The Toyota Camry Hybrid was the first hybrid-powered family sedan to strike a chord with the masses, but it debuted back in 2006, and some notable rivals have joined the fray since. First there was the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which eclipsed the Toyota's already lofty fuel economy while adding a dash of style. More recently, the Koreans have stepped up with handsome hybrid versions of the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima. The original Camry Hybrid was still an excellent choice for fuel-conscious consumers, but it had lost some of its initial shine.

Right on cue, the completely redesigned 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid appeared this year along with the rest of the new Camry lineup. As usual, it promises to improve on its predecessor in countless ways-and in a departure from the norm, it's actually got a little visual flair, too. So, does the Camry Hybrid have its groove back? If you ask us, absolutely. And if you're looking for five reasons to buy one, we've got those for you, too.

1. Stellar Fuel Economy

When the first Camry Hybrid came out, its EPA-estimated fuel economy of 31 miles per gallon in the city, 35 mpg highway, and 33 mpg combined was a revelation. After all, most family sedans still struggled to crack 30 mpg in normal driving back then. But a lot has changed in a few years; to wit, the regular four-cylinder 2012 Camry LE gets the same 35 mpg on the highway as the old Hybrid. Clearly, Toyota had to step up its game this time around-and they've certainly done so, as the new Camry Hybrid is rated at a robust 43-mpg city, 39-mpg highway and 41-mpg combined. That's the best fuel economy in this class, trouncing the 35/40/37 rating of the Sonata/Optima twins and eclipsing even the Fusion Hybrid's 41/36/39.

2. Surprisingly Affordable

There's a perception out there that hybrids are expensive, and it's true that the Camry Hybrid costs more than a comparably equipped regular Camry. But you might be surprised to learn that the Camry Hybrid starts at $25,900, which is barely pricier than the Sonata Hybrid and almost three grand cheaper than the Fusion Hybrid. Moreover, Buick wants $28,670 for the Regal
"eAssist," a much simpler hybrid that can't touch the Camry's fuel economy (or backseat space, for that matter). And if you look at the old Camry Hybrid, it started at $27,050 last year, so the new one's actually cheaper. That's what we call progress. There are definitely some overpriced hybrids out there, but the Camry Hybrid isn't one of them.

3. Strong Performance

If speed's your thing, you're probably not interested in a hybrid anyway-but who wouldn't want a little extra power in reserve? Remarkably, Toyota has managed to provide that with the new Camry Hybrid, which boasts a healthy 200 horsepower from its team of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. It's not just about the horses, either, as the electric motor provides instant torque off the line that you can really feel. Indeed, the Camry Hybrid is actually a little quicker than the base Camry. It's a nice surprise to put your foot down in a hybrid and get something more than noise in return.

4. New Electric-Only Mode

If you want a true "plug-in" hybrid like the Chevrolet Volt - one that lets you drive solely under electric power at normal operating speeds-you won't find it here. But the 2012 Camry Hybrid does have a novel "EV mode" feature that enables electric-only driving for up to 1.6 miles at speeds of roughly 25 miles per hour and under. That may sound silly, but think about a suburban setting where you just need to run to the post office, or pick up a few things at the store. The Camry Hybrid will happily serve as your golf cart for such occasions, ferrying you there and back without using a drop of gas-and you don't even have to plug it in, as EV mode recharges itself during ordinary driving.

5. Neat Technology

When you buy a hybrid, maximizing your fuel economy inevitably becomes a daily game to be played, and the Camry Hybrid makes sure you've got the high-tech toys you need. There's a Hybrid-exclusive instrument cluster with a system monitor that tells you what the hybrid powertrain's up to-and if that's not enough, you can check the standard 6.1-inch touchscreen for a crisp full-color rendering of exactly where the energy's flowing. Of course, the Camry Hybrid also gets the technology offerings from the rest of the Camry lineup, so there's standard Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity alongside the optional Entune infotainment system, which uses your smartphone to power six touchscreen-based apps, including Pandora for music and OpenTable for dining.

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Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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