Toyota's 2012 Camry Hybrid takes the crown MPG crown away from the Fusion Hybrid, Sonata Hybrid

Toyota has seriously upgraded the interior design and materials used in the 2012 Camry Hybrid.
Toyota's mainstream Camry lineup also looks reinvigorated

Toyota Motor Company (TYO:7203) is moving aggressively to stay on top of the hybrid market even as fellow veterans like Ford Motor Company (F) and plucky new players like Hyundai Motor Company (SEO:005380) look to give chase.

I. The New Camry

i.  Built in America with Non-Union Labor

Tuesday was a big day for the Japanese automaker as it unveiled its latest and greatest Toyota Camry, a vehicle which has been on top of American sales for mid-size vehicles for thirteen of the last fourteen years.  Alongside the traditional gas engine models, the Camry family has grown, with the addition of a second hybrid model.

To date Toyota has sold 15 million Camry vehicles since the platform's 1983 launch, with 9.7 million of those sales coming in North America. Most of the Camry vehicles will be built at Toyota's Georgetown Kentucky plant, one of Toyota's 13 North American plants.  Thus far the Georgetown plant has built 6.7 million Camry vehicles.  The plant employs 7,000 non-union employees and has won more JD Power Quality awards than any other North American assembly plant, beating out all of the UAW plants.

The first production 2012 Camry rolled off the line at Georgetown today, driven by Akio Toyoda, President of Toyota and great grandson of company founder Sakichi Toyoda.  Mr. Toyoda bragged, "This car has become a symbol of Toyota's success all over the Earth, so you might say this is an opportunity to show the world yet again, what Toyoda is all about.

Mr. Toyoda says he is all about "product, product, product" and reports taking a very hands on approach with the new Camry, which would make even infamous corporate perfectionists like Steven P. Jobs proud.  He comments, "I personally tested the new Camry until I was satisfied it outperformed its competitors.  And I can tell there's no comparison."

Perhaps alluding to Toyota's uncharacteristic wave of recent recalls, he comments that he looks forward to "continue earning the trust and respect of the American community." 

ii. Tech Specs on New Camry

However, you feel about the looks of the new Camry, it's easy to respect the price.  While the entry level Camry L is getting bumped $750 to $21,950 USD MSRP, otherwise prices have dropped on the general lineup -- in some cases by a lot.  The LE model has dropped $200 (for the base inline-4) to $22,500 MSRP, the SE has dropped $1,000 to $23,000 MSRP and the XLE has dropped a whopping $2,000 to $24,725 MSRP.

The new vehicles stick with the 2.5L inline-4 engine (dual VVT-i) that was rolled out in the previous 2009 refresh as a replacement to the older 2.4 L inline-4.  The 178hp engine is now standard for all models, a perk which was before only granted to the pricier LE model.  City/highway gas mileage has been bumped from 22/32 mpg in the previous generation to 25/35 mpg, this time around -- a modest increase.

Speaking of looks, while the Camry maintains the same 2006 platform (XV40), the exterior has been subject to a drastic makeover, with 100 percent of the sheet metal remodeled.  The internals have also been worked on -- Toyota says 90 percent of the parts have been re-engineered.  In total 80 percent of the parts are sourced from American suppliers, with Toyota claiming the Camry to be the "most American" mid-size car.

iii. Sales and Marketing

The new models (sans the hybrid launch October 3).  Toyota says its average Camry buyer is 60 years old, but that it wants to attract a more youthful crowd this time around.

Toyota has cause for concern.  Rocked by parts shortages due the Fukushima tsunami and earthquake, the company briefly lost its top spot in monthly sales to General Motors Comp.'s (GM) 2011 Chevy Cruze, which caused some to speculate that Toyota could lose its sales crown to an American car company for the first time since the 1996 Ford Taurus' one year reign atop sales charts.

But Toyota is now back ahead of the Cruze, and insists it will be at full production capacity, by the time the Oct. 3 launch rolls around.

Toyota is looking to cap its comeback by having the Camry serve as the pace car at the Daytona 500 NASCAR event.  It also plans to market the vehicle with pricey Super Bowl ad placements.

II. Twins Are Born

i.  The Hybrid Specs

The hybrid Camry launch will be delayed "approximately 30 days" from the other models, but when it launches, Toyota will have twin hybrids in the brand for the first time.

The new entry level LE hybrid drastically improves fuel economy, bumping it from 31/35 mpg city/highway to 43/39 mpg -- an increase of approximately 30 percent in city gas mileage.  The XLE hybrid offers a respectable 41/38 mpg.  Horsepower has jumped to 200hp from 187hp combined horsepower in the previous generation.

Much of improved gas mileage comes thanks to weight reductions.  Toyota has shaved over 200 lb off the weight of the vehicle.  The 2011 hybrid weighed 3,680 lb.  The new SE hybrid weighs 3,417 lb, while the XLE weighs 3,441 lb.

Still Toyota manages to squeeze an industry-leading 10 airbags into the vehicle.

ii. Sizing Up The Competition

Toyota looks to double its hybrid take rate from approximately 5 to 6 percent of sales to be between 11 and 12 percent, according to Toyota officials we spoke with.

And with its new low price and drastically improved mileage Toyota just may be able to meet those goals.

The LE hybrid shaves $1,150 off the MSRP of the previous model, placing the cost of ownership at a modest $25,900.  An XLE costs $27,400 -- just slightly more than the previous Camry Hybrid -- but contains many luxury perks that the former model didn't, most significantly the Entune infotainment system (more on this in a separate, upcoming piece).

The hybrid squares off against the Ford Fusion hybrid, which starts at $29,935, and worse yet features a slightly inferior 41/36 mpg.  Another significant challenger is the 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which is roughly comparable in price at $26,545 but only gets 35/40 mpg highway/city.  Likewise, the 2012 Optima Hybrid from Kia Motors Corp. (SEO:000270) starts at $27,250 but only gets 36/40 mpg city and highway.

Thus the market logic goes something like this -- Toyota and Hyundai/Kia are close in terms of the cheapest hybrid entry price, but Toyota is a ways ahead of Hyundai, Kia, and Ford in mpg.

Toyota is still sticking it out with nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, when competitors Hyundai and Honda have switched to lithium-ion batteries.  But for now, near the head of the pack in price and the top in mpg in this hybrid segment, it's hard not to argue that the new Camry Hybrid is an appealing proposition.  

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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