjoyment, but it's closer than ever to being a driver's car.

On balance, we believe it is the best family car on the market right now. What do you think?