By Alan Ohnsman
Toyota is making rare styling changes in the Camry sedan just halfway into the car’s usual design cycle, a sign the automaker is eager to stem gains made by Hyundai’s Sonata, which also is being reworked for 2015.
The latest Camry and Sonata models are making an appearance at the New York International Auto Show before joining the mid-size sedan market fray. Toyota is looking to extend the Camry’s 12-year run as the top-selling U.S. car, while Hyundai is confident enough to tone down the curving lines from the breakthrough version of Sonata that reached the U.S. in 2010.
“If you think of it in terms of traditional leader and traditional challenger actions, their positions are switched,” said Eric Noble, president of industry consultant CarLab. “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 at the New York show, which is more often associated with high-end brands.
Toyota’s American depositary receipts are down about 12 percent this year. Hyundai’s shares don’t trade on a primary U.S. exchange.
Akio Toyoda, chief executive officer of Toyota, has made styling and performance priorities across the carmaker’s model lines. Making major changes midway through the life cycle of Camry, redesigned in 2011, is unprecedented for a car that’s 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’s Altima in 2014’s first two months, Camry regained the first-quarter U.S. lead with a March sales push. Low-cost lease and loan offers from Toyota’s finance arm, the industry’s largest, helped pull it ahead.
Still, Toyota has a limit on how much it will rely on incentives and discounts to maintain Camry’s market position.
“I’m not going to just spend money to try and buy that number one position,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American chief executive, said in a 2013 interview.
Hyundai, South Korea’s largest automaker, debuted the new Sonata in Seoul last month. Breaking with a swoopy exterior characterized by deeply stamped body panels, the new Sonata appears to tone down highlights, previously used to win U.S. market share.