Camry: Back to nonbasics

OJAI, Calif. - Ever since it vaulted past the Ford Taurus and Honda Accord in 1997, the Toyota Camry has been almost untouchable, ringing up four consecutive years as America's best-selling car.

What makes the run remarkable is that the current Camry has far less content than the previous model, reflecting pressure on the car's development team to slash costs during the so-called endaka period - when the strong yen battered the profits of Japanese automakers.

The preceding Camry, sold for the 1992-96 model years, was so richly contented that some Toyota executives considered it too good for its price point. Its replacement was given lower-cost components throughout.

But with the redesigned 2002 Camry, the pendulum has swung back to a bigger, more richly contented car. Longer, wider, taller and equipped with a more powerful base engine and better components and interiors, the new Camry is a measured response to much tougher competition in the segment.

It faces an especially tough challenger in the redesigned Nissan Altima, which comes to market as a bigger car with the segment's most powerful engines. And in the wings are a redesigned Honda Accord and Mazda 626, both expected to be quantum leaps over the current models.

Despite the redesigned Camry's higher content, Toyota has priced it between 3 percent and 7 percent less than the outgoing car, although the former base model has been dropped.

'Our target was to build a better, higher quality Camry for a customer who would not spend a premium,' said Kosaku Yamada, the Camry's longtime chief engineer, at the vehicle's press introduction here. 'For Camry to succeed, we knew it would have to move from sensible to sensual.'

Bigger and better

With nearly 75 percent of Camry buyers opting for the four-cylinder model, upgrading the engine was a priority for Toyota. The new base engine generates 24 more horsepower and 14 more pounds-feet of torque than the outgoing model.

One Toyota manager noted, however, that Camry buyers place engine performance 16th on their list of reasons for buying the sedan - below quality, ride comfort, trade-in value and maintenance record.

'The 2002 Camry doesn't try to be drop-dead gorgeous,' said Don Esmond, Toyota Division general manager.

'It doesn't need to be the most powerful, or the most fuel-efficient, although it will be very close to both. Rather, Camry's success will be based on its ability to be more things to more people than any other passenger car in America.'

Inside, the Camry's look retains Toyota's simple, understated theme. There is no swooping center console; rather the instrument panel is more of a cushioned module.

A big change involves the interior fittings, with a more elegant feel to the knobs, switches and buttons. There is more absorption material in the floorboards and trunk. The base audio system has better sound quality.

And, borrowed from Lexus, the Camry has customizable body-electric systems, such as how the doors unlock from the key fob.

Toyota claims the Camry will launch with 85 percent North American content, which will increase to nearly 100 percent by the end of the model cycle.

Aiming younger

With the incoming model, Toyota has eliminated the former price-leader, the CE model, while moving the entry price of the LE lower.

The LE now features standard air conditioning; power locks, mirrors and windows; cruise control; rear-window defogger; outside temperature gauge; full-size spare tire; daytime running lights, and AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo with six speakers. Power adjustable accelerator and brake pedals will come as a mid-year addition.

Still, when all is said and done, the price of the lowest-price Camry has risen about $1,300, including destination, to $19,455.

The XLE continues to be the loaded version, while an SE edition with sport trim, stiffer suspension and brushed-metal interior trim arrives at about the same price as the LE model.

Toyota hopes the Camry's buyer demographics will shift from an average age of 53 to under 50, and more toward young families with children. But Toyota will place more emphasis on the SE model, with which it hopes to reach buyers in their early 40s.

In doing this, Toyota needs to be careful not to alienate current Camry owners, a very loyal following. Last year, about 98,000 Camry owners bought a new one, representing 38 percent of total Camry sales.

Wholesale delivery of the Camry began Aug. 14, with dealers receiving one unit per dealership and expecting greater deliveries this week. Originally, Toyota planned on a Sept. 1 launch, but with supplies of the old Camry running out, the company bumped up the launch date.

A media assault will begin in early September, with Toyota hoping to generate 1 billion media impressions within the first month. The company declined to discuss campaign details.

The Camry's platform has been redesigned for the first time in 10 years and will be the basis for all Toyota mid-sized, front-wheel-drive vehicles globally. Over the next three years, the platform will grow to represent the mechanical bones of nearly 1 million units of North American sales annually.

The platform was designed to be flexible enough to accommodate not only a high-volume car in Camry but also the plush Avalon full-sized sedan, roomy Sienna minivan, sporty Camry Solara, and rugged Highlander and Lexus RX 300 sport wagons.

Toyota also is eyeing the platform as the basis for numerous other domestic and export market products.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com

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