Toy­ota Camry gets a top-to-bot­tom makeover

The Colonial - - OPINION - By Dee-Ann Durbin

APAu­toWriter

Shaken by the ad­vances of newer, sportier ri­vals, the Toy­ota Camry is try­ing to shed its vanilla rep­u­ta­tion.

The re­designed 2015 Camry, un­veiled last Wed­nes­day at the New York In­ter­na­tional Auto Show, is longer and wider, with a large, ag­gres­sive grille and chis­eled sides. Toy­ota says it changed ev­ery ex­te­rior piece but the roof.

The Camry has been the best-sell­ing car in the U.S. for the last 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.

U.S. Toy­ota di­vi­sion chief Bill Fay said the com­pany started redesign­ing the Camry al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter a new ver­sion went on sale in 2011. Fay said the com­pany knew it needed a more dar­ing style af­ter com­peti­tors like Hyundai and Ford of­fered newer, more strik­ing de­signs.

“Ev­ery­one was rais­ing the stakes a bit. We had to make sure we could keep this com­pet­i­tive,” Fay said Wed­nes­day at the show.

In­side the up­dated Camry, which goes on sale in the fall, 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.

The changes will help the Camry de­fend its turf, which has been in­creas­ingly chal­lenged by ri­vals.

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 last year than the Camry.

What’s more, the new Mazda6 breezed past the Camry’s fuel econ­omy num­bers. And even lux­ury mak­ers like Mercedes-Benz have in­tro­duced new cars that sell for un­der $30,000 — right in Camry buy­ers’ price range.

It didn’t help that Toy­ota’s rep­u­ta­tion was hurt by a se­ries of re­calls in 2010. The Camry has never re­gained the 15 per­cent share of the mid­size car mar­ket it held be­fore the re­calls. It con­trolled 13 per­cent of that mar­ket in 2013, with to­tal sales of 408,484, ac­cord­ing to Ward’s Au­toIn­foBank.

The mid­size ri­vals are com­pet­ing in a shrink­ing mar­ket. Young fam­i­lies and ag­ing Baby Boomers are flock­ing to small SUVs like the Toy­ota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which of­fer more space and com­pet­i­tive fuel econ­omy. Mid­size car sales have fallen 8 per­cent so far this year, while small SUVs are up 20 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Kel­ley Blue Book.

In that kind of mar­ket, no one can stand still. Hyundai, which brought the mid­size seg­ment out of the dol­drums with the racy 2011 Sonata, which went on sale in 2009, in­tro­duced a new Sonata in New YorkWed­nes­day.

The 2015 Sonata has ditched the sharp creases on the sides that po­lar­ized buy­ers in fa­vor of a taut, re­fined look to match the up­scale Gen­e­sis sedan. The new Sonata, which goes on sale this sum­mer, has many new fea­tures, in­clud­ing Ap­ple’s CarPlay sys­tem that lets driv­ers con­trol their Ap­ple de­vices through the car.

The more re­fined styling may dis­ap­point some fans. Mike Cimino, a Hyundai dealer and vice pres­i­dent of Phil Long Deal­er­ships in Colorado Springs, Colo., was hop­ing for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change along the lines of the 2011 model.

“I’m won­der­ing what they have that’s go­ing to take them out of the box again,” he said.

But Dave Zu­chowski, the CEO of Hyundai in the U.S., said Hyundai no longer needs to grab buy­ers’ at­ten­tion like it did five years ago.

“We don’t have to stand on the ta­ble and shout,” he said.

Cimino, who also sells Toy­otas, said the Camry doesn’t need to make rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes. Toy­ota buy­ers are ex­tremely loyal, he said, and are sat­is­fied with small up­grades in de­sign and tech­nol­ogy.

Aaron Brag­man, the Detroit bureau chief for the car buy­ing site Cars.com, said Toy­ota sur­prised him with the ex­tent of the changes on the 2015 Camry.

“They had to step up their game,” he said.

In ad­di­tion to loyal buy­ers, Toy­ota has an­other ad­van­tage: the weak yen. Adam Jonas, an auto an­a­lyst with Mor­gan Stan­ley, says the de­pre­ci­a­tion of the yen has trans­lated into a $2,500 to $3,000 profit per ve­hi­cle for Ja­panese au­tomak­ers.

That’s helped Toy­ota main­tain its lead, since it can make a profit even if it of­fers big dis­counts. The aver­age Camry cur­rently sells for $23,965, or around $900 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, like the new Camry.

“They will do what they need to do to stay on top,” said Stephanie Brin­ley, an an­a­lyst with IHS Au­to­mo­tive.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The 2015 Toy­ota Camry was in­tro­duced at the New York In­ter­na­tional Auto Show.

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