So just how exactly does one become the best selling car in America? The only reliable way one becomes number one in just about anything: doing your homework and practicing every day. And it really does helps if the competition has forgotten that formula.
Read old reviews about the first generation Camry, and the exact qualities that I felt when I drove a new one a while back are all there, right down the list except for one (roomy): “quiet, smooth, solid, competent but not exciting handling, comfortable, well built, reliable, plenty of torque and power but not sporty”. Same car, twenty eight years ago; just add some super-sizing and drop the hatch, and the formula is as intact (and winning) as ever.
My first exposure to the Camry was in 1984, when the Chief Engineer of the tv station and I took a business trip together, and he talked me into renting a Camry. Having long learned to trust his judgment, we made sure one was available and reserved. Good call too, as the default rentals of the day would typically have been a floppy Buick Regal, Ford Tempo, or K car. The Camry’s obvious solidity and quiet manners despite it being a compact was immediately apparent, although it lacked the tip-in and roarty zest of GM’s V6s, and of course the torque steer that came with it.
Undoubtedly, there were two cars under Toyota’s microscope when they designed the completely all-new 1983 Camry, a major departure from the long family of RWD cars that preceded it: the Honda Accord of course, but also the Chevrolet Citation. Clearly, the Accord showed the way forward with FWD in the popular sized class. But I’m guessing that Toyota, like most of the imports, was more than a bit worried about GM’s highly ambitious X-cars. And in size, configuration, and even design, the Citation’s influence is unmistakable.
The Citation had all the right ingredients: modern, space-efficient bodies, including five-door hatches. But as we all know all too well, they were a flash in the pan that quickly sizzled out due to their lack of proper full development and a rash of quality issues. The X-Bodies’ flame-out threw the gates to the now-biggest sector of the market wide wide open, and the Camry glided in, in stealth mode at first.
Because before the Camry could live up to its name and take the crown (which is what “Camry” means as an Anglicized phonetic transcription of the word Japanese word kanmuri), it had to sit out the Taurus’ and Accord’s years at the top. But who’s in a hurry, when you’re thinking longer than average. The Camry truly is the tortoise. How it outran GM’s X-Bodies and even the Taurus is easier to understand than its ability to knock the Accord off the throne. But it did, in its silent but deadly way.
What’s somewhat remarkable is that the just announced 2012 Camry is only the third truly all-new Camry since the first one. The popular and quite successfully restyled gen2 (front car) sat on the same platform as the first one, despite the very different external sheet metal, which made itself felt by the relative compact interior. The all-new and definitive gen3 (rear) set the brutally high standard that wiped out the competition once and for all; its remarkably refined manners truly made it the Lexus of its competition, and was what most distinguished it from the decidedly tauter and sportier Accord of the time.
The gen4 was a rationalization of the gen3, as Toyota found ways to cut costs like the expensive double seals on the doors. Hardly anyone noticed, especially since prices now became more directly competitive against Detroit’s ever-more pressured competitors. The Camry’s march downwards in price forced GM to fight ever more on price, and cut corners and content in the process, but it was a losing battle.
The differences in the gen5, 6 and 7 are more subtle than ever. Not surprising, as they all share the same basic platform. New platforms aren’t what they once were; car development is now more about refinement and cost rationalization. And as the dramatically reduced cost of the Camry in inflation-adjusted terms shows, this approach is obviously working very well, for Toyota anyway.
The profits that Toyota has made with three distinct generations of Camrys over almost three decades have undoubtedly been remarkable. It wasn’t that long ago that some well leaked info suggested that Toyota was making 90% of its global profits in the USA. The Camry is the gold crown, regardless of the language or the spelling. And Toyota’s going to be mighty reluctant to see anyone else wearing it.