By on October 21, 2020

2021 Toyota Camry XSE black - Image: ToyotaThe Toyota Camry may well go down as one of the ultimate soldiers in the American automotive marketplace: shooting straight despite distractions, marching forward undeterred by the terrain, somehow finding small victories when the losses are mounting, always ready to carry new recruits on its shoulders.

Somehow, amidst all of the recent economic turmoil and political unrest, and healthcare crises, the Toyota Camry’s U.S. sales trendline is outperforming the market at large while also embarrassing its direct rivals.

In one sense, the Camry’s just doing what the Camry’s always done. Winning.

In another sense, the Camry’s doing the unexpected. It’s winning at a point in time when everyone else seems to be losing, at least to some degree, and it’s winning in a major way just as its specific category approaches an inflection point. Is the midsize sedan segment, broadly speaking, on its last legs? Or is a post-shutdown pandemic performance like the Camry’s indicative of a midsize-sedan segment that’s finally set to round the corner?

2017 NAIAS 2018 Toyota Camry launch - Image: ToyotaIt’s true that in a number of ways there’s nothing to see here. “The Toyota Camry Sells Well” is a true dog-bites-man event, a headline hardly deserving of front-page-above-the-fold placement.

The facts are easy to rhyme off. For example: with a steady fourth-quarter, Toyota is on track in 2020 to sell more than 280,000 Camrys for a 29th consecutive year. (204,945 Camrys were sold through the first nine months of 2020.)

Or try this one: if the midsize Toyota can hold onto its (admittedly slim) lead over the No.2 Honda Civic, 2020 is set to be the Camry’s 19th consecutive year as America’s best-selling car.

Another typical Camry fact: It’s recovering fast. No matter the nature of evolving consumer tastes, there always seems to be a market for Camrys when Toyota really wants there to be. Think back to 2012, a year after the Tōhoku earthquake wreaked havoc on global capacity at both Honda and Toyota. Camry sales jumped 31 percent, greatly outpacing the market’s continued post-recession recovery. Fast forward to September 2020 and witness the Camry following up six consecutive monthly decreases with a 22-percent year-over-year increase in U.S. volume.

Interesting results, to be fair, but not exactly newsmakers.

Yet this time, there’s a difference. As we near the end of 2020, the oft-critiqued but always-respected Camry earns its plaudits out of relativity.

Here are the key facts for comparison: Camry sales were down just 4 percent in the third quarter of 2020, a virtual increase given the industry’s 9-percent year-over-year downturn. The Camry’s modest decline occurred while new favorites such as the Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sorento, Subaru Outback slid 5, 15, 10, 10, and 6 percent, respectively.

The Camry’s 79,046-unit Q3 total outpaced the January-August top seller, Honda’s Civic, by an 8-percent margin. And the Camry’s ability to hang on to 96 percent of its prior-year sales pace was of huge consequence to a Toyota car division that (Camry aside) combined to lose 36,592 sales over the course of three months.

Camry Accord USA market share 2008 2020 - Image: © TTACBut here’s the real kicker. The Camry is absolutely throttling its closest rivals. A year ago, in the third quarter of 2019, the Toyota Camry owned 24 percent of America’s intermediate sedan market. This year, over the last three months in which the auto industry made real moves toward recovery, Camry market share shot up to 28 percent.

Collectively, the Camry’s rivals reported a 23-percent year-over-year decrease in Q3, nearly six times worse than the Camry. While the Camry averaged monthly losses of around 1,100 units between July and September, the Honda Accord lost 6,163 sales per month and the Nissan Altima lost 7,719 sales per month. A year ago, the Camry’s Q3 lead over its closest challenger, the Accord, was a solid 10 percent. This year, the Q3 Camry/Accord spread quadrupled.

2021 Honda Accord Hybrid. Image: HondaSure, there are midsize contenders that actually sold more often over the last three months than they did a year ago: the re-engineered Hyundai Sonata and the lightly revamped Volkswagen Passat. But those two cars are a shadow of their former selves, combining for roughly as many sales over the course of the third-quarter (28,926) as the Camry managed in September alone (28,362).

None of this is meant to suggest that the Camry isn’t returning from battle bruised; even wounded. 2019 volume fell for a fourth consecutive year; 2020’s outcome for America’s long-time best-selling midsize car is almost certainly going to be worse. Indeed, at the current rate, annual Camry volume is still likely to fall to the lowest level since the very early 90s.

The Camry is nevertheless separating itself from the pack. Toyota is drawing a line in the sand, isolating the Camry from midsize sedans that risk extinction. The Camry increasingly proves capable of picking up what midsize scraps remain. Don’t forget, only five years ago, the Camry owned “just” 18 percent of the midsize market, a far cry from the 28 percent gleaned last quarter.

