Toyota retools the 'plain vanilla' Camry

Few vehicles have been as dominant as the Toyota Camry, which has earned the crown of best-selling sedan for 12 years in a row. It's a hot streak that's confounded critics and competitors alike, as the industry has long likened the vehicle's design to plain vanilla.

That's why the automaker delivered such a surprise when it announced plans to give the 2015 Camry an extensive update, only three years after the car received a complete makeover.

2015 Camry
Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images
2015 Camry

Although Toyota had long heard that the Camry needed more style, the automaker has taken the message more seriously in recent years, as its traditional lead in what industry types know as QRD—quality, reliability and durability—has been shrinking.

Toyota last week previewed the updated Camry to the media, showing off its more sculpted and tech-savvy look that includes a larger video screen, more smartphone-based apps and a wireless cellphone charging system.

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"The world moved around us," said Monte Kaehr, the chief engineer for the 2015 Camry, during a drive of the new sedan. "When even people who've been buying Camrys for years told us we needed more styling, we knew we'd better listen."

The Japanese maker long downplayed criticism of its style by noting the breadth of its market and suggesting it had to play it safe to appeal to such a diverse group of buyers. But it was stunned by the response it received from dealers after previewing the 2011 Camry ahead of its its public launch. The criticism was so intense Toyota raced to make as many changes as possible before the sedan reached showrooms.

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"They've recognized their styling needs to be more dynamic," said IHS Automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley, after attending last week's Camry preview. "They're competing in a world where plain vanilla isn't strong enough anymore."

By some industry estimates, Toyota has spent as much as $200 million or more to tear up the outgoing sedan. With the exception of the roof, the automaker said it has changed every single body panel. The look is designed to meet the demand of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda that new products deliver more "passion." Still, initial reviews suggest the maker is playing it safe when compared with the likes of the segment's styling benchmarks, the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Hyundai Sonata.

Toyota officials said they are confident the vehicle can maintain its lead in the midsize sedan segment, with the automaker predicting sales will hit 415,000 this year. But Brinley and others stressed that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain its lead, with its competitors gunning to topple the king of the midsize hill.

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Meanwhile, the midsize sedan segment itself is under increasing assault from alternatives such as the compact and midsize crossover vehicles that have become one of the U.S. market's largest niches over the last several years.

"You don't have to be at the bleeding edge [of innovation] at that kind of volume," Brinley said, "but you have to be close."