But the Camry also represents another competitive threat: The U.S.-led project to develop Toyota's cornerstone product is raising the bar on how fast and inexpensively the industry can execute a big vehicle development program.
Toyota's North American operations took the Camry from design to final assembly in 26 months, almost a year faster than the Big 3 often take to turn around a major project.
Toyota's technical managers say they dispensed with many of the expensive chores associated with developing a vehicle by reducing part prototypes and the amount of necessary tool making.
Toyota thinks it lopped 30 percent out of the cost of developing the 2002 Camry, a savings that helps explain the new model's 3 percent to 7 percent price reduction. That reduction translates into a retail price rollback of some $1,500 per car.
Parts created overnightAccording to Dana Hargitt, Camry program manager for Toyota Technical Center Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., Toyota used new approaches to project planning, scheduling, vehicle design, parts design and testing, as well as new computer-aided tools that turned out plastic models of proposed parts overnight.
"We could load the design file into the rapid-prototyping system to tell it what part to build, go home, and in the morning, there would be our new part," Hargitt said.
"Basically, we became better engineers because we had better tools in our bag."
The project got under way even before it technically started.
Before Toyota's designers were finished drawing the new Camry, the Ann Arbor center was bringing together teams of up to 40 people from Ann Arbor, from Toyota's Georgetown, Ky., manufacturing plant and from its Erlanger, Ky., manufacturing headquarters to identify problems with the existing Camry.
Tooling engineers and workers from the Georgetown assembly plant pulled three-day stays in Ann Arbor, going over trouble areas and creating a wish list of changes they wanted to see in the new generation.
"We were having these meetings even during the design phase," Hargitt revealed.
The project had 7,500 requests for changes in hand before the vehicle's drawings were complete. "And that was before we had even seen the first part," he said.
See it all 3-DMany of the Camry's parts were created on a new computer-aided design system installed in Ann Arbor in the late 1990s. For the first time, Toyota's engineers were able to link up the drawings of multiple parts and project them onto a large screen as three-dimensional vehicle sections.
The company's new rapid-prototyping tools, about the size of two large refrigerators, were then used to produce plastic mock-ups of the parts for further analysis. Hargitt estimates the approach turned out 3,200 pieces during the project, including such parts as door trim, cupholders, headlamp housings, luggage trays and taillights.
That was not the normal prototyping procedure. Traditionally, to obtain a prototype, a development project turns a design over to a parts maker.
The supplier then creates the tooling to produce the prototype, a process that takes around 12 weeks.
"Once you start cutting tools, it gets very expensive," Hargitt said. "And every time you make a change, it gets a little more expensive."
Another result of the computer design approach was a drastic reduction in the number of prototype vehicles required for the model launch.
Hargitt estimates Toyota built fewer than 100 prototypes during the program, representing a 65 percent reduction.
That meant the project had fewer man-hours, suppliers, tooling and factory overhead tied up in getting the car off the drawing boards and into the market.