Now we’re left to wonder how long it will be before the Camry, an expert marksman, peers through its scope with an eye on turning that 28 percent into 38 percent.

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and and the founder and former editor of Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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35 Comments on “Killer Instinct: The Toyota Camry’s positive post-shutdown pandemic performance in a segment that’s still dying a little bit on the inside...”

  • avatar

    I just really wish the Camry had a sporty model equipped with a manual transmission. I felt sure when Toyota put out the TRD edition, it was going to include a manual. I am shopping for a new sedan to replace my daily driver of 14 years now, 2006 Mazda3 5 speed sedan. The Corolla is just not sporty enough either, that TRD manual would have sold me!

    • 0 avatar

      Hey, if they made it into a crossover wagon with lots of cargo space and a turbo 6, I’d consider one over my XC70.

      But they’re never gonna do that EITHER.

      Despite it having a much better chance of selling well than “sporty FWD manual sedan”.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Don’t they call that a Highlander? Minus the turbo 6 which, let’s be honest, if the did offer people on here would just cry about the turbo 6 not being a V8.

  • avatar

    I’m one of the few people on the internet that openly likes the Camry. If I was a more pragmatic person I’d have a V6 version and if I was a very pragmatic person I’d have a hybrid SE.

    I know everyone says that the Mazda and the Accord are better, but maybe that’s mainly the case only for the manual-transmission fans.

    • 0 avatar

      I also like the Camry styling and I have driven a new one. It and the Avalon drove very nicely and were comfortable. Both had good back seat and trunk room. But even on my test drives, I just realized how much I want to keep driving a manual transmission car. My local Toyota dealer didn’t even have a manual Corolla sedan or hatchback. I did sit in a Corolla hatchback but it felt very cramped. And they didn’t have a Corolla sedan at all. The only Toyota I have ever owned was a 4WD truck back in the 80’s and it was very reliable. I am glad that Toyota is using naturally aspirated motors, I feel that they are more reliable but that may be because I have never owned a turbo.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d also own a V6 Camry without a minute’s hesitation, but to be fair I’ve never really been a Honda or Mazda fan.

      • 0 avatar
        DOHC 106

        You are right. I had a 1998 Honda Civic and it was a total junk pile and i presently own a 2014 Mazda 5. It is not bad, but not on par with a Toyota though. Mazda has come a long way and it does say alot Toyota is partnering with them otherwise their growth at least in the US has been and would remain weak.

    • 0 avatar

      Count me in too. The latest styling has really grown on me. With NA engines and a traditional roof line, the car is the antidote to everything wrong with the sedan market. If I wasn’t still hung up on driving a manual, I would go straight to the Camry.

      For a different analogy than Tim’s – the Camry is like an efficient NFL offense taking what the defense gives it, moving the chains 4-6 yards at a time. It doesn’t make the highlight reels and gets little respect from fans of the opponent, but check the scoreboard and you’ll see the Camry with a comfortable lead, possession, and running out the clock.

      • 0 avatar

        Me too… If the Camry had a manual transmission option, Especially the TRD edition, I would definitely want one. As much as I liked the 2020 Camry when I took it for a test drive, I realized in that short drive that I just couldn’t live with a car without the manual. Just before driving the Camry, I had driven a Civic SI at a nearby dealer and I was very satisfied with the way it drove, and they only come in a manual, and a very good manual transmission . If you are someone looking for a car with an automatic transmission, I would suggest you try the Camry and the Avalon. They are both fine cars.

  • avatar

    It would be interesting to see how many of these sales are retail. The remaining competitors are trying to move upscale, while Toyota has the volume and efficiency to profitably sell at a low price to wholesale customers.

  • avatar

    I rented a ’20 Camry for a road trip last fall, and even a long time Camry skeptic like me had to admit it was a much better drive than earlier Camrys. Road feel and driveability was up significantly, losing most of the “appliance” driving feel of previous Camrys that could almost numb you to sleep. Comfortable interior, enjoyable ride – I would actually consider one if not for the noise. Lots of wind noise, particularly at highway speeds, and the 4 cylinder groaned every time I went to pass another car on the interstate. Maybe the 6 cylinder would be better and quieter. But my 2015 Sonata is much quieter, even at 75K miles. I’m a midsize fan. and will always have one in my garage. And I can see why the Camry sells, even in a shrinking segment. They still check a lot of items on buyers’ lists.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    People are buying half as many Model 3s as Camrys, but paying twice as much for them. Yet the Model 3 has only been available for 3 years. This has to concern Toyota, not to mention Honda and Nissan. Nobody else is even close – not Chevy, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, Lexus, VW, or Subaru.

