Op-Ed: Was The 2012 Camry A Stealth Failure?

by J.Emerson
op ed was the 2012 camry a stealth failure

0% financing for 60 months. Up to $2,000 in dealer rebates, most of which winds up going into customers’ pockets. Rental lines bulging with high-trim sedans as dealers desperately attempt to shovel away product and make room for truckloads of new arrivals. Savvy shoppers are shaving three, four, and even five grand off of MSRP as average transaction prices land in the basement for the class. Despite massive inflows of manufacturer cash, sales volume stagnates and declines as competitors grab more and more market share. All in merely the second model year of Toyota’s marquee product, a legendary nameplate with a (supposedly) loyal customer base and years of carefully-crafted reputation. What, pray tell, is going on here?

Of course, the midsize sedan wars are no mystery to industry watchers and TTAC readers. Tim Cain’s are trending ever lower. It’s difficult to tell exactly who is letting their wares go for the lowest price, but if Toyota isn’t at the very bottom, it’s close. Lest I be accused of selective myopia, it’s true that incentive spending is up across the board in this segment, and that many other manufacturers are offering generous sweeteners on their midsizers. In any case, an absolute ranking of incentive spending in a shallow pissing match is not what I’m after here. In the overall game for the heart of the segment, we’re seeing radical market realignment. To stay on top, Toyota is choosing to use the same kind of techniques to maintain sales levels that many of its competitors were once lambasted for utilizing. Let’s think about what that means for a minute.

We are now in the position to credibly compare Toyota’s incentive spending, fleet dumping, and overproduction to Nissan and GM, to say nothing of Ford. On a two-year-old model, no less: the car that has defined Toyota’s legacy in the US for the better part of two decades. Not some outdated and soon-to-be-replaced relic like the Corolla, but a nearly-new car with a storied history and an impeccable pedigree. A car that supposedly sold itself until a very short time ago barely moves off dealer lots without a pile of cash and some of the most desperate-sounding marketing in recent memory. (Cars.com counted 38,844 Camrys for sale nationwide at last glance, compared to about half as many Fusions). Toyota is supposed to be above this sort of nonsense, right?

The Toyota dealer used to be the hallowed ground where you tread lightly and wrote whatever size check the dealer demanded. You were humbled to drive as superlative a machine as a ’92 Camry off the lot, at any price. That market softened with time, but the general pattern stayed the same. Toyota asked, and you handed over the money. As the domestic and second-tier import dealers engaged in progressively wilder fiscal gyrations to move the metal, Toyotas quietly slipped off the lot at or near MSRP. Not a ridiculously large amount of money; plenty of normal proles brought some of the Toyota magic home for themselves, after all. But it was a sharp distinction that became a refrain for the brand’s defenders: People pay more for Toyotas because they’re worth it. They don’t have to be pushed or prodded with cash on the hood and exotic financing because the cars are too good for that. And that’s how it went for years.

Fast forward two decades, and those halcyon days are gone. Ford is busy hoovering up the top end of the market, while Honda, Nissan, and Hyundai-Kia cut out the middle. Toyota has no chance of beating Chrysler and GM in the deep-discount game. Mazda, VW and Subaru are still stuck on the fringes that Toyota never cared about. The Camry can’t be a car for everybody, but increasingly it looks like a car for nobody. For years, we were led to believe that neatly arranged rows of little red circles were what sold cars in this segment. For years, Toyota racked them up like no one else, Honda included. Today Toyota has just as many little black circles as it ever has, but now it finds itself adrift amongst a sea of competitors with their own paper rag recommendations and their own unique, appreciable traits. Toyota seems completely flummoxed by this; it’s as if there was no contingency plan should the competition ever become decent. The response has been reminiscent of the bad old days of the domestic industry, except that in Toyota’s case there’s less of an excuse for blatant overproduction.

In short, we’ve seen the Camry leave the orbit of Planet Toyota and come crashing down to Planet Earth instead: a place where price matters, styling sells, and quality, reliability, and fuel efficiency can be sourced from a wide range of sellers. Most of all, it’s a planet where legacy matters little, as the new generation of car buyers grows up not knowing tales of brand-new cars that don’t start, thirty-thousand-mile major mechanical failures, and rust that destroys in five years. They’re ready to indulge their automotive fantasies in a way their conservative parents would never have dared; they can be comfortable knowing that even if they buy the very worst new car on the market, they won’t suffer too badly for it. The inevitable retort is that every one of these new automotive rebels will be horribly burned by their collective ownership experiences and that they’ll be back in the fold in no time. Maybe that will be the case, but I wouldn’t bet on it. That’s not what happened with those crummy little imports in the 70’s, it’s not what happened after Hyundai brought out the Excel, and it hasn’t stopped VW from mounting a serious comeback effort despite that brand’s well-known issues. Lingering quality problems haven’t prevented the German luxury brands from going absolutely ham on the American market either; meanwhile, Lexus and Acura seem increasingly moribund.

