Toyota's major midcycle revamp aims to keep Camry on top

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Playing catch-up
Mid-sized sedan sales this year through February
Nissan Altima53,3649%
Toyota Camry52,230-17%
Honda Accord45,226-13%
Ford Fusion44,615-11%
Source: Automotive News Data Center

LOS ANGELES -- It has been the best-selling car in the United States for 12 years, but the Toyota Camry is losing ground in the industry's escalating mid-sized sedan wars. Now Toyota will break with tradition by extensively revamping the car just three years after it was redesigned.

Far from the usual midcycle nip-and-tuck, the 2015 Camry that debuts April 16 at the New York auto show will come with major changes to sheet metal and suspension tuning, Toyota sources say. The car goes on sale in the fall.

The midcycle revamp is an apparent response to consumers' indifferent reaction to the bland 2012 redesign and Toyota's subsequent need to crank up incentives. Camry sales were flat in 2013, just keeping pace with the overall segment, and the car's 2014 sales through February fell 17 percent, compared with an 11 percent drop for the segment.

April 16 will be an intriguing day at the New York show. A fully redesigned Hyundai Sonata -- the car that symbolizes the Camry's stronger mid-sized competition -- also will debut.

Toyota isn't talking about the changes to the Camry, but sources say that the 2015 version's exterior panels will have "bold changes" and that the suspension will be retuned for sportier handling. The interior will gain some improved materials, and as is typical, the trim levels will see improved standard content and features.

The changes also will incorporate the 20141/2 model's updated safety structure, which improved the Camry's performance in the small-overlap front crash test.

A spy photographer came across this 2015 Camry during testing. The car will be on display next month at the New York auto show.

Ho-hum entry

Midcycle freshenings typically involve minor trim and content modifications or items that engineers or designers wanted on the original vehicle but didn't get to before launch. Increasingly, however, automakers are making midcycle updates more pronounced, with major changes in powertrains, crash structures, packaging and interior offerings.

When Honda goofed with its underwhelming 2012 Civic redesign, it quickly followed with the 2013 model with a new interior and front crash structure.

The 2014 Civic that came last fall had its own major-minor change, by swapping out the traditional geared automatic transmission for a continuously variable transmission -- an engineering change normally reserved for full redesigns.

In that context, the Camry's last redesign came across as barely noticeable. The front and rear fascias were only slightly changed, and the door cuts were almost identical to those of the outgoing model. The dimensions were the same, and the powertrains were basically carryovers, although the interior was updated.

The flashy styling of the current Sonata and later of the 2013 Ford Fusion made the Camry look obsolete on the showroom floor.

Since the redesigned Camry was launched in October 2011, the car's incentives have risen above the average for the mid-sized sedan segment -- this from an automaker that has prided itself on having some of the lowest incentives in the industry. But the Camry incentives didn't help lackluster sales.

Shrinking lead

Although the Camry has remained the nation's top-selling car, the margin of victory has narrowed in recent years and the number of close rivals has grown. In some months competitors have outsold the Camry.

Through February, the Nissan Altima was the top seller, although one large multibrand dealer said that was the result of big sales to daily rental fleets, which will subside as the year progresses.

Another worrying trend for Toyota could be slipping owner loyalty. For the first full year after the Camry's redesign, the percentage of prior Camry owners who bought another Camry stayed level, at 30 percent, according to AutoPacific data. But in 2013 the figure dropped to 24 percent -- likely a result of the arrival of the redesigned Altima and Ford Fusion.

"Buyers became increasingly aware that you didn't have to buy a Camry to get faultless reliability and strong resale," said Ed Kim, AutoPacific vice president of industry analysis. "An increasing number of alternatives offered more engaging styling and more modern technology."

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