By DEE-ANN DURBIN, AP Auto Writer
DEARBORN, Mich. - The Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in America for nearly 15 years, its reputation for reliability keeping it on top even when the carmaker was hurt by major safety recalls.
But its lead has shrunk dramatically. Feeling the pressure, Toyota unveiled the 2012 Camry on Tuesday, its first redesign of the sedan in five years. While Toyota hopes to create buzz by lowering the Camry's price, improving its fuel economy and adding new features, it may not be enough to keep the Camry No. 1 in the increasingly competitive market for midsize sedans.
It's a similar strategy to the one Volkswagen took with the Passat, which is made in Chattanooga.
"The Camry is not a slam-dunk by itself anymore," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights for car pricing site TrueCar.com.
Toyota showed off the new Camry on the Web and at events in California and elsewhere. It has given the car a sharper, more pointed hood, a quieter and roomier interior and more trunk space. It's also offering Entune, a system that lets drivers access internet services like Pandora from their mobile phones using voice commands or an in-dash touch screen.
But critics say the styling is bland compared with edgier rivals like Nissan, Hyundai and Kia, and that Toyota saved money by using cheaper interior materials.
"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but is that good enough nowadays? No, it's not," Toprak says.
The new Camry is due to arrive at dealerships in early October. A basic version will cost just under $22,000 and get 35 mpg on the highway.
Toyota has sold more than 15 million Camrys worldwide since it introduced the car in 1983 to compete with the Honda Accord. It quickly became a big seller in the U.S. because of its reputation for reliability and good gas mileage. The Camry outsold the Ford Taurus in 1997 and has been the best-selling car in America every year except for 2001, when it was eclipsed by the Accord. Even Toyota's embarrassing series of safety recalls last year and earthquake-related shortages this spring didn't knock it down from No.1.
Toyota's U.S. sales chief Bob Carter says the company aims to keep things that way, in part by being aggressive on price.
A basic Camry will now start at $21,955, which is $710 more than the current model. But most other versions will cost less than current ones. The top-of-the-line version, for example, will start at $24,725, or $2,000 less. The hybrid Camry, which starts at $25,900, is $1,150 less.
At that starting price, the Camry will cost a little more than some of its competitors, such as the $19,200 Kia Optima. But Carter says the car includes a lot for the price, including the most air bags - 10 - in its class.
Toyota has also tweaked the Camry's engines to get better fuel economy. The four-cylinder engine, which makes up the bulk of Camry's sales, will get 35 miles per gallon on the highway, up from 32 in the 2011 Camry. The hybrid version will get a combined 41 miles per gallon in city and highway driving. Those numbers make the Camry one of the most fuel efficient sedans among its competitors.
But it remains to be seen whether Toyota can draw back buyers who started shopping other brands after Toyota was hit by huge recalls that involved sticky accelerators and floor mats that trapped gas pedals. Customers also ran into shortages this summer after Japan's earthquake disrupted production.
Toyota's lead has been slipping the last four years. In the first seven months of 2007, the company sold more than 282,000 Camrys, trouncing what was then its closest competitor, the Honda Accord, by more than 62,000. Camry sales were more than double the Nissan Altima's, and more than three times those of the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and Hyundai Sonata.
Now the Camry's top five rivals are within striking distance. The Altima was only 21,000 behind through July, and the Fusion just 23,000 back.
Toprak and others say the Hyundai Sonata is most worrying to Toyota. Its fuel economy equals the 2012 Camry but it has more horsepower, and its styling is more daring. Its starting price is also $2,300 lower than the Camry's. Camry sales were down 8 percent through July, while the Sonata's were up 21 percent.
Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive, thinks the new Camry will probably win over many of the 6.8 million people already driving the car in the U.S. But he's unimpressed by the vehicle's cheaper looking hard plastic surfaces and knobs, and he thinks some shoppers will be, too.
"I don't think it's going to bring anybody new to the brand," he says.
But Camry has proven its staying power before. And while analysts also criticized the cheaper materials used on the new Volkswagen Jetta sedan, Jetta sales were up 75 percent through July.
Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda visited the Georgetown, Ky., plant where the Camry is made Tuesday, underscoring the car's importance. Toyoda said he personally tested the new car until he was satisfied that it outperforms its competition.
"This car has become a symbol of Toyota's success," he said. "This is an opportunity to show the world again what Toyota is all about."
Auto Reporter Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this story