Toyota, which has long been out front in the hybrid field, continues to lead the way with a terrific new Camry Hybrid for 2012. The premium XLE model will get you 40 city miles on a gallon of gas, and it actually costs about $800 less than the similarly equipped 2011 model. The mileage figure represents nearly a 30 percent increase over 2011, partially because engineers found ways to make the car lighter and more aerodynamic, and because improvements have been made to the hybrid drive system.

The new front wheel drive Camry Hybrid is already arriving in dealerships. Powered by a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine in combination with a high-torque electric motor, the Camry Hybrid produces a combined 200 horsepower. Mated to an electronic continuously variable transmission, the Camry Hybrid can still get you to 60 miles per hour from a standstill in 7.6 seconds.

If you’re lighter on the gas pedal, the vehicle can drive you for about a mile at speeds up to about 25 mph using electricity alone. Besides this EV (electric vehicle) mode, the Camry Hybrid has an ECO mode that optimizes throttle response and air-conditioning output to help maximize fuel economy. Since our climate in south Louisiana is not conducive to driving with reduced AC output, we decided to forego the ECO mode and basically drive the test vehicle like we stole it, which is to say we didn’t spare the gas. Still, the Camry Hybrid test car delivered a very impressive combined 37 mpg during our test week. Air conditioning and power steering are electric in the Camry Hybrid, thus reducing the parasitic drain of belts and pulleys.

Regenerative braking helps keep the nickel-metal-hydride battery charged, and Toyota’s system is easily one of the best on the market. Some hybrids have “grabby” brakes and coast like they’re hitched to a trailer, but the Camry Hybrid’s regenerative braking is nearly imperceptible. The battery pack is located behind the rear seats, which means a sacrifice in trunk space. The 2012 Camry Hybrid’s trunk is not spacious, but it’s still bigger than the previous version, and it beats many other midsize hybrid sedans.

The 2012 Camry Hybrid has a smooth and refined ride with premium amenities inside the cabin. Connectivity includes hands free phone, a USB port and Toyota’s optional Entune system, which engages mobile apps like Bing, OpenTable, and movietickets.com, along with live weather, stock and sports updates, and traffic. Entune can be managed through a voice recognition system.

The regular Camry is available in L, LE, XLE and SE models, and the Camry Hybrid is offered in LE and XLE grades. Our test XLE sedan had a base price of $27,400. Add in a blind spot monitor ($500), a convenience package ($695), a Safety Connect package ($450), heated power leather trimmed seats and leather interior package ($1,160), a premium navigation and sound package that includes Entune ($2,600), and a power moon roof ($915), and the bottom line climbs to $34,547, which includes freight. The lighter-weight Camry Hybrid LE model gets 43 mpg in the city, 39 on the highway and 41 combined. And the 2012 model is $1,150 less than last year’s model.

With 10 airbags and a new-for-2012 blind spot monitor system, the 2012 Camry Hybrid gets very good safety marks from the government in crash tests, which are stricter this year than in years past. The vehicle gets five stars in every category except two: the passenger seat in a frontal crash, and rollover, both of which get four stars.

The seventh-generation Toyota’s Camry enters 2012 as America’s best-selling sedan for the past nine years and for 13 of the past 14 years. The Camry and its hybrid sibling may not be the sexiest beasts around, but if you want a dependable, comfortable, economical and safe ride at a reasonable price, you’re going to find it hard to beat either one.

Engine

2.5-liter 4-cylinder (plus electric motor)

Transmission

Electronic CVT

Horsepower

200 combined

Test model base price

XLE model $27,400 ($34,547 as tested)

EPA mileage rating

40 mpg city / 38 mpg highway