Portland, Oregon — Thirty-five years ago, Toyota exploited high gas prices and federal fuel-efficiency regulations to take a historic foothold in the U.S. auto market. Joined by other Japanese firms like Honda and Nissan, Toyota led the sea-change from big, American gas-hogs to the cars Americans craved: cheap, fuel-efficient sedans.

But today the U.S. market is in the midst of a seismic shift away from cars to bigger SUVs that, for the first time in decades, plays to Detroit automakers’ strengths. In 2016 Toyota lost 0.3 percent market share (to 14 percent) as buyers turned away from its traditional sedan mainstays.

As Toyota introduced a completely redesigned Camry sedan to the automotive press here this week, the automaker faces questions as to whether it is vulnerable in a U.S. market where SUVs rule amid cheap gas prices.

Despite the challenges, company executives and industry analysts agree that Toyota and other Japanese automakers are well-positioned for the shift. They are not the makers of small econoboxes of yore. Over the last four decades, Toyota, for one, has evolved with American consumer tastes not only as a dominant maker of passenger cars — but also a full-line maker of everything from SUVs to pickups.

Toyota’s product mix in the U.S. is about 60 percent SUVS and 40 percent sedans, said Jack Hollis, group vice president for North America: “No one would have predicted (the market) would move this far this fast.”

Hollis anticipates that the compact Toyota RAV4 — the No. 2-selling SUV behind Honda’s CR-V in the industry’s biggest segment — will outsell the Camry in 2017 for the first time. Camry sales declined 9 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the Toyota Highlander is the No. 3 mid-size SUV (behind Detroit champs Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee), and the Tacoma is the best-selling mid-size pickup.

“Over the years, (Toyota CEO) Akio Toyoda’s goal was to separate (global) marketplaces so there was self-reliance in every region,” says Hollis. “That is why we make the majority of our vehicles in the U.S. so we can adjust to the fluctuations in the market. We build where we sell.”

Toyota’s strength in small trucks belies the historic caricature of a brand that only built small cars. Sure, Toyota’s compact, sippy Corolla became a runaway hit in the 1980s followed by the Camry — the best-selling car in America for the last 15 years. But Toyota also sold the FJ and Land Cruiser sport utilities 40 years ago, and the Tacoma pickup has consistently eclipsed 150,000 in sales since the century’s turn.

“The company started with a fuel-efficient, sedan-heavy portfolio. But there were also early Land Cruisers and off-road products,” said Hollis. “So while we came out with Corolla at the same time, we had this off-road vehicle heritage.”

While Toyota has successfully kept up with American tastes, U.S. automakers have learned their lessons from the disastrous 1980s when Japanese makers gained a stunning 10 percent of market share. Part of that was the result of fuel-efficiency regulations that punished domestic makers for producing profitable big cars.

“Government rules hurt Detroit because they couldn’t meet government mpg standards with big Cadillacs and Pontiacs and Buicks,” says Auto Trends Consulting’s Joe Philippi, a former Wall Street auto analyst. “They were totally out of luck.”

But U.S. automakers also ignored market demand for higher quality that led to a historic shift in consumer loyalty. “The Japanese automakers’ loyalty advantage is formidable,” concluded a Brookings Institution study in 1991.

“The Japanese were in the right place in the right time on fuel economy in the 1970s — but they also began to focus on quality, and that was the great leap forward,” says Philippi.

While big vehicles remain Detroit’s cash cows, they have invested heavily in small cars should gas prices raise again — and to gain younger buyers with affordable products. General Motors’ Buick division, for example, pioneered the subcompact crossover. And Chevy has remade its Cruze compact and Malibu mid-size sedans to rave reviews from the automotive press.

The competition has caught the attention of Toyota which, despite its sales lead in mid-size sedans, had fallen behind in performance and styling. The stylish, 2018 Camry is a statement by Toyota that it intends to protect its turf.

“(This model) is the first completely new Camry since the first-generation vehicle was introduced to the American market in 1982,” says Camry chief engineer Masato Katsumata.

Based on Toyota’s all-new TNGA global platform, the Camry sheds its dour, vanilla image for a much more sculpted appearance. Just as the Chevy Malibu has imported styling cues from luxury cars like the Audi A7, the Camry shows much more aggressive front and rear styling reminiscent of its Lexus luxury brand.

More significantly, the Camry adapts a double-wishbone rear suspension more common to sports cars than family sedans. U.S. Camry production is sourced from its Kentucky production plant, with another 60,000 Camrys a year exported abroad. The car goes on sale in July.

“Everyone is putting their resources in SUVs,” says Toyota’s Hollis. “At the same time we’re investing in sedans. We’re always trying to keep balance in the market.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne

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