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    Big Surprises in New Hybrids

    By Philip Ruth–

    Surprise! That’s the operative word in the U.S. these days, as we steadily push back against the grudge-match machinations of the federal government’s executive branch. Rising above that morass is the bravery of those who dare to protest—and in the case of the gun control debate, it’s the kids directly affected by school mass shootings who are cracking the NRA’s calcified grip on American politics. That’s the nice kind of surprise, which affirms your own humanity.

    While listening to the Parkland shooting’s aftermath, I was experiencing an automotive version of that affirmation in a 2018 Camry Hybrid. Hybrids are the last vehicles in which you’d express your power. They’re bought to be quiet and to stay out of the way as they sip gas and settle into the right lane.

    But this new Camry Hybrid is something else. I’ve never had to mind a hybrid’s speed to keep it under 100 mph on I-280’s fastest stretches, but the Camry Hybrid’s digital speedometer kept showing me three digits.

    The helper there was the Camry Hybrid’s Sport mode, which adjusts the accelerator’s response to issue a blast of power when you floor it to pass. Then it becomes addictive to slam the go-pedal whenever you’d like to dispatch the Prius blocking the left lane, or to scoot over to check out the classic Chevelle that’s been coming up on the right, or just to clear your head by hurling the Camry Hybrid into the ribbon of empty road ahead.

    Performance cars usually encourage these kinds of amped-up dalliances, and I was slack-jawed with surprise that this Camry Hybrid sprinted and growled and generally did its best to enervate its driver. Extracting every last bit of this hybrid’s unexpected high-speed performance still returned 32 mpg.

    The tested Kia Niro Plug-In had its own surprises. The Niro’s drowsy acceleration and conflicted transmission make Sport mode a must on San Franciso’s hills, and this crossover can feel plodding and heavy as you’re making your way through the neighborhoods. But the Niro mirrors the Camry Hybrid’s highway confidence with reserves of squirt under your right foot. Steering that Sport mode also has pleasantly firmed up. Persistent throttle trompings couldn’t kick the trip computer’s readout below 45 mpg.  

    Like the Camry Hybrid, the tested Niro Plug-In stayed impressively level over rutted and uneven pavement. It used to be that you’d have to get spendy with an optional handling suspension to get the wide margin of handling error these two grant their users. Hybrids providing that is a nice surprise indeed.

    Then it comes down to styling, and here the Niro Plug-In seems to have universal appeal. Its trim shape and apparent substance could just have easily come from Germany as South Korea. The Camry Hybrid stands apart, with a riot of lines carving up the sides and corrugating the front bumper. After a history of somnolence, the new Camry’s styling slices out the mid-sized sedan segment’s cutting edge, and that is probably the biggest surprise of all.  

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant ( Check out his automotive staging service at