    I’d argue that as a new entry the Model 3 has single-handedly propped up the declining midsize sales segment, while taking market share from the other players in it. The Model 3 could end the year as the #3 midsize car.

    • 0 avatar

      Based on your data I’d say its a foregone conclusion Model 3 ends the year at #3 as it is nearly there now. What is more interesting to me is how the 14.9% market share left by #5 Fusion and #6 Malibu will be distributed in 2021. Neither is in the same price or prestige category as Model 3, so I would expect the bulk to go into the current top three models but we’ll have to see.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s because if you want a reasonably price EV, and you don’t want a car that makes you look like a total dork, the Model 3 is literally your only option.

      I don’t know why the other automakers don’t get this, and keep releasing stupid looking EVs like the Bolt, Leaf, and Ionq.

  • avatar

    Interesting that the Camry/Accord sales curves diverge starting 2017-18. What caused that? A rhetorical question.

    • 0 avatar

      Both Honda and Toyota introduced a new models in 2017 as MY18s (Accord (CV1/2/3), Camry (XV70)). Honda’s didn’t seem to take well.

    • 0 avatar

      At least initially, it seemed that Honda thought their redesigned Accord was so good that they didn’t need to cut as good of deals (financing, leases, discounts) and also not make as many fleet sales, as Toyota. (That only worked back in the 1970s when the Accord wasn’t like anything else being sold at that time.) Honda seems to have realized this and at this time it seems that Honda is offering deals on the Accord that are comparable to the Camry, but they lost quite a bit of sales momentum due to the stumbles at the launch of the redesigned Accord.

      Also, starting in 2018 all non-hybrid Accords were equipped with turbo-charged engines while the Camry continues to only offer conventional non-aspirated engines. There was, and continues to be, some resistance on the part of buyers to turbo-charged engines (which are more mechanically complex) and still considered by many to be less reliable and more expensive to repair than normally aspirated engines. I’m not sure if the resistance is completely rational, but it is there.

      • 0 avatar
        DOHC 106

        I agree 100%. Hondas are relatively good cars, but I think sometimes they feel because of their name it should sell well regardless. Some model years of Honda are either engineered, built, and or styled better than others. I still don’t trust the turbos even with better acceleration or mpgs. Naturally aspirated is easier to work on.

  • avatar

    “marching forward undeterred by the terrain”

    See, that just make me envision a lifted AWD Camry, reminiscent of an Eagle.

    Which would be hilarious, if an awful seller.

    (I like the Camry, honestly. I’ve driven my parents’ Camry Hybrid, and it’s a perfectly fine sedan, and adequately zippy if you tell it go.)

    • 0 avatar

      a lifted AWD Camry???
      There are two. The RAV4 and the new Venza. The RAV4 is much more of a Camry spin off now rather than the Corolla spin off that it used to be.

  • avatar

    There are a vast number of Americans who are resistant to change. I’d venture that 70% of retail Camry buyers are upgrading from their old Camry (or Corolla).

  • avatar
    Peter Gazis

    U.S. Camry sales thru September.
    2019 – 258,456
    2020 – 204,945

    After Camry sales got clobbered in the 2nd quarter, they came with only a 4% decline in the 3rd quarter.

  • avatar

    Toyota’s decades-old quality reputation, consistent advertising regardless of model year, and high visibility on our roads has made Camry as synonymous with mid-size sedan in the mind of consumers as Coke is to soda or Band-Aid is to bandages. Compared to the Camry, all other makes of mid-size sedan are RC Cola and Curad.

    It also helps that Toyota has kept the Camry roomy, fuel efficient, and relatively simple; avoiding turbos, CVT/DCT/10 speed transmissions, or tech gimmicks; and Etune may not be great to look at or use, but it’s good enough for less tech-obsessed drivers.

    Camry will be the cockroach withstanding the nuclear fallout of CUVs until the last sedan is turned into scrap.

  • avatar

    Here is my 2 cents.

    I have a 12 Civic and 07 Odyssey so I’m not hating on them but the current generations of Honda just flat out look bizarre and ugly to me. Ugh, that Civic! The interiors seem crammed with oddly placed screens, non-intuitive buttons and menues like a JVC boombox from the 80s.

    Seats are just ok for long distances.

    Wind noise is very high even on the 2020s I have driven. Back seat no where near as usable as Camry.

    Camry was slower and less agile but for Wisconsin crappy roads, more comfortable. Seats were better and back seat headroom way better. Dash was cleaner and more logical. If I was car shopping today, I would likely pick the Toyota even though the dealers here are d*cks.

  • avatar

    Camry is excellent value. Brand new under $23K *discounted and spending more allows choices from AWD, Hybrid, V6, TRD, etc.
    SUV’s will cost you more.
    Ford, GM, FCA leaving the sedan market was good for their profitability and also for their competitors.

