2021 Toyota Camry XSE Hybrid First Test Review: Sporty Spice
When we tested the 2020 Toyota Camry TRD, we came away confused. Its exhaust sounded great, but it rode harshly and was missing key amenities from higher Camry trims. Frankly, it betrayed the Camry’s core mission of being a usable, easily approachable daily driver, and it underdelivered on the promise of sportiness. The 2021 Toyota Camry XSE Hybrid, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward proposition.
The Camry family received a host of upgrades for the 2021 model year, and the XSE is an all-new trim level that’s been added to the Camry Hybrid mix. The recipe is simple: take the gasoline-electric Camry Hybrid but tack on the gas-powered Camry XSE’s more aggressive styling and feature-packed interior. To that end, our test car came with amenities such as blind-spot monitoring, heated and cooled seats, a new-for-2021 9.0-inch infotainment setup, and a nine-speaker, 800-watt JBL sound system.
Despite small interior and exterior improvements, the 2021 Camry’s powertrains carryover from the prior year. As such, the XSE Hybrid continues to rely on the same 2.5-liter I-4 and 118-hp electric motor that work together to produce a peak output of 208 hp. Power is sent to the front wheels via Toyota’s electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 44/47/46 mpg city/highway/combined.
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2021 Toyota Camry XSE Hybrid: Gasoline-Electric Performance
With nothing new under its hood, this Camry Hybrid, unsurprisingly, managed the sprint to 60 mph in the exact same amount of time as its pre-refresh counterpart: 7.4 seconds. Although its 0-60 time stayed stagnant, our test car, much like the Camry TRD we tested that was slower through the quarter mile than the standard Camry with the V-6, was actually slower to cross the 1,320-foot marker than the last Camry Hybrid we tested. That 2018 model car needed 15.6 seconds to travel the quarter mile and returned a trap speed of 92.6 mph. The 2021 car’s performance, however, dropped to 15.8 seconds at 90.6 mph.
The most recent Honda Accord Hybrid we tested sprinted to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and sped through the quarter in 15.4 seconds at 89.9 mph. The Camry’s braking, however, did improve. The 2021 Camry hauled itself down from 60 mph to a dead stop in 118 feet. That’s 7 feet shorter than the previous Camry Hybrid we tested and just 2 feet longer than the Accord Hybrid.
The good news gets better around our figure eight. The XSE Hybrid’s 26.8-second time—and 0.65 g average—is not only a full second quicker than the previous hybrid’s time but is also 0.7 second quicker than the Accord Hybrid’s and just 0.3 ticks shy of the Camry TRD’s time—spitting distance, really. Given that no changes were made to the powertrain, we’re going to chalk the improvements up to the XSE Hybrid’s suspension tuning, bigger 19-inch wheels, and marginally stickier rubber.
A quick note about what we mean by a “g average.” Our figure-eight test is built to measure a car’s acceleration, braking, and cornering in a simple, repeatable way—all at the same time. We do this by placing two 100-foot-diameter skid pads 500 feet away from each other. We then lap the skid pads in an infinity pattern. The resulting “average g” number is what we get by averaging out the forces created by the car in all of the aforementioned directions. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the better a car is at braking, accelerating, and handling.
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In the case of something such as our Camry XSE Hybrid, limit handling might not matter to buyers that much, but it’s good to know the XSE is plenty capable for its segment. Normally, gains in limit handling and braking come at the expense of comfort on the road—and it’s not as though our Camry had best-of-both-worlds adaptive dampers that give you performance when you want it and comfort when you don’t.
Instead, the XSE Hybrid makes do with conventional passive dampers at all four corners, and the results are excellent. The Camry rode smoothly over almost any surface. Sure, bigger bumps in the road send shimmies down your spine, but small lumps and cracks that your brain thinks will result in a small thud are seemingly smoothed over. Bigger undulations that usually result in a bit of float are instead met with excellent body control.
2021 Toyota Camry XSE Hybrid: The Best of Its Kind
The Camry Hybrid’s power is always delivered smoothly, and there is a surprising amount of thrust available. If you find yourself cruising along at 30 mph and suddenly need to make a pass, the sprint from 30 to 50 is dealt with in a cinch. The brakes are similarly snappy, though road test editor Chris Walton called them “almost wooden.” The pedal is indeed rather firm, and it takes little getting used to. But instead of bemoaning the brakes and a lack of pedal feel, you’ll simply be thankful for their immediacy.
And that is why the Camry XSE Hybrid makes so much more sense than the Camry TRD: It isn’t lying to you. Instead of sacrificing the best parts of the Camry—namely its usability as a point A to point B machine—for the sake of a half-baked attempt at sportiness, it takes those qualities and expands on them. The hybrid powertrain is smoother than the gruff V-6, it’s quieter inside at any speed, and as our test numbers show, the XSE Hybrid stops and steers nearly as well as the TRD without the added inconvenience of a backbreaking ride.
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The heated and cooled seats, larger infotainment display that rises above the dash, and blind-spot monitoring only add to the sense of practicality and general usefulness. Other Camry conveniences such as the massive trunk, spacious rear passenger area, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, and head-up display are all here, too. Typical Camry annoyances, such as the omnipresent your-door-is-ajar chime and chintzy digital display between the gauges, are also present, though. But these are minor gripes leveled against what is a great overall package.
The XSE Hybrid is the jewel of the Camry family because it not only gets so many fundamentals right but is also honest about what it is.
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