SEDAN SHOOTOUT

As Sonata turns cautious, Camry flees good-but-frumpy image

2015 Toyota Camry
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NEW YORK -- Sales of mid-sized sedans may be off 8 percent so far this year, but redesigns from Toyota and Hyundai unveiled at the auto show here indicate the segment has plenty of fight left in it.

Last week each automaker aimed to deliver a blow to its family-sedan competition, from different directions.

With an ambitious, sporty restyling just three years into the current cycle, Toyota sought to change the Camry's image as a bland appliance. Hyundai, meanwhile, positioned its 2015 Sonata to cast a wider net by offering shoppers a more upscale driving experience and a design less flamboyant than that of the swoopy, value-priced version that burst into the segment five years ago.

The twin unveilings spotlighted two competitors -- one a perennial but aging champion, the other a small but feisty challenger -- that still have something to prove in a mature market.

As an attention-hungry challenger, "We had to do something fairly dramatic five years ago," Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motor America CEO, said in an interview, referring to the outgoing Sonata's polarizing shape.

But with nearly 900,000 more Sonata owners on the road since the outgoing model's debut, and a chance to build a broader, more sustainable following, "We have to be more careful," Zuchowski said.

The next-generation Sonata rides on a carryover platform with carryover powertrains tweaked for more torque. But Hyundai says the car's suspension and steering have been redesigned for better ride and handling.

The interior also is new, with greater use of soft-touch materials and more countermeasures against road noise.

Also, high-tech features and advanced safety equipment -- plus a starting price that Zuchowski says won't stray far from the outgoing model's sticker of just over $22,000, with shipping -- will help the Sonata retain the value image that has been a key purchase reason for the sedan, Hyundai says.


Beyond the cosmetics


With 6.6 million Camrys on the road, Toyota understands well the delicate balance Hyundai is seeking. The Camry's large, loyal following has allowed it -- compelled it -- to stick with safe, modest designs and driving characteristics, generation after generation.

But when the current generation was launched in late 2011, mostly to yawns from auto critics, the sportier SE model became the best- selling trim package. Toyota took the hint.

Though the 2015 Camry is a midcycle change to an existing platform, with no powertrain changes, Toyota is calling it "all new." It has been modified with more high- tensile steel, a retuned suspension, a two-stage brake booster and a restyled interior. Every piece of sheet metal except the roof has been changed, as have more than 2,000 part numbers. For some automakers, that constitutes a redesign.

"Beyond the cosmetics of a more emotional design, the car drives like a new vehicle," said Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales senior vice president of automotive operations.

On the 2015 model, Hyundai backed away from the swoopy styling that made the Sonata so distinctive.

Segment in turmoil


Both products will land in a mid-sized market that has been roiled by intense competition, not only within the segment but also from fast-growing crossovers. At 2.6 million units in 2013, sales in the segment grew just 1 percent from the previous year, and are off 8 percent so far this year, compared with a 4 percent rise for the industry overall. That has left automakers battling ever more fiercely for pieces of a shrinking pie.

No one feels this more than Toyota, which is fighting to continue the Camry's 12-year streak as America's best-selling car against a strong challenge from the Nissan Altima.

Toyota has spent more on Camry incentives, yet had a lower mean transaction price, than its top four competitors -- the Altima, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and the Sonata -- every month since November 2012, according to TrueCar.

Carter hopes the investment in the new-look Camry will allow Toyota to dial back on incentive spending. "One way to lower incentives is to increase demand, and that's what this car is about," Carter said.

But if competitors should raise their incentives, Toyota won't sit still. Said Carter: "This is a competitive market. And we're going to compete."

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter


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