  • avatar

    I own a ’19 Camry SE (203hp 4-cyl), that I drive for work – about 45k a year. It’s surprisingly efficient, has sufficient power, and handles more than adequately. It also has exceptional space, though for some assignments, I turn it into a one-seater vehicle, with the trunk, back seats and passenger footwell stuffed with equipment and supplies.

    It’s comfortable, the infotainment is pretty terrible, and the tranny died at 220km (replaced under warranty – obviously.) Would I buy it again? Hell no. But it’ll make a great used car for my wife when it’s paid off next year. My next vehicle will be a V8 SUV, or maybe a Charger. Or if I can get a good deal, a truck. I need more space, and want more power. My company pays the fuel bill (and a healthy portion of the payments) so mileage is not much of a concern.

  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    Well….the 7% of the “take rate” for manual transmissions are on this board and elsewhere on the car forums on the Internet. I was watching the news the other day-and they cited a statistic that said only .6% of drivers could operate a manual transmission.

    No wonder they are going the way of the dinosaur.

  • avatar

    All I can say is, If Toyota doesn’t offer something in a manual transmission that I favor, similar to a Civic Si / Sport Touring Hatchback, Kia Forte GT, Hyundai Elantra GT / Veloster / I20-30, or Mazda3… then I will not be buying a Toyota. I know they offer a manual in the Corolla line but no dealers around me have one in stock. I don’t know if the Corolla would satisfy me but I will never know if there isn’t one to test drive on a dealer lot near me.

  • avatar

    The 4-cylinder LE is a surprisingly good car and in larger metropolitan areas they are selling for under $23,000. (In more rural areas where there is not as much sales competition they’re going for closer to sticker at around $25,000.) The upholstery and interior trim look a bit cheap (not as nice as a Mazda 6) and front end styling is hideous. The “convenience package” with “blind spot monitor” is “highly recommended,” but there don’t seem to be any so-equipped Camrys in any of the dealers in my area.

    That said, the gas mileage and performance is excellent for a car of its size, comparable to or better than many compact cars and even some subcompact cars. I strongly suspect that Camry sales are cannibalizing the sales of other Toyota cars.

    The Camry 2.5’s gas mileage and performance are better than the cheaper and under-powered Corolla LE 1.8. Gas mileage is not quite as good as the Corolla 2.0 and performance is similar, but around here they are going for the same price and a lot of people are going to take the larger Camry 2.5 over the smaller Corolla 2.0.

    The Camry Hybrid is another excellent car that offers gas mileage similar to that of the Corolla Hybrid or the Prius in a larger package. The performance of the Camry Hybrid is better than the Corolla Hybrid, although I don’t know about the oddly-styled Prius.

    The Camry V-6 is excellent, but only available in the higher trim lines and they all cost above $30,000 which puts it out-of-reach for a lot of people. Those who can afford it going to pay extra and spring for the Avalon.

  • avatar

    Great Summary Johnster

    NA ice engines with great power/displacement and multispeed ATs. What’s not to like

    • 0 avatar

      Well, the previously mentioned front-end styling, the upholstery and interior ambience, the limited and odd color choices. The seeming unavailability of the “convenience package.” The engine is just a bit coarse and the transmission shifts a bit roughly.

      Seriously, though, I might be in the market for a new car soon and the conventional Camry LE is my top choice. If I could afford to I’d probably buy a Highlander or an Outback Turbo, but right now my budget says Camry LE.

  • avatar

    I know everyone loves to hate on the Camry using tired old 2003 tropes about the colour beige, but it is a great car. The entire midsize segment is better than it has ever been right now actually, which is a shame because people are still fleeing to the amorphous blob crossovers, but I digress.

    The great thing about the Camry is they offer something like 13 variants now. They forked the car into 2 distinct styling/handling profiles (LE/XLEs that have soft springs and the more traditional look, SE/XSE that have sporty looks and tighter suspension and handling). Then they have 3 powertrain options, ultra efficient 4 cyl, super ultra efficient hybrid, and the last V6 in the segment (unless you include the Maxima as a midsize). They also now offer two drivetrain setups, FWD and AWD. They are also one of the few still selling a lineup of non-turbo engines, for all the people that don’t want to deal with the potential headaches those can cause.

    They cover every angle of the sedan market for the people that actually still want sedans. Add in all the options leaving the market, Toyota is happy to welcome those that are still holding out of a CUV. The customer that would have bought a Buick Century in 2004 can get a Camry LE. The customer that would have wanted a Grand Prix GXP/GTP in 2010 can get a Camry TRD.

    They ride great, look pretty good, never break, last forever, and still bring in decent money whenever it is time to sell or trade. Can’t go wrong.

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