This Camry isn’t a bad car; far from it. If you want one, I wouldn’t tell you no, especially not when they’re available at such fabulously low prices. But forget the Dart and forget the Malibu: the 2012 Camry is the most important flubbed launch in recent memory. It might be the most important flubbed launch since the X-cars. And it’s for this reason and this reason alone: this Camry didn’t stop Planet Toyota from becoming just another rock in a big solar system. The Camry came out of the gate as a completely solid player, a car with no major faults that was unlikely to disappoint its supposedly loyal ownership base. Yet, for whatever reason, more and more customers in the United States started saying no. They continued to say no even as discounts piled on and marketers wringed their hands in desperation. Suddenly, a realization: competence was not a superlative trait anymore. Their competitors over at Honda were busy figuring this out too, as they dealt with their own messy 2012 release. The entire superstructure on which the Camry was positioned came crashing down as more than one competitor started making decent family sedans. Some will probably say the rot started earlier, with the unloved XV40 platform and a swelling crop of credible alternatives. But the next generation was the chance to reverse the decline and sweep out the fleet sales and incentives. It never materialized, and now here we are.

This Camry has shown without a doubt that the sainted days of Toyota in the United States are over. Nobody is “beyond the market” anymore; the man on the street wants a deal, and he’s not willing to pay extra for Product X if it’s not immediately apparent why it’s superior to Product Y. Was this an avoidable situation, if the Camry had just a little more secret Toyota sauce on it? Maybe, but the response thus far has been anything but ideal. What happens when the previously unshakeable resale values start to go down the tubes as well? Toyota must learn to live in the new reality: Camry as yet another competent family sedan in a sea of competent family sedans. Now it’s Honda’s turn to prove whether or not they can maintain their own halo, so recently jarred by the 2012 Civic and now riding on the outcome of the 2013 Accord. Give it a year or two; the news from Planet Honda might be more of the same.

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  • Sckid213 Sckid213 on Aug 09, 2013

    For me, this line from the article sums up my feelings about Toyota exactly: "It's as if there was no contingency plan should the competition ever become decent." The blatant institutional arrogance that Toyota grew to display reached its peak circa '07ish. I live very close to Toyota's corporate HQ in Socal, and this arrogance started at the top and trickled down to the dealers. Even their ads had a tone of arrogance about them. This was no humble circa '95 "everyday people" Toyota. My work sometimes forces me to interact with auto dealers at the store level, and the arrogance displayed by the salesman at Toyota dealerships around this time was disgusting. So smug they didn't have to sell -- rather, they were there to grant permission to consumers lucky enough to be worthy to get their hands on a Toyota. I'm only 29, and I often read about people hating on GM for their extreme arrogance. I never really fully understood it, as I first became a car enthusiast when GM was at its worst in the mid - late '90s and had nothing to be arrogant about. Their products were a joke. The vibe I got from GM while I was growing up was one of hapless desperation, looking longingly back at the past yet still refusing to acknowledge the current reality. After seeing how Toyota has behaved over the past decade, I now understand what people are talking about when they talk about GM arrogance. The tide has been slowly turning in the auto industry over the past five years, but I think it's shifting into overdrive. The next few years should be interesting to watch.

  • SoCalMikester SoCalMikester on Aug 09, 2013

    i googled XV40 camry and read the austalasian markets got a much nicer looking car- the aureon. same car, different front and rear clip. they should have just saved the money and used the whole design worldwide.

    • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Aug 10, 2013

      The Accord has gone to one platform worldwide, and in other markets where there's no Acura, stuff like full pre-collision braking is available (as well as a glovebox light and trunk pass-through I mentioned up the thread). Honda stated that the pass-through omission was for NVH, but it was really for co$t-cutting. (Our NA Accord has also been sold in other markets as the Insight or Accord, while our TSX is the Accord Euro in Austrailia. As I stated, I believe all that goes away.)

  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉
  • Kcflyer What Toyota needs is a true full size body on frame suv to compete with the Expedition and Suburban and their badge engineered brethren. The new sequoia and LX are too compromised in capacity by their off road capabilities that most buyers will never use.
  • ToolGuy Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock, and drywall dents sheet metal.