2012 Camry: Can It Save Toyota?

Last Updated Aug 26, 2011 9:39 AM EDT

Toyota badly needs a winner -- and it's pinning its hopes on the Camry.

If the redesigned 2012 model, introduced this week, can regain the title of best-selling car in the U.S., Toyota can finally move beyond last year's bruising recalls and this year's disasters in Japan.

The midsize Camry has led car sales in 13 out of the last 14 years, topped in overall vehicle sales only by Ford and Chevrolet pickups. But this year, with supply disrupted by the earthquake and tsunami, the model often has trailed other sedans -- such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Hyundai Sonata -- in monthly sales numbers.

So how does the new Camry, on sale in early October, stack up against that much-improved competition after first scrutiny? Here's what stands out.

The Camry never likes to startle anyone -- and the new exterior doesn't appear that much different from the 2011 model, despite a total redesign. Engineers have improved the mileage-boosting aerodynamic profile. Inside, there's a more pleasing interior; the dashboard is made of matte black soft-touch plastic, compared with last year's hard surfaces.

Improved Hybrid Version
While the gasoline engines are updated versions from 2011, the Camry hybrid system was totally redone. (Unlike the Japan-made Prius, the Camry hybrid is made in the U.S.) Among early reviewers, James R. Healey of USA Today calls the hybrid (left) much improved. With swifter acceleration, the hybrid will go from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. And with this car, Toyota has almost eliminated the shudder that you feel in most hybrids when the gas engine kicks in after electric-only low-speed driving, Healey notes.

Better Gas Mileage
With weight reduction, improved aerodynamics and tuning changes in the automatic transmission, Toyota has boosted the Camry's MPG -- even without the hybrid. The four-cylinder engine is rated at 25 MPG in city driving, 35 highway; the optional V-6 gets 21 city, 30 highway. The gas-electric hybrid is rated for 43 city, 39 highway in its LE version, and 41 city, 38 highway in the heavier XLE style. Both ratings top rival hybrids Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata but still lag corporate sibling and mileage champ Prius (51/48).

Lower Prices
Toyota is selectively lowering prices on some Camry styles so that they are closer to priced-to-sell rival Hyundai Sonata. The Camry LE four-cylinder -- the best-selling style, is down $200 from 2011 at $22,500, not including shipping costs. The V-6 models are unchanged, though: The top-end XLE with V-6 starts at $29,845.

The hybrid Camry also gets a lower-priced LE version, at $25,900, with the XLE hybrid at $27,400 (Among competitors, the Ford Fusion hybrid starts at $28,600 and the Hyundai Sonata hybrid at $25,795.)

With these changes, Camry will certainly boost sales -- and Toyota loyalists will certainly be attracted to the 2012 Camry when it is time to buy a new car.

The real question is whether the Camry can still outsell its old rival, the Honda Accord, as well as newer competition from Detroit and Korea. And for Toyota, the answer may be a disappointment: Along with the new competitive landscape, lingering concerns over Toyota's sudden-acceleration recalls will likely keep the Camry from regaining its former dominance.

Photos courtesy of Toyota
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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.