Killer Instinct: The Toyota Camry's Positive Post-shutdown Pandemic Performance in a Segment That's Still Dying a Little Bit on the Inside

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
We’re committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using links in our articles. Learn more here
killer instinct the toyