Tinkering with success can be a dangerous thing. A redesigned version of the Toyota Camry, America's best-selling car for the past nine years, is going on sale in the U.S.
Toyota recently lost market share and has suffered through bad PR due to recalls, in addition to dealing with the continuing aftereffects of the Japan earthquake. Toyota executives are betting on the new Camry to jump-start the company's future.
The new Camry is so important to Toyota and the industry, I wanted to test one myself and get the opinion of wide-ranging experts.
When I got a test car, I first rolled up to a valet stand in Dearborn, Mich., where I met Ali Nehmi, a hotel valet. Nehmi drives a lot of cars and says the Camry is one of the nicer ones considering it's a Toyota and it's affordable.
"It's a lot [sharper] than the older model. It's a lot more aggressive," Nehmi says. "[It] stands a lot nicer. And it's a lot ... sportier, a lot more edgier."
Nehmi joked that he'd consider buying one but would first have to move out of Dearborn, home to Ford's headquarters.
Toyota's Crown Jewel
The new Toyota Camry looks lower to the ground, is less rounded and has slightly more masculine styling. But the thing is, it still looks like a Toyota Camry.
Goeff Wardle, who teaches car design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., says it's much harder designing a Camry than, say, a Ferrari, by a lot.
"You're looking at small improvements in many, many areas," Wardle says. "[You're] trying to get a little bit more headroom, a little bit more legroom, trying to make the vehicle get better fuel consumption and at the same time, be very, very aware of what your competitors are doing."
Wardle says Toyota is constantly tweaking and re-tweaking the Camry. It's the company's crown jewel, and Toyota cannot get it wrong, he says.
"They have to tread this really fine line between making the car more attractive, more desirable and more usable for their intended audience," Wardle says. "They've got to get it just right. So they don't take too many risks, but at the same time it can't be a mediocre vehicle either."
Chasing Evolving Tastes
If there's a person who knows how tough it's been for Toyota, it's Bob Carter. Carter has been with the company for 30 years and now heads the Toyota brand in North America. He's been the one to steer the brand during some of the roughest times.
Carter says the company has to focus on the cars that consumers want to buy.
"Camry is the No. 1 one seller in the U.S.," Carter notes. "Camry is our No. 1 volume vehicle. So it's critically important, but consumer tastes evolve over time. "
Baby boomers have always been kind of taken with the Camry, but that's not necessarily true of Generation Xers or millennials. Carter believes that the Camry will eventually lose its crown as America's top car but says he's working to make sure the next one is a Toyota. In the next 34 months, the company will introduce or completely overhaul more than 20 vehicles.
'Not Interested In Making A Statement'
In the parking lot of an industry conference, I took Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, for her first viewing of a 2012 Camry. (And let me note here that when Toyota lent me the new Camry for a test drive, it made sure it was in my favorite color — red — and that the radio was tuned to NPR.)
"Keep in mind: The Camry buyer is an appliance buyer," Lindland said as she walked around the car. "God love 'em, but they're appliance buyers. They're not as interested in making a statement on the road."
Lindland says the conservative redesign of the Camry will be very reassuring to existing Toyota owners. The question is whether the Camry can lure new buyers to the brand, because that, she says, is what Toyota needs.