Toyota Motor Corp. survived a massive recall two years ago and the effects of Japan’s tsunami last year. Now the company faces an unprecedented rush of competitors for its franchise car, the Camry family sedan.
The Camry, the best-selling mid-size car in the U.S. for the past 10 years, faces new family-sedan competition this year from Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. Volkswagen AG, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. have raised production of their family cars, making the market even more competitive.
Add it all up and the mid-size car market is as tough as it has ever been, even for a dominant franchise like the Camry. Family cars represent 15 percent of the U.S. market and a vital way to reach new buyers and keep them in their brands for years beyond the first purchase.
“There has never been anything like this before,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com, an automotive research website based in Santa Monica, California. “We have had competitive races with two or three new models, but not seven or eight competitive cars fighting it out.”
This year, Ford brings out its new Fusion sedan, with two hybrid versions of the car. GM’s top-selling Chevrolet division started delivering the redesigned Malibu this month. Honda showed off a coupe version of its Accord at the Detroit auto show this week and will sell the new car later this year. Nissan has a new Altima coming as well.
On top of that, Kia has added a third shift to its U.S. plant to increase production of the Optima sedan. Hyundai last year boosted production at its Montgomery, Alabama, plant to 10 percent more than its official capacity. Volkswagen is now up to full output at its $1 billion Chattanooga, Tennessee, factory that began producing Passat sedans last spring.
“We haven’t seen anything like this since back in the ‘90s, when Ford made a push with the Taurus,” said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota’s U.S. sales arm.
Mid-size car production in North America may rise 15 percent, or 305,000, to 2.4 million vehicles this year, according to a forecast from LMC Automotive, a research firm based in Oxford, England. Most of those cars stay in the U.S., where sales are expected to rise by 100,000 to 200,000 vehicles, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president with LMC.
“There will be pricing pressure,” Anwyl said. Carmakers used to be able to rely on keeping prices up and avoiding incentives for a year or more with a new model, Anwyl said. With this kind of competition, carmakers may have as little as three months before discounts are needed, he said.
Ford has big ambitions for the new Fusion. The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker is adding a shift of workers to make the car at a factory in nearby Flat Rock, adding to the two shifts of workers building it in Hermosillo, Mexico. Sales of the Fusion rose 37 percent from two years earlier to 248,067 last year, Ford reported. The new hybrid version will get 47 mpg in the city, up from 41 for the previous one. The Camry hybrid gets 43 mpg in city driving.
“Fusion last year set a sales record, and with this new family of vehicles, we believe we can build on that success,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said Jan. 9 when asked if Fusion can be the top selling mid-size car. “I think we really will be preferred in that” mid-size car segment.
GM is also adding production by using its Chevy Volt plant in Detroit as a second source of Malibus, in addition to the primary factory in Fairfax, Kansas.
With so many new models entering the family-car market, it will be a challenge for anyone to stand out, said Joel Ewanick, GM vice president and chief marketing officer. Chevy will offer an Eco version of the Malibu that can get 37 mpg on the highway with a small, inexpensive electric motor and battery mated to a 4-cylinder engine.
Honda said it hopes sell more than 300,000 Accords in the U.S. this year, which would be a 27 percent jump over 2011. The increase will come from both the current Accord and the redesigned model due in the second half, said John Mendel, executive vice president of the company’s U.S. sales unit.
Mendel said that fresh styling and new engines and transmissions will bring Honda back after production cuts forced by the Japan tsunami in March caused losses in market share.
“A few people have taken us to task and enjoyed our absence from the market,” Mendel said in an interview in Detroit. “I think we’re going to enjoy being back.”
Honda could be hurt in the family-sedan market because the new Camry was introduced in the fourth quarter while the new Accord is still months away, said Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president for U.S. product development.
“In terms of model cycles, Toyota realizes this is their year to capture share from Honda because Accord is old and Camry is new,” O’Brien said in a Jan. 11 interview. “There’s going to be a big battle between those two, and there is going to be collateral damage. Toyota is going to be very aggressive on marketing.”
The company is determined to keep its top spot.
“It will be a heated segment in the industry, but we’re extremely confident about the new Camry,” said Bob Carter, general manager of Toyota brand sales in the U.S. “Mark my words: One year from now, Camry will repeat as the best-selling car in America for an eleventh consecutive year.”