From tiny little compacts to massive trucks and SUVs, gas/electric powertrains are now available in a vehicle variety that should make hybrids more attractive to Americans with a range of lifestyles. Chief among the more practical, flexible offerings is a hybrid version of the bestselling car in the country, the Toyota Camry. If you consider it a Prius in mild-mannered clothing, that’s fine — just don’t mistake it for a dud. To start, Toyota takes the Camry features people love ­­— rock-solid quality, high safety ratings, a smooth ride, and a host of amenities­ — and jacks up the miles-per-gallon (mpg) substantially. The Camry Hybrid is rated at 33/34 mpg (city/highway), a considerable jump from the Camry XLE four-cylinder’s 21/31 mpg. Even more impressive, this represents the best mileage found in traditional midsize sedans equipped with hybrid or strictly gasoline powertrains.

Like the Prius in electric-only mode, the Camry Hybrid is shockingly silent and produces no emissions. And once you get up to speed, this hybrid is every bit as drivable as the gas-only Camry. The increased fuel efficiency doesn’t come at the expense of performance, thanks to the extra horsepower (29 more than the Camry XLE) and torque the electric motor provides. All this translates into stronger acceleration — I clocked about nine seconds to 60 mph — and enhanced passing power on the highway. Similar to the regular Camry, the hybrid won’t win any drag races, but the added torque upped the acceleration ante between 50 and 70 mph. City driving range (568 miles) also stands out compared to the XLE (389 miles).

Even with a federal tax credit, the cost premium of hybrid technology has, until now, been proportionally higher than the fuel savings buyers realize in the first few years of ownership. But here’s the bonus: Toyota is introducing the 2008 Camry Hybrid at a base price that’s only $200 more than a similarly equipped XLE. That, as we’re all too painfully aware, can be the price of a couple of weeks’ worth of gas these days.

Can the automaker that sold the world more than a million Priuses pass their hybrid magic on to an already fabulous product like the Camry? I say yes.

PROS Great gas mileage, good passing power, attractive instrumentation, and a rockin’ stereo system.

CONS A loss of trunk space because of battery placement, and the four-cylinder engine is quite loud under strain.

VERDICT Considering the negligible price premium and enhanced performance, you have officially run out of excuses. toyota.com

Story by Stuart Schwartzapfel. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.