Toyota fights Hyundai with Camry style shift

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Alan Ohnsman

Toyota Motor is making rare styling changes in the Camry sedan just halfway into the car’s usual design cycle, a sign the car maker is eager to stem gains made by Hyundai Motor’s Sonata, which is also being reworked for next year.

The latest Camry and Sonata models will make an appearance at the New York International Auto Show today when it opens to the media, before joining the mid-size sedan market fray.

Toyota, the largest car maker, is looking to extend the Camry’s 12-year run as the top-selling US car, while Hyundai is confident enough to tone down the curving lines from the breakthrough version of the Sonata that reached the US in 2010.

“If you think of it in terms of traditional leader and traditional challenger actions, their positions are switched,” Eric Noble, the president of industry consultant CarLab, said.

“What we’ve had the last two years is Toyota being put in the challenger position, trying to regain ground, in no small part because of Hyundai.”

Mainstream family sedans, including refreshed Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Jetta models, are in the spotlight this week at the New York show, which is more often associated with high-end brands. The show will still be a haven for luxury lovers with models on display including Land Rover’s Discovery Vision Concept and Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG 4Matic coupé.

And for fans of other fast cars, there will be a new Corvette Z06 convertible, the Alfa Romeo 4C and, at the Empire State Building, the new Ford Mustang.

Akio Toyoda, the chief executive of Toyota, has made styling and performance priorities across the car maker’s model lines. Making major changes midway through the life cycle of the Camry, redesigned in 2011, is unprecedented for a car that is purchased more for value and durability than looks.

The refreshed Camry “will challenge conventional expectations of a mid-cycle model change”, the company said last month, without elaborating.

After lagging behind Nissan Motor’s Altima in this year’s first two months, Camry regained the first-quarter US lead with a sales push last month. Low-cost lease and loan offers from Toyota’s finance arm, the industry’s largest, helped pull it ahead of rivals.

Hyundai, South Korea’s largest car manufacturer, debuted the new Sonata in Seoul last month. Breaking with a swoopy exterior characterised by the deeply stamped body panels of Hyundai’s so-called Fluidic Sculpture design approach, the new Sonata appears to tone down many of the car’s current highlights, which it had previously used to win US market share.

Toyota has targeted sales of at least 400 000 Camrys this year, in line with the model’s volume in 2012 and last year. Deliveries in the first quarter totalled 94 283, down 6.5 percent from a year earlier, according to Autodata.

Nissan’s Altima has proven to be Camry’s toughest challenger this year, raising deliveries of the mid-size car 2.7 percent to a best-ever 89 285 in the first quarter. Honda Motor’s Accord, typically the second best-selling US car, suffered a 10 percent drop to 79 188.

Ford Motor’s Fusion, which looked poised to take more market share from Camry this year, so far is fourth in the mid-size segment, with sales of 77 578 in the quarter, down 3.7 percent. While Sonata’s US volume, down 15 percent in the quarter to 40 253, is not close to that of Camry, Accord or Altima, the car’s style change in 2010 made it a heavyweight, Noble said. – Bloomberg


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