Toyota Motor Corp.’s new Camry will start a blitz of U.S. model releases to regain sales lost to rivals such as Hyundai Motor Co. after three years that included recession, recalls and the March 11 catastrophe.
Toyota unveiled the 2012 Camry on Tuesday at Paramount Studios in Hollywood on a New York City-themed back lot with 200 actors, dancers and musicians.
It’s the first of 20 new and refreshed Toyota, Lexus and Scion models arriving by early 2013, said Bob Carter, group vice president of U.S. sales.
The new version of the top-selling car in the U.S. goes on sale in October.
“They have been given a black eye over the past three years for different things, some beyond their control and some that showed kinks in their armor,” said Ed Kim, an industry analyst for AutoPacific Inc. Bringing out the Camry and other new models “is tremendously important,” he said.
The new models, starting with four more this year, come none too soon for Toyota, set to lose its ranking as the world’s largest automaker this year. The March 11 earthquake slowed Toyota plants in the months that followed, hindering efforts to bounce back from last year’s record recalls.
U.S. deliveries for Toyota’s three brands fell 7.1 percent this year through July to 943,590, its lowest for the period since 1999. By comparison, total light-vehicle sales grew 11 percent, with Hyundai up 23 percent, General Motors Co. up 16 percent and Ford Motor Co. rising 12 percent.
“It really starts with the all-new Camry; Camry is the keystone of the brand,” Carter said. “Then the cadence comes faster than I’ve seen in 30 years with Toyota.”
Along with the Camry, Toyota this year will add the hybrid Prius v wagon, revamped Yaris subcompact, Scion iQ minicar and a modified Tacoma pickup, Carter said.
Releases in 2012 include a plug-in version of the Prius and compact Prius c hybrid, a new Lexus GS sport sedan, a battery-powered RAV4 sport utility vehicle and a rear-wheel-drive Scion FR-S sports car, he said.
“It is definitely good to have a heavy schedule of new models on the way, to kind of wow the public,” said Kim.
The Camry and expanded line of Prius models are designed to help overcome lingering consumer concerns about the quality and safety of Toyota products after the company recalled millions of cars and light trucks for flaws linked to accelerator-pedal interference.
“Those two are key to building back the brand,” noted Carter, who has said the Prius will be Toyota’s top-selling line by the end of the decade.
The new Camry has the best safety, handling and fuel economy among U.S. midsize sedans, with the hybrid version averaging 41 miles per gallon of gasoline, up 24 percent, Carter said. Toyota is determined to keep the model the top-selling car, a position it has held for 13 of the past 14 years.
“To become the biggest-selling car in America is no joke,” Yoshimi Inaba, Toyota’s North American chief executive, said in a July 12 interview. “You have to be good everywhere. We think we’ve got it.”
The Camry is symbolic of Toyota’s success, Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda said in a speech Tuesday marking the start of production of the model in Georgetown, Kentucky.
“This is an opportunity to show the world what Toyota is all about,” said Toyoda, grandson of the automaker’s founder. “I can introduce the new Camry with 100 percent confidence.”
Through July, Camry sales slipped 7.8 percent to 174,485 from a year earlier. Nissan Motor Co.’s Altima gained 17 percent to 153,182, second-most among midsize cars.
Hyundai’s Sonata had a 27 percent sales gain, Ford’s Fusion rose 17 percent, GM’s Malibu increased 11 percent and Kia Motors Corp.’s Optima more than doubled.
Toyota’s goal is to sell 360,000 in the U.S. next year, said spokesman Greg Thome.
“The car is fully competitive on all counts,” said Kim, the AutoPacific analyst, who test-drove the sedan. “It seems very poised to hold on to its buyer base but not go out and gain new customers. The lower price should help entice those who might be thinking about moving away from the Toyota fold to other brands.”
Even if the new car doesn’t lure drivers from Hyundai, Ford, Kia, Honda Motor Co. or Volkswagen AG, the Camry has the largest owner base of any midsize sedan in the U.S., Carter said.
Toyota estimates more than 6.8 million Camry models are on the road in the U.S., with 90 percent sold since 1995.
“That’s a foundation no other manufacturer has,” he said.
Toyota’s best year for the Camry was 473,108 in 2007, after the current version came out, and it’s been the best-selling car in the U.S. for the past nine years.
Changes to the Camry’s exterior styling are more “evolutionary” than “revolutionary,” Carter said.
It retains the 2011 Camry’s basic profile, substituting the current car’s rounder edges with squared-off corners. While exterior dimensions are similar, it has a roomier rear seat and bigger trunk, Toyota said.
The price of a four-cylinder 2012 Camry LE with an automatic transmission was trimmed by about $200 to $22,500, Carter said.
The price of a SE version was reduced by about $1,000 to $23,000, and the top-end XLE grade was cut $2,000 to $24,725, he said of the models with four-cylinder engines. Prices of the models with six-cylinder engines won’t change.
A 2012 Sonata’s starting price is $19,695, and Ford’s Fusion begins at $22,830, with an automatic transmission.
The reduced pricing is part of Toyota’s strategy to retain sales volume, Carter said.
“We’d rather price the car right and not discount it down through incentives,” he said.
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