Hybrids are a harder sell with $2 gasoline

American drivers are still buying gasoline-electric hybrid cars even though $2-a-gallon gasoline renders them much less competitive with comparable gas-only models. Fuel-sipping, technologically advanced models like the 2016 Toyota Hybrid Camry SE cost more than conventional cars with the same features, so it may take years for the lower fuel bills to catch up to the higher base price.

Last August, Toyota celebrated the sale of its 8-millionth hybrid vehicle. More than 350,000 of those were Camry hybrid sedans sold in North America since 2007. But 2015 was a down year for hybrid sales, with a 16 percent overall decline while new-car sales soared. While the Camry remains the top-selling car in the United States, Camry hybrid sales fell 22.4 percent compared with the previous year, through December, with 28,779 units sold.

Why choose a hybrid? The base version of the non-hybrid Camry SE starts at $23,840, compared with $27,995 for the Camry Hybrid SE. Four thousand dollars – the price difference between the two models – will buy a lot of gasoline at $2 a gallon. And the Camry SE is rated at a respectable 25 mpg city, 35 highway, compared with 40 city, 38 highway, for the Camry Hybrid SE.

Our test car had a sticker price of $32,217. Major options that pushed up the bottom line included Entune Premium Audio with navigation and other communications technology, $1,300; and power tilt/slide moonroof, $915.

Hybrid models we've tested in the past tended to have long standard-features lists, as automakers tried to bolster the appeal of high fuel economy with an impression of luxury and technology. Our Camry test car lacked heated seats, heated steering wheel, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and leather upholstery. Although we would have welcomed a blind-spot warning system, this and other desirable safety features are available only in XLE trim. Still, the modest accommodations made a favorable impression on us – hybrid technology gone mainstream.

Leather-trimmed cloth seats notwithstanding, the Camry had a very nice, user-friendly interior. We didn't fail to notice that the buttons and switches were marked clearly, often in large type.

 Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.


2016 Toyota Camry Hybrid SE

Price: $32,217

Engine: 2.5-liter inline Four with electric assist, 200 horsepower combined, 170 lb-ft. torque

Transmission: electronic continuously variable automatic

Drive: front-wheel

Weight: 3,565 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, dual-link MacPherson strut rear

Wheels: 17x7 painted alloy

Tires: P215/55R17 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 13.1 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 17 gallons

Fuel economy: 40 mpg city, 38 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline