Lack of flash hurts Camry sales in USA

A wee gussy up may help Toyota's top-seller stay ahead of its rivals

Toyota Camry. Photo / Supplied
Toyota Camry. Photo / Supplied

America's top-selling car is in danger of losing its title.

Toyota's Camry has been No1 for more than a decade, but the company is stretching to keep it there with price cuts, rebates and lease deals.

Camry sales fell 2 per cent from January to June. Meanwhile, its main rivals in the midsize car market - the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion - posted big gains.

The hot-selling Accord trailed Camry in sales by 21,000 at the end of June. Last year at this time the gap was 59,000.

Toyota has offered bigger discounts and cut the Camry's price to keep it on top. In early July, its average sales price was the lowest of the nine top-selling midsize cars, according to data from JD Power and Associates. Discounts on the Camry were among the highest in the segment, according to the data.

Camry has lost style points, literally. Although the car's ultra-conservative design appeals to many Toyota buyers, others are defecting to the sportier Accord, Fusion and Altima, say industry analysts.

Those cars also have more features and better performance, they say.

"Although the Camry is not that old, it certainly seems older than the rest," says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for the Edmunds.com automotive website. She says Toyota needs to hold on to Camry's market share because it's the mainstay for the brand in the US, Toyota's largest market.

Through June, Toyota sold 207,626 Camrys. But Accord sales rose 21 per cent in the same period to 186,860. Altima sales gained nearly 8 per cent to 167,787, and Fusion sales rose nearly 19 per cent to 161,146. Since January, the Camry's share of the midsize car market has fallen by 1.6 per cent to 12.6 per cent, according to Ward's Automotive. In the same period, the Accord gained 0.5 points to 11.2 per cent.

To combat falling sales and market share, Toyota has lowered the Camry's price. On average it sold for just over $20,900 in early July, about $1400 below the price of a year ago. Discounts, such as low-interest loans and sweet lease deals, totalled nearly $3100 per Camry, up almost $1900 from July last year and among the highest in the market.

The Accord is rolling off dealer lots even though it sells for roughly US$2600 ($3300) more than the Camry. That includes discounts of only $1300 a car, the lowest in the market.

The Camry used to sell with few discounts, but its average price is typically among the lowest in the segment, Caldwell says. That's likely because Camry buyers view cars as simple transportation and don't often load them up with expensive features, she says.

Toyota is happy with the Camry's top position in the market, and it will continue to promote the car's quality and reliability, says spokeswoman Carly Schaffner.

Toyota normally sells more than 30,000 of them a month, and sales nearly hit 40,000 in May, Schaffner says.

She wouldn't comment on when a revamped Camry might come out, but says Toyota president Akio Toyoda has been emphasising stylish design and fun-to-drive cars in the company's recent models such as the Avalon and the Corolla compact that's due out this spring.

Caldwell thinks Toyota will keep the Camry ahead of the Accord, where it's been since 2002. Toyota can sell more Camrys to rental car companies and other fleet buyers to boost sales, and it can keep offering discounts, she says. Honda typically doesn't sell to rental companies. If Camry sales fall to No2, then Toyota risks losing future sales to Ford, Honda or others, says Caldwell.

The Camry may also be losing sales to newer Toyota vehicles such as the popular RAV4 small crossover SUV and the Avalon, both of which are more stylish, says John McEleney, who runs Toyota and General Motors dealerships in America's midwest.

He says his Toyota sales have held steady this year, but Camry sales are down.

But he maintains the Camry is still a great car.

"I drive one. I just love the car.But it doesn't have a lot of flash."

-AP

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