It’s been a tough winter for Toyota, the maker’s traditionally best-selling Camry line unexpectedly losing some of its momentum in a hotly competitive midsize sedan market.
And that has the Japanese giant scrambling to hang onto the sales lead it has held in the U.S. market for the last dozen years. Toyota confirms it will unveil a new version of the Camry at the New York Auto Show later this month, and it promises that the 2015 update will be more than just the usual mid-cycle refresh.
Just how far it will go without a complete redesign remains to be seen, but with the Nissan Altima actually having led the sales race during January and February, Toyota officials are rapidly buying into the philosophy set by CEO Akio Toyoda who is demanding more “passion” from its future products – or “waku-doki” in Japanese.
Toyota has, if anything, traditionally tried to play it safe when it comes to product design and such essential characteristics as ride and handling. And the Camry has been both heralded and faulted for its conservative approach. But that’s little surprise considering it has steadily delivered annual sales in the 400,000 range – a distinct rarity in an industry constantly flooded with new product.
Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the midsize sedan segment. Over the last several years, new models have included such strong contenders as the Ford Fusion, the Honda Accord and the Nissan Altima. Chevrolet delivered a significant update of the Malibu for 2014 and there’s an all-new Hyundai Sonata on top for this coming model-year.
Fusion and Accord both cut into Camry’s sales and market share last year, but the real neck-and-neck race is with the Nissan Altima which actually took the segment’s sales lead during January and February. Aggressive marketing helped Toyota regain the crown in March – Camry sales surging 11.4% to 41,953, while Altima slipped 4.9% to 35,921. But for the first quarter overall, Toyota’s traditional powerhouse is only 4,998 units ahead of Nissan’s alternative, and barely 7,000 ahead of the Honda Accord.
(Click Here for more on March car sales.)
So, might Toyota be ready to deliver more than the traditional tweaks that normally come halfway through the traditional sedan’s six to eight-year lifecycle? That’s what several company officials are promising, though details are few as the April 16 unveiling at New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center approaches.
Speculation centers around the NS4, a sleek plug-in hybrid concept vehicle that Toyota introduced during the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. But don’t be surprised to see some ever-so-subtle hints of the extreme FT-1 concept sports car that Toyota unveiled in Detroit this past January – especially in the form of more slit-like headlamps, sources are suggesting.
The FT-1 was meant to serve as “the symbol of Toyota’s design future,” declared Kevin Hunter, head of the maker’s CALTY advanced design studio, during the Detroit premier.
Toyota clearly doesn’t want to repeat what happened when it was readying the current Camry model for launch in late 2011. It received an unexpectedly cold response from dealers who saw an early prototype barely 18 months before launch, a big chill severe enough to force the maker to rush through a number of exterior changes late in the game.
It also tried to fix the interior with such details as a floating top to the instrument panel. And it is widely expected that some of the most significant tweaks to the 2015 model will focus on the cabin.
As for powertrain options, don’t expect major changes there, the 2015 likely to see only subtle improvements – possibly in terms of mileage and horsepower numbers – for the current mix of inline-four, V-6 and hybrid offerings.
(Toyota accepts $1.2 billion settlement, three years probation, for unintended acceleration recall delays. Click Here for the full story.)
With its reputation for quality and reliability, Toyota has long been able to hold onto a legion of loyal Camry buyers with what has traditionally been one of the midsize segment’s most conservative offerings. But Toyota has nonetheless taken some image hits, notably with the recent announcement of a $1.2 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department of its unintended acceleration scandal. Add the flood of new competitors and it may grow increasingly difficult for Camry to hold onto its lead without taking a bit more risk.
(Toyota recalls big Avalon. Click Here to find out why.)