Since 2007, Toyota Motor Corp. has been racing the nation's best-selling car, its Camry sedan, in the nation's most-watched motor sports series: NASCAR.
Now, it hopes to finally leverage some of that track cred in the showroom as part of President Akio Toyoda's bid to zest up the brand's stodgy image and win over younger shoppers.
The idea: Expand the brand's line of Toyota Racing Development tuner editions to passenger cars, possibly starting with a Camry TRD as early as this year. Toyota bets it can replicate the success its TRD editions have had in drawing the coveted younger demographic to its trucks.
"I think we'd probably start with Camry and see if there is a little magic we could work with some of the TRD equity that we have," Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota Division, told Automotive News on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show last month. "Camrys are out there during season racing every Saturday and Sunday in NASCAR. So I think there's a logical fit there."
Fay said a Camry TRD could arrive by year's end but "probably more likely in '16."
The special edition is unlikely to appeal to the Camry's core staid family buyers. They might bristle at the tricked-out exhaust systems, oversized wheels and bold exterior flourishes typical of TRD packages.
But the economics are too good to resist. The TRD editions currently offered with the Tundra and Tacoma pickups and 4Runner SUV fetch both higher sticker prices and younger buyers.
Plus, they are wildly popular. Some 40 percent of Tacoma buyers opt for TRD models, Toyota says.
Adding a TRD to the Camry line is an extension of a metamorphosis already taking place. With last year's sweeping midcycle overhaul of the Camry, Toyota added a new sporty XSE trim level above the SE grade to capitalize on the car's sportier, more aggressive looks.
What emerged was a two-prong strategy for the Camry, said Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s senior vice president of automotive operations. The traditional LE line and its derivatives play in the luxury sedan space, while the SE and its variants venture into the sports sedan segment.
Customers are gravitating to the sporty side. The SE line, which accounts for about half of Camry sales, is attracting much younger buyers, Carter said.
The average buyer in the midsize sedan segment is about 58 years old, he said. Just five years ago, the average Camry buyer was 60. But that has fallen fast. Today, Carter said, the average customer on the Camry LE side is 57, but for the SE, the average customer is just 45.
"To have a 12-year separation on grade levels -- I'm not going to suggest it's never been done before, but I've never seen it on our brands," Carter said. "The average age of our buyer is really starting to come down."
The dual-identity strategy is playing out in other nameplates such as the Corolla, executives say.
"I think our challenge," said Fay, "will be to continue to build on that going forward. I think we've tried to demonstrate how you can have fun in these cars. Certainly, with Camry, we've tried to leverage a little bit more of the investment in NASCAR and what we've done there around the track."
TRD would be another move up for Camry buyers more attuned to performance.
Toyota already has created some Camry TRD mock-ups, Carter said. The company told its NASCAR drivers to create their own Camry TRDs, to see who could build the hottest ride. Kyle Busch, one of the sport's top competitors, concocted a "Rowdy Edition" Camry in black with red and white accents, a wild spoiler, front air splitter, rear air diffuser and twin chrome exhausts.
"We had fun with it," Carter said. "The problem was, Kyle's car was gorgeous, but it had so much carbon fiber on it, it was a $100,000 Camry."
TRD was founded in 1979 as an aftermarket parts distributor in California. It quickly evolved into a racing arm that supported Toyota's motorsports entries in off-road, GT, CART, Indy and drag racing. Aside from equipping special editions of production cars, the division makes a galaxy of performance aftermarket parts including superchargers, brakes and exhaust systems.
Carter said planners are pondering a Camry TRD and there are no "definitive" plans.
"I'm a big advocate of TRD and racing. Whether we do it as a total package or a dealer-installed option or a port-installed option, there are several different paths we are looking at," Carter said. "It's developing that sort of sport-plus package that we're playing with. It adds a lot of value."