Toyota aims to shed stodgy image with sedan, crossover
Sedan sales are cratering because of the crossover boom. That concerns no automaker as much as Toyota, which sells America’s best-selling sedan, the Camry. Crossovers aren’t the only thing eating away at Toyota’s car sales; it’s the stigma of being boring. With a charge from company president and family scion Akio Toyoda, that is due to change.
“It’s a global Toyota strategy to put more emotion in their cars,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds. “The automaker gets criticized for building ‘appliance cars.’ Now is the time to take a risk — midsize sedans are struggling.”
Camry has been the best-selling car in America for the last five years, but Toyota’s own RAV4 has been eating the sedan’s lunch. According to Automotive News, Toyota sold 473,108 Camrys and 173,752 RAV4s a decade ago. The gap slowly closed until this year when RAV4 outsold Camry through June (184,766 vs. 176,897). Expect 2017 to be first full year when RAV4 unseats Camry as the brand’s best-selling model.
Presumably anticipating this, Toyota launched its next-generation Camry during the Detroit auto show in January.
“Now, I know calling a Camry ‘sexy’ might be overstating it for some,” Toyoda said during the debut. “But I truly do believe our designers hit it out of the park this time.”
The world’s largest automaker played the conservative card by offering two versions. Base through LE editions have the appearance of an affordable Lexus ES while the XSE looks like a four-door FT86 with black roof accents and available red leather interior.
“It’s a good strategy,” Caldwell said. “It’s like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class — one sporty, one conservative. With baby boomers driving crossovers, aiming at younger generations helps Camry’s chances.”
Like Elvis’ popped collars, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, or Mercedes’ famous badge, true legends have signature looks. Over the past few years, Toyota’s own Lexus models have adopted their distinctive “spindle” grille that was controversial at first, but has become part of its DNA. Now, Camry gets its own face, with a V-shaped upper element over curved horizontal slats. Sportier models get mesh inserts under the upper grille.
The bold exterior accompanies a driver-focused cabin with glassy control console and available color head-up display. Three powertrains include a 301-horsepower V-6 engine, a 203-horsepower four-cylinder engine with 8-speed transmission, and 52-mpg hybrid. Toyota Safety Sense, which is the package of advanced safety technology including collision mitigation with pedestrian detection, radar cruise control, lane keep assist and backup camera, comes standard on nearly every model. Prices rise from $23,495. Nearly every other automaker charges extra for that kind of technology.
“Across trim levels, Camry is differentiated by appearance and not just badging,” said Curt McAllister, spokesman for Toyota. “We want people to feel like they have choices.”
But don’t think Toyota’s competitors will let the snazzy Camry go unanswered, as its key rival, the Honda Accord, is redesigned for 2018 with sleek upscale styling that’s reminiscent of the popular current-generation Civic.
Japan’s biggest automotive rivalry continues. Toyota’s new swagger traces a track right back to Toyoda, the great-grandson of the company’s founder. He has been adamant that both Toyota and Lexus shed their boring images and build cars that are enjoyable to drive. It’s mostly worked with Lexus, so there’s hope for Toyota.
“Toyota’s resurgence in styling goes back to the FR-S and due in part to Akio Toyoda,” McAllister said. “Mr. Toyoda is a certified race-car driver and expects a degree of excitement. His fingerprints are on all Toyota and Lexus models. He said to make sure ‘Toyota styling’ and ‘appliance’ are never in the same sentence again.”
Proving the point, Camry is not the only fast-fashion sister in Toyota’s lineup. Designed to rival models like the Honda HR-V, Subaru Crosstrek, and Fiat 500X is the new C-HR subcompact crossover. Bulging neo-industrial bodywork complements an interior dressed with available satin-plated shift knob, heated front seats and futuristic curves. Engineers tested the 144-horsepower four-cylinder engine and athletic suspension on Germany’s famed Nurburgring race track. Prices start at $22,500.
“The C-HR is something that’s needed,” Caldwell said. “RAV4 is now bigger in size, so they needed something cheaper and smaller to round things out.”
Toyoda isn’t the only scion influencing Toyota’s increased swagger. Attempts to build more stylish cars that appeal to younger drivers traces back to the Scion brand, which was discontinued in 2016. The remaining models to live on with Toyota include the FR-S sports car (now the Toyota 86) and iM (now the Corolla iM). The Scion sub-brand proved that Toyota could appeal to younger drivers.
“The C-HR was originally envisioned as a Scion product, but became a Toyota when Scion was phased out,” McAllister said. “It’s all about bringing new customers into the fold. As baby boomers age, millennials will be the largest purchasing group ever. They expect excitement.”