Toyota Camry

What is it? Clearly, Toyota is not straying far from its popular formula with the new car. It even takes a close look to see that the styling has evolved beyond the front and rear fascias. The exterior dimensions are near identical, but the interior is freshened, with changes throughout.

The engines essentially carry over, with the Hybrid variants seeing the most improvement.

The base Camry will be fitted with a 178-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Toyota estimates that it will be EPA-rated at 25 city, 35 highway mpg, a notable increase over the 22/33 rating for the 2011 model.

The top engine will be a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine. Fuel economy is claimed to be 21 city, 30 highway mpg, just a notch above the 20/29 rating for the 2011 sedan.

The Hybrid features a 156-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. In LE trim, Toyota cites 43 city, 41 highway mpg, signaling a large, 30-plus-percent increase from the current 31/35 rating. New for 2012, the Hybrid will have an EV mode to allow the car to be driven a low speeds on purely electric power for up to 1.6 miles.

What’s new or notable? Pricing has been cut across many trim levels, from $200 to $2,000 off sticker price.

CR’s take: We would expect the Camry to retain its comfortable ride and quiet interior and hope the interior quality doesn’t backslide, as it has in some recent Toyotas.

When will it be available? October 2011.

Fuel-efficient vehicles

As the government pounded out an ambitious new fuel-economy standard of 54.5 mpg, proposed to kick in by 2025, automakers were working on the technology and designs that will make that fuel economy possible. The cars we tested for this issue reflect some of the ways that automakers are stretching gas mileage, with more small cars and greater use of hybrid, diesel, and electric powertrains.

All of the cars in this group returned very good fuel economy, ranging from 33 to 40 mpg overall. But they’re made for different buyers, and each has high and low points.

Our upscale Lexus CT 200h hybrid hatchback (available to subscribers) achieved the highest overall test score, 71, but also had the highest price, $32,012. It’s powered by the same drivetrain used in the Toyota Prius and gets an excellent 40 mpg overall. But the Prius is roomier and gets 44 mpg. The CT’s handling is capable but isn’t very sporty. Acceleration is leisurely, the ride is stiff, and the cabin is well finished but snug and noisy.

Rounding out the group are the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDIHonda Civic Hybrid, and small Fiat 500 (all available to subscribers).

The Jetta sedan was redesigned for 2011. The TDI model gets 34 mpg overall, which is much better than the 25 mpg we got in the gas-powered Jetta SE. But diesel usually costs more than regular gas, so you won’t see as much savings at the pump. At $25,100, our TDI also cost notably more than the $20,300 SE.

Redesigned for 2012, the Civic Hybrid now uses a lithium-ion battery, which is lighter than the previous nickel-metal-hydride unit, and gets much better fuel economy than its conventional counterpart (40 mpg overall compared with 30). But at $24,800 the Civic Hybrid costs about the same as a basic Prius, which gets better gas mileage and scored much higher in our tests.

Perhaps the least expensive way to get better fuel economy is to buy a very small car with a tiny engine. The $18,600 Fiat 500 fits that description. Widely anticipated in the U.S. since the Italian automaker took control of Chrysler, the 500 is a retro-styled sporty car that competes with the Mini Cooper. The 500’s 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine helps it achieve an overall fuel economy of 33 mpg, although acceleration is leisurely. Passengers also experience a choppy ride, noisy cabin, and tight rear seats in this subcompact.

None of vehicles we tested for this issue is recommended. The CT 200h and Jetta TDI are too new for us to have reliability information. The Civic Hybrid and 500 scored too low in our testing to be recommended.

More fuel-efficient vehicles are on the way. We’re currently testing the Nissan Leaf, the first mainstream fully electric car. Electric and hybrid versions of the redesigned-for-2012 Ford Focus are coming, as is a plug-in and a larger wagon version of the Prius. A diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze will arrive for 2013 along with the Chevrolet Spark minicar. Among new gas-powered cars, redesigns of the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio recently went on sale. Soon to come will be redesigned versions of the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris and the new Chevrolet Sonic.

Extra review: Chevrolet Volt

After more than seven months of driving, we’ve completed our all-season testing of the Volt, an innovative electric car with a backup gasoline engine that eliminates the range anxiety of pure electric vehicles. See our review of the Chevrolet Volt (available to subscribers).

Small sedans & hatchbacks

The Honda Civic rolls backwards while the Ford Focus moves ahead

We have seen a number of redesigned models do worse in our overall road-test score than the ones they replaced. But the 2012 Honda Civic (available to subscribers) sets a new mark. That highly anticipated redesign dropped a whopping 17 points— from a very good 78 to a mediocre 61. The Civic was once one of our highest-rated small sedans and was our Top Pick in that category as recently as 2007, but it now scores too low to be recommended(available to subscribers).

Compared with its predecessor, the 2012 Civic is less agile and has lower interior quality. It also suffers from a choppy ride, long stopping distances, and pronounced road noise. On the positive side the Civic provides decent rear-seat room, and it achieved 30 mpg overall, which gives it the second-best fuel economy in its class—behind only the Toyota Corolla’s 32 mpg. We are also testing the Civic Hybrid and will report on it next month.

While other models, including the class-leading Hyundai Elantra, have gotten better after being redesigned, the Civic now ranks near the bottom of its category. It’s ahead of only the Volkswagen Jetta, which plunged 16 points after its own recent redesign.

New from Ford and Kia

For this issue, we also tested sedan and hatchback versions of the redesigned-for-2012Ford Focus and the hatchback version of the Kia Forte (both available to subscribers).

We found the Focus to be fun to drive and more polished than its predecessor, with the type of agile handling, supple ride, and solid feel that we’d expect from a compact sports sedan. Both versions also got a commendable 28 mpg overall. But a snug rear seat, complicated controls, and annoying behavior by the transmission took a toll on their overall scores. The more upscale and versatile SEL hatchback earned a very good 74, positioning it just below the class-leading Volkswagen Golf, Mazda3, and Subaru Impreza Outback Sport. The lower-trim SE sedan scored 68, which is slightly better than its predecessor’s 65 and about the same as the Chevrolet Cruze.

The 5-Door hatchback is Kia’s latest addition to the Forte line, which also includes the four-door sedan and the sportier two-door Koup. The well-equipped, relatively roomy hatchback offers a lot for the money. But its noise isolation, ride, and interior quality are middling, relegating it to a mid-pack score of 71, which is similar to the Toyota Matrix.

The as-tested prices of this month’s group range from $19,340 for the Forte EX 5-Door to $22,185 for the Ford Focus SEL hatchback. None of the cars from this group isrecommended (available to subscribers). Although they scored well enough, the Focus models and the Forte hatchback are too new for us to have reliability data. And while we expect the redesigned Civic to provide better-than-average reliability, it didn’t score highly enough in our tests to be recommended (available to subscribers).

Auto Test Extra: Ford F-150

We tested two versions of the Ford F-150 pickup, perennially the top-selling model in the U.S. A freshening for 2011 brought it a new 5.0-liter V8 engine as well as a turbocharged EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6, which provides more towing capability. Both of our trucks got the same good fuel economy. We also took a quick look at three heavy-duty pickups: the Chevrolet Silverado 2500, Dodge Ram 2500, and Ford F-250. See how they size up in Three heavy-duty workhorses.