2018 Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid

I’ve always felt that if I had to make the choice, I would buy a loaded Camry before I would buy an entry level Lexus, and that is certainly the case with this one.

(Incidentally, here is a link to a brief Youtube video with the XLE Hybrid, holding its own on a frigid day here in Edmonton).

A Camry in XLE trim is practically a luxury car, perhaps lacking the brand cachet of Lexus, but consider that this one still comes in about 6K less than the ES300h, which is pretty much the equivalent of the Camry in size and configuration.

The major points of our test Camry are: it’s powered by a 2.5L four-cylinder gasoline engine, which on its own can produce 176 horsepower (and 163 lb.-ft. of torque), but as a hybrid it also adds an electric motor – branded by Toyota as their Hybrid Synergy Drive system – which brings the combined output to a potential 208 hp.

And of course, one of the things about electric power is that the torque comes on at very low rpm, putting the power to the wheels very quickly, especially when the Sport Mode of the Camry hybrid is activated.

I’m not trying to imply that it’s some sort of sports car here, it isn’t, but the vehicle provides ample power and a driving experience that won’t leave the daily driver feeling let down. It comes up to speed promptly and deals with everyday demands admirably whether on the highway or here on the streets of Edmonton.

But where the advantage lies with hybrid vehicles like this is with the increased fuel economy and savings at the pump over the life of the vehicle – Toyota states a combined consumption rating for the Camry Hybrid of 5.2L/100km, although I’ve gone a little over that (this one ended up with 6.0 after about 400 km of mostly city driving, but it has been my observation that cold weather affects the mileage of hybrids by forcing the cars to use the gas engine more).

Inside the 2018 XLE you find comfortable seating and decent headroom, a dash layout where all major controls are easy to find and understand, and a suite of new tech for 2018.

Now, if you watch our Youtube video you may notice that a lot of the apps on my test vehicle come up grayed out, as they aren’t activated for this press car, but regardless, you can see where the apps would be activated through the combination of touch-screen and interface buttons of the Entune 3.0 suite.

Entune is apparently an open source, Linux based system for the communication module – and the 2018 Camry is the first vehicle to get the system.

This Camry XLE also includes a comprehensive set of safety features, my favorites of which are blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic detection, and a backup camera that will display an overhead, bird’s eye view of the car.

And while less space-age and futuristic, another feature I like on the Camry XLE is the tire-pressure monitor (which can be displayed as a little graphic on the cluster behind the steering wheel if you cycle through the submenus with the steering-mounted controls) that shows the pressure in each individual tire. I like that so much better than lower-end systems that will only alert you that there is a low tire, but makes you get out and check each one to find it.

So ultimately, there isn’t much to dislike in the all-new Camry Hybrid (and it is ‘all-new’, Toyota says the 2018 shares almost no components with the previous generation).

The Camry is also a top-finalist in the Large Car category for the Canadian Car of the Year, presented by Automobile Journalists Association of Canada

You could pick on the price, I suppose, as the XLE does come in a little higher than competitive hybrids from Korea; and perhaps the appearance – although again, the car looks better in my opinion than the outgoing model.

I wouldn’t call it ugly – it isn’t – but rather what a number of people describe as ‘boring’, but that is of course in the eye of the beholder. (Although, do me a favor and check out that big plastic grille and see what you think).

Our test car here, a pretty complete package as is (there are no options listed for our tester) came with a sticker price of $42,832.50 CDN

2018 Subaru Crosstrek Limited

Exactly the right vehicle, timing-wise and arriving at the right time (by which I mean, just as the weather turned wintry out here and the snow began to fall) the Crosstrek made itself instantly welcome.

Not just because it is the latest, 2018 Subaru Crosstrek, either, I’d have been equally glad to have the previous year’s model, or for that matter just about any Subaru product.

And here’s the thing, just as a piece of trivia: pretty much any mountain town I’ve ever visited, anywhere where they get a lot of snow, Subaru is the nameplate I see on most of the vehicles owned by the people who live there. Well, Subaru and Jeep.

Naturally, the all-wheel drive system (Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD) is what has made their lineup a hit among their fans in climate zones similar to mine, and the Crosstrek has been embraced as much for its ability to handle the adverse conditions as for its more car-like size.

Photo courtesy Subaru Canada

The whole lineup employs a 2.0 litre, four-cylinder engine that brings ample power to the platform (152 horses and 145 lb.-ft. of torque). In terms of power, it isn’t dominating its class with those numbers, but the Boxer engine delivers better fuel economy than many of its rivals – Subaru boasts a combined city/highway consumption of 8.1 L/100 km, which is pretty decent.

My test vehicle, a Limited trim with the company’s Eyesight package option, used a continuously variable transmission to put the power to the wheels (and, as a note of trivia, the Limited model is only available with the CVT as of 2018, previously a six-speed manual was offered).

Photo courtesy Subaru Canada

Also new for the upcoming year is that all Crosstreks equipped with this transmission will be equipped with the company’s ‘X-Mode’.

X- mode is, basically, an automated system for managing tricky terrain at low speeds. Activated by the touch of a button on the center console, I think of it mainly as a hill-descent control – it works with the transmission and AWD to maintain torque distribution and engine power.

I’ve seen and experienced X-mode in demonstrations with Subaru’s Forester, crawling down a frighteningly steep and rocky path in mountainous terrain; and I’ll vouch that it works well.

But it was in mostly urban settings that I used this Crosstrek, and thus enjoyed the vehicle more for the general selling points that bring buyers into this segment.

The Crosstrek provides a car-sized footprint that its customers like, and the smooth ride they are looking for; and at the same time brings slightly higher sightlines and better ground clearance (which is a big deal for many in my neck of the woods, where the road surface can be pretty uneven, and nobody likes to hear their undercarriage or front bumper scrape).

Anecdotally, a comment I always hear when I show a car like this to any member of our um, ‘more aged’ population (you know, seniors, oldsters, the more fossilized generation) is the added height of crossover vehicles makes getting in and out of them easier. I am increasingly finding that I enjoy that as well.

I’ll warn you, though, that the Crosstrek has less overall headroom inside than many of its competitors, but in all fairness, this won’t trouble anyone under six feet tall, and has never been mentioned by any of the owners that I know.

The Crosstrek lineup starts at a really reasonable $23,695 for the base/entry-level model, and my test vehicle with its Limited badge and Eyesight package pushed that into the thirties.

Eyesight brings a collection safety technology to the vehicle: adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance (which is a new inclusion for 2018) and braking intervention that will aggressively step in and actually brake the car if it detects that the vehicle is backing into something.

All of which are good things to have, and overall the Crosstrek itself makes a case as a good thing to have, as an all-round capable light duty family-oriented everyday conveyor.

The Limited tester with CVT and Eyesight wasn’t the least expensive crossover out there, but neither is it the priciest, coming with an MSRP of $34,920

Pasta Brioni

I love this place, and have been coming here since it was called ‘Shecky’s’ way back in the day.

There it is, my friends: the Chicken Gigi

It’s Pasta Brioni now, but the menu and format are still very much the same – really good Italian food in nice yet unpretentious setting.

I’ve mostly been there for the lunch session (they are open evenings as well, for a more ‘fine dining’ experience) and every time I go I have but one thing on my mind: Chicken Gigi!

They’ve got other selections too, of course, sandwiches, salads – all of it good – but I consider the chicken-in-a-vodka sauce (with penne noodles) the establishment’s signature dish; and highly recommend it.

Excellent buns, too.