Shaken by the advances of newer, sportier rivals, the Toyota Camry is trying to shed its vanilla reputation.
The redesigned 2015 Camry, unveiled on Tuesday at the New York Auto Show, is longer and wider, with a more aggressive design. Toyota says it changed every exterior piece but the roof.
The Camry has been the best-selling car in the US for the past 12 years, supported by loyal buyers wedded to a dependable family car. But Toyota acknowledges that tastes have changed, and buyers of midsize cars want more style, comfort and performance to go with the reliability.
Inside the updated Camry, there are softer materials and a wireless charging system. The body is stiffer and the suspension and steering were retuned for more responsive driving. Even the carpet and side mirrors were redesigned to make the car quieter.
Rivals such as Honda, Ford and Nissan were quicker to recognise the changing midsize market, and have encroached on Toyota’s dominance.
In the three years since the Camry was last redesigned, competitors have introduced cars with more daring designs. The Honda Accord, redesigned for the 2013 model year, narrowed Camry’s full-year sales lead to 41,000 cars last year from 73,000 in 2012. The Nissan Altima and the Ford Fusion each had bigger percentage sales gains in 2013 than the Camry.
What’s more, the new Mazda6 breezed past the Camry’s fuel economy numbers. And even luxury makers such as Mercedes-Benz have introduced new cars that sell for less than $30,000 – right in Camry buyers’ price range.
It also didn’t help that Toyota’s reputation was hurt by a series of recalls in 2010. The Camry has never regained the 15 per cent share of the midsize car market it held before the recalls. It controlled 13 per cent of that market in 2013, and had total sales of 408,484, according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank.
The midsize rivals are competing in a shrinking market. Young families and ageing baby boomers are flocking to small SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which offer more space and competitive fuel economy. Midsize car sales have fallen eight per cent this year, while small SUVs are up 20 per cent, according to Kelley Blue Book (KBB).
In that kind of market, no one can stand still. Hyundai, which brought the midsize segment out of the doldrums with the racy 2009 Sonata, is introducing a new Sonata in New York. Sonata’s share of the midsize market dropped to 5.7 per cent in 2013 from 6.4 per cent in 2012.
The Sonata, which was shown in Korea in March, has dropped the sharply curved side crease in favour of a more conservative, upscale design.
In addition to a base of loyal buyers, Toyota has another advantage: the weak yen. Adam Jonas, an auto analyst at Morgan Stanley, says the depreciation of the yen has translated into a $US2500 ($A2676.52) to $US3000 profit a vehicle for Japanese auto makers.
That’s helped Toyota maintain its lead, since it can make a profit even if it offers big discounts. The average Camry sells for $US23,965, or about $US900 less than the average midsize car, according to KBB. Only the Dodge Avenger sells for less.
Those profits can also be reinvested in better products, such as the new Camry.