Toyota's best-selling model has long been described as little more than a "refrigerator" on wheels, with even the company's CEO acknowledging that his products lack "passion."
So there was a moment of stunned silence when a completely redesigned version of the familiar Toyota Camry rolled out on stage at the North American International Auto Show this week.
The scene soon repeated itself with the debut of an all-new Lexus LS sedan. Together, the two new models signal a dramatic shift in direction for Toyota, Japan's largest automaker.
Bob Carter, Toyota's head of U.S. automotive operations, describes the new Camry as "jaw-dropping;" adding that "The all-new 2018 Camry is, without a doubt, the most captivating midsize sedan we've ever produced."
That might be taken as the typical auto show hyperbole were it not for the rave reviews that the new model quickly generated. USA Today said it couldn't decide whether the new sedan was "sexy or really sexy." Influential Motor Trend magazine headlined it a "tectonic shift."
Products with Passion
An aberration? Apparently not. Toyota's luxury brand Lexus has been receiving similar kudos for the 2018 LS sedan that debuted in Detroit — where, not so coincidentally, the very first version of the flagship four-door was introduced in 1989.
Industry analysts give much of the credit to Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota's founder, an amateur race car driver and, since becoming president and chief executive, a man intent on reshaping both of the company's global brands. During an appearance at the Detroit Auto Show a year ago, he promised to put more "passion" into its products.
The new Camry and LS sedans suggest he wasn't joking, says Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive. "I think they got it" with the new Camry," she said, while touring the show floor at Detroit's Cobo Center. "It's more engaging."
For years, Toyota took a play-it-safe approach, both in design and driving dynamics. It put its focus on what industry types like to call "QRD," or quality, reliability and durability. That helped Toyota gain a foothold in the U.S. market in the 1980s and then steadily gain ground on American rivals like General Motors and Ford.
But, in recent years, the quality gap has been narrowing — something GM's Chevrolet division has been highlighting in an ongoing series of TV ads noting how it has lately been beating its Japanese rival in studies by such widely followed arbiters as J.D. Power and Associates. While Toyota still has a lead when it comes to consumer perception, it can no longer simply count on consumer loyalty being a given, analysts have been warning.
"In the past, they didn't want to screw it up" by taking risks with design or driving dynamics, said analyst Brinley. The vast majority of owners, she said, were happy to know that the Camry would get them from Point A to Point B without a problem.
The Crowded Luxury Market
The formula was much the same for the Lexus LS, which simply added an accoutrement of upscale features. But that premium luxury sedan has steadily been losing ground to rivals like the segment dominant Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the ultra-sophisticated BMW 7-Series. So, for 2018, Lexus has not only loaded the LS replacement with an array of semi-autonomous technologies but given it an edgy design that won't get lost in the crowd.
Toyota officials also promise that the two bookend models will deliver a far more engaging driving experience. Camry even gets a new Sport model, while the Lexus LS is now going to be powered by a twin-turbo engine punching out a full 415 horsepower. Able to hit 60 in 4.5 seconds, those are the sort of numbers one would, in the past, have expected from an exotic sports car.
The question is whether the changes to design and performance are coming too late. Sedan are rapidly losing momentum in a market where SUVs, crossovers and other light trucks now account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. new vehicle sales. And industry planners think the shift could continue.
That's apparent not only in the mainstream market but in the luxury car segment, as well. Audi, for one, made it clear it is responding to the changes as quickly as possible, rolling out the big Q8 concept at the Detroit show. The SUV counter to its own flagship A8 sedan, it will reach showrooms within a year.
Senior Lexus executives, talking on background, said they recognize the trend and are studying how to respond. That could mean the LS will ultimately take a back seat to a new SUV flagship.
The mainstream Toyota brand already has an array of SUVs and CUVs. And they're rapidly replacing the marque's sedans as its volume leaders.
"That trend," from cars to trucks, "is going to accelerate into the future," said auto operations chief Carter, acknowledging the likelihood that the Camry, for years Toyota's top-seller and the best-selling passenger car in America, will now slip behind the Toyota RAV4. Nonetheless, "My goal is Camry will always be the number one-selling sedan in North America."
Of course, the question is whether American buyers, used to bland appliances, will accept the edgy new models. But as long as Toyota hasn't sacrificed its traditional emphasis on quality, reliability and durability, said analyst Brinley, the carmaker should have no trouble selling the two new sedans.