April 17, 2014 4:10 am JST

Toyota overhauls Camry to counter Hyundai's spiffy new Sonata

TAKASHI SUGIMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

NEW YORK -- Toyota Motor unveiled an upgraded Camry sedan at the New York Auto Show on Wednesday, counting on the sportier-looking sedan to steal the spotlight from Hyundai's all-new Sonata.

     The 2015 Camry, to debut this fall, features a bolder grill as part of an almost fully revamped exterior. Its agile, high-performance feel is aimed at drivers younger than the car's current target -- customers in their 40s and 50s.

     In a typical three-year redesign cycle, changes are limited to tweaking the interior and exterior and adding a few features. But this time around, about 2,000 of the car's nearly 30,000 parts were replaced. Some 87% of the exterior parts were updated, said William Fay, group vice president of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. at the trade show.

     Toyota has Hyundai's Sonata squarely in its sights. When Toyota rolled out the existing Camry in 2011, the Sonata was making a splash in North America. Hyundai had employed designers from a German luxury-car manufacturer to revamp the Sonata's image, sharply boosting its share in the regional market. And the tailwind from a softer won added to its momentum.

     Toyota, meanwhile, was contending with a series of challenges, including quality problems and the massive disruptions caused by the March 2011 earthquake. The Japanese automaker's North American market share stood more than 10 percentage points higher than Hyundai's in 2008, but the spread shrank to just 4 points in 2011.

     To fight back, Toyota beefed up development in the North American market. In February 2010, the Japanese executive overseeing U.S. research and development decided to delegate more authority to the R&D base in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Monte Kaehr, a U.S. engineer, led the development of the newest Camry.

     Meanwhile, Hyundai spent an estimated 450 billion won ($436 million) to fully redesign its Sonata, incorporating features similar to German luxury cars. It boasts enhanced safety and an upscale driving experience, but its fuel-economy improvement is limited to under 2%.

     U.S. consumers have come to prefer vehicles with a more luxurious feel after an eco-car boom, a trend Hyundai foresaw. Average prices in the U.S. market reached a record $31,995 in March, according to a local research company.

     North America is a key market for both Toyota and Hyundai. The Japanese automaker seeks to use earnings from the region to speed up its expansion in emerging economies, where it has lagged behind rivals. For Hyundai, which continues to struggle at home, the region is becoming increasingly important. The battle between the two Asian major carmakers is just heating up.