Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Toyota's Camry Comes Just in Time

The vultures (critics) have been circling over the Toyota Camry for the last year and a half.

First, the embarrassing and costly recalls in early 2009 were a body blow to the Camry's reputation for reliability. Then supply constraints from Japan's earthquake earlier this year caused Camry sales to slip. Now, the new Camry is coming out at a time when rival sedans like the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima are picking up ground with fresher, more aggressive looks.

The Toyota logo is displayed on the grill of brand new Toyota RAV4s on the sales lot at City Toyota in Daly City, California.
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Is it time to write off the Camry?

Already I can see the e-mails from the Toyota bashers.

Before you say yes, the Camry's run on top is over, take a look at the latest version of Toyota's model. It is definitely an upgrade from the previous version, complete with sharper edges and streamlined look. The interior is also an improvement over the old Camry which was too staid and boring. Is it a radical departure from the previous model? No. Then again, Toyota isn't looking for that.

The truth is Toyota is trying to walk a fine line. It doesn't want to alienate a long and loyal list of buyers, while at the same time updating the Camry. That's easier said than done. But Toyota USA president Jim Lentz is confident the new Camry is coming at just the right time. He says 85 percent of previous Camry buyers looking to buy again have decided to wait while Toyota dealt with supply shortages. By this fall, when the new Camry hits showrooms, those buyers will find a new model at a price they will like.

As for those people who say the Camry is going down the same road as the Taurus in the late 90's when it lost its mojo as America's top-selling car, the comparisons are similar but different. What's similar is that there are newer, fresher models picking up sales. What's different is Toyota is not letting the Camry go without updating, as Ford did with the Taurus in the early 2000's.

Who knows if the new Camry will keep Toyota on top. The stakes have never been higher for a company that has depended on the Camry to carry sales in the U.S. for the last 20 years.

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