Hyundai and Kia are gaining ground with radically styled models. Volkswagen is reloading with a less expensive Passat this fall, and Chevrolet will introduce a redesigned Malibu early next year. Later next year, an all-new Honda Accord and Nissan Altima will hit showrooms.
But Toyota is banking on its expertise in gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains and other changes to enhance the Camry's appeal with more consumers.
"We're going to maintain the market by taking the core Camry and expanding in two different directions," Carter said. "With [the standard] Camry, you have a true midsize package at 35 miles per gallon, and the Hybrid is 43 mpg. It used to be that you couldn't dream of a car in this class getting 43 mpg."
Pricing starts at $22,715
The new Camry goes on sale Oct. 3, with a major marketing campaign scheduled to launch Oct. 17. The Camry Hybrid reaches showrooms in December.
Toyota said prices on popular trim lines will decrease or remain flat. All Camry models come standard with 10 airbags, vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
Pricing on the base Camry L model will start at $22,715, including freight charges, up $710 from the 2011 model. It includes Bluetooth hands-free capability, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, cruise control, dual color-keyed power outside mirrors, projector beam headlamps, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, tire pressure monitor system, 16-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes, and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with an auxiliary audio jack and USB with iPod connectivity.
The Camry LE with a four-cylinder engine is expected to account for 40 percent of all model sales and will be priced at $23,260, including destination, down $200.
The biggest price decrease comes on the Camry XLE model with a four-cylinder engine. It will be priced at $25,485, down $2,000 from 2011.
Pricing on the hybrid will start at $26,660, a drop of $1,150 compared to the 2011 model.
Hybrid sales to rise
Toyota expects to sell about 360,000 total units in the United States next year, including about 50,000 Camry Hybrids. Last year, Toyota sold 14,587 Camry Hybrids in the United States, according to the Automotive News Data Center. When the market fully recovers, Camry sales should exceed 400,000 units easily, Carter says.
U.S. sales of the Camry peaked at 473,108 units in 2007, and during the downturn, Toyota still managed to sell more than 325,000 units a year.
Perhaps the biggest change for the 2012 model year is making the Camry simpler to manufacture. Without counting interior and exterior color combinations, the outgoing Camry could be built 1,246 different ways. The new Camry has just 36 build combinations, and should result in higher quality and lower manufacturing costs.
The four- and six-cylinder engines will be carried over, although the four-cylinder was redesigned in 2009, and the V-6 was revolutionary when it came out with the last Camry redesign.
Toyota has eliminated the old base model's 169 hp four-cylinder engine, but the remaining four-cylinder still comes up 20 hp short against the base Hyundai Sonata, with only a slight fuel economy advantage. There is no manual transmission offering.
The six-speed automatic's gearing is the same, except for a taller final drive ratio.
But the hybrid-gasoline engine is new, using Atkinson-cycle combustion, as is much of the hybrid powertrain. The Atkinson cycle closes the intake valves later than normal to improve fuel economy and emissions in hybrid powertrains. That results in much quicker acceleration from its 200 total system horsepower -- with a 7.6 second zero-to-60 time -- as well as 43 city/41 highway mpg fuel economy. The hybrid also can go 1.5 miles in EV mode up to 45 mph, if the driver has a very light foot.