When the current generation Toyota Camry first arrived on the scene, the Japanese auto giant promised to bring fun back into the Camry’s bag of tricks. The Camry TRD that we tested a short while back on the west coast proved that the Camry had a wild side to exploit. But what if you’re an enthusiast that wants the sporty looks but without giving up the impressive fuel economy that Toyota’s hybrid lineup is known for? The company has heard your requests and has created the all-new 2021 Camry XSE Hybrid. But is it truly the best of both worlds?
XSE Hybrid Is a Slick Pair Of Running Shoes
When our red-hued XSE Hybrid tester arrived at the office, it was very apparent that Toyota designers were very fond of the color red. Our tester attracted plenty of attention, and unlike other hybrids, this one wants to be seen and heard. Like traditional XSE models, the hybrid gets black 19-inch wheels which also have the distinction of being the largest wheels that are offered on a Camry hybrid model. Toyota claims that this model also benefits from some subtle tweaks made to the rest of the Camry lineup for 2021, but you will have to look really hard to spot some of the minor changes they did.
As for the XSE Hybrid, the exterior also features some additions aimed at enhancing its street cred. The rear gets small fake vents that accent the taillights while the rear bumper gets the gasoline version’s rear diffuser, but it does not get the same quad exhaust setup that comes with the aforementioned model. Our favorite additions have to be the black-colored rear lip spoiler as well as the black contrast roof, which hides the fact that the Hybrid does not get a full panoramic roof (a standard size sunroof is the lone option available to let the sky in.)
When viewed alongside some of its rivals, the Camry XSE hybrid is in a unique place. The Honda Accord hybrid does not offer a similar setup for models equipped with the Sport trim. The Ford Fusion Hybrid (there are still some lingering around in dealer inventory) doesn’t offer such a setup either. The Ford is also now out of production, so look for it to fade away from inventory over the next few years slowly.
A Feature-Packed Interior
While the exterior does its best impression of a sport sedan, the interior goes all-in on its attempts to provide buyers with standard content. Our tester arrived with the Cockpit Red color scheme, and it proved to be just as vivid as the exterior. The perforated heated and cooled leather seats in our tester were very comfortable. They also provided commendable amounts of support when we took the Camry down some brisk corners outside of town.
The cabin’s core design may not have changed too much, but we were fans of the upgraded infotainment system where the screen is replaced with a floating tablet-style screen. The piece is lifted from the Prius Prime, and it now comes with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities. Amazon Alexa is also added to the mix. The screen itself is attached to a firm bezel, and it does a good job of keeping the screen from moving around too much. Since it is a hybrid, this flavor of XSE also gets some hybrid exclusive touches, including additional information for the hybrid drive system and a blue power button that replaces the traditional engine start/stop button.
Passengers in the rear seats are greeted with a commendable amount of rear legroom, with headroom also being pretty good despite the roof sloping down towards the window. Toyota engineers mounted the battery pack under the rear seats, which means you don’t get a flat floor. However, this also allows the trunk to retain an impressive amount of space since it does not have the battery intruding into it.
Our tester also benefits from the addition of Toyota Safety Sense 2.5, a welcome upgrade over the older 2.0 system. The move to 2.5 allowed the company to add some new tricks to the already beefy safety net of driver-assist technology. They include enhanced bicyclist and pedestrian detection software, intersection left-turn assistance, and emergency steering assist. The Adaptive Cruise Control has also been tweaked to provide smoother operation, which works well with the balanced ride quality that the Camry brings to the table.
Dynamic XSE Hybrid Exterior Hides Competent Performance Hardware
With all the changes that Toyota made to the Camry lineup, the company chose to leave things alone when it came to the performance essentials. In the case of our tester, that means leaving the transplanted 2.5-liter hybrid four-cylinder alone. As a result, it still produces a combined 208 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque. The XSE Hybrid does not go out of its way to overhype itself, and as a result, it’s pretty honest about what it can do, with our tester making the sprint to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds.
While the XSE Hybrid may not be as fast as its V6 powered sibling, it still manages to excel in other ways. For example, handling in our tester was pretty sprightly with the XSE’s sport-tuned suspension helping this hybrid be a blast to push around corners. The electrically operated steering rack is a tad overboosted, but we really appreciated the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, which helped enhance the sporty theme present in the interior.
The XSE Hybrid’s biggest claim to fame is fuel economy, with the model capable of achieving 44 mpg in the city and 47 mpg on the freeway. The car is also capable of hitting 46 mpg in freeway driving. These figures highlight the inner value that the XSE hybrid has with the fuel economy balancing out the athletic character that the exterior styling and the suspension brings to the car.
Pricing for the 2021 Toyota Camry does not start too far from what we saw in 2020, but with the base L version gone, the LE takes over as the base model. As for hybrid models, the XSE Hybrid serves as the range-topper of the bunch and wields a base price of $32,720. Our tester was lightly optioned with the Sonic Red paint and other equipment helping to push the final price just over $36,000. That’s in the higher reaches of the mainstream market, and it puts the Camry Hybrid in the same field of contenders as the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and the Honda Accord Hybrid.
Both models give the broader Camry Hybrid lineup a run for their money in several categories, but neither of them has a sporty alternative like the XSE Hybrid. As mentioned, the broader lineup is also undercut in price by the Kia Optima Hybrid and the Ford Fusion Hybrid. While both of them are ending production for 2021, their lingering presence in dealer inventories will still make them a challenge to Toyota.
The 2021 Toyota XSE Hybrid is a very intriguing offering. It brings much of the sportiness that has come to define Toyota’s V6 equipped models but still manages to retain the fuel-saving ways that have made Toyota’s hybrids a sales force in the market. This should please hybrid buyers that want to have a more expressive green machine while also catering to budget-focused enthusiasts looking to stretch their dollars when purchasing a car. If Toyota can put the proper level of marketing that this model needs to help lure in customers, look for the 2021 XSE Hybrid to morph into a key player in the Camry lineup.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.