2018 Camry: The more things change …

Toyota’s Akio Toyoda introduces the 2018 Camry: “Why should SUVs get all the glory?”

DETROIT — In his starring and sometimes comical role at the unveiling of the redesigned Camry sedan here last week, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda poked some fun at this nation’s growing obsession with light trucks at the expense of cars.

“We view this as an opportunity to reignite the midsize sedan market,” Toyoda told a packed auditorium on the floor of the Detroit auto show. “I mean why should SUVs get all the glory?”

He drew some laughs from the crowd when he went on to call the eighth-generation Camry “sexy,” and the sport model “really sexy,” not only for his cheeky delivery but also for putting “Camry” and “sexy” in the same sentence.

But for loyal buyers of practical family sedans, and Camry buyers in particular, Toyoda is probably right. The new Camry is about as daring as is prudent for the loyalists who buy several hundred thousand of these cars a year — even in a bad year for cars.

The 2018 Camry might be changing just enough to remain what it is: the best-selling car in America for 15 years running.

The Camry is built on a new suspension for a better ride. Its four- and six-cylinder engines are more powerful and more fuel-efficient than the outgoing versions, Toyota said. There’s an updated hybrid model and a more upscale interior.

“It is a very evolutionary change, but that being said, this is a vehicle design for what Camry buyers know and love,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at auto consultancy AutoPacific. “They are definitely pushing the envelope in how far they can take the Camry without it looking like a wild child.”

The Camry was Toyota’s best-selling model overall last year — at 388,618 units, down 9.5 percent from 2015 — but it’s unlikely to repeat in 2017 as the RAV4 compact crossover looks poised to take its place.

The RAV4 clocked in at 352,154 units last year, up 12 percent. In December, it outsold the Camry 37,214 to 33,412.

“I think they are just getting ready for the changing of the guard as the RAV steps up,” said Sullivan. “Either way, there is no downside. It’s not a bad place to be for Toyota right now.”

The RAV4’s surge and the Camry’s decline would have been more problematic a year ago when Toyota was struggling to get enough of RAV4s to dealers. That shortage has been mostly been fixed, Toyota executives said.

Moreover, the company conveniently had its Camry capacity reduced by 100,000 cars per year beginning last May when an agreement with Subaru to build the Toyota sedan at its Indiana plant ended.

So who’s going to buy enough Camrys to keep it No. 1 when rivals Honda and Nissan update their family sedans in the next year or so?

Lentz: Rules out incentives to drive share

“I think the vast majority of the business will come from loyal [Camry] owners,” Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, said in an interview. There are about 5 million Camrys on the road, he said, “so there are a lot of Camry buyers out there.” 

Toyota won’t use incentives just to drive share, Lentz said, especially because that tactic is typically used to keep older versions of cars moving out the door, not the new ones. (In December, Toyota spent an average of $4,482 for each Camry it sold, up more than $1,000 from a year earlier, according to Autodata.) 

Does that mean Toyota isn’t determined to defend the Camry’s perch as America’s best-selling car? Toyota has long said that distinction means more as an internal motivator for employees and dealers. 

Said Lentz: “You’d hate to give it up after 15 years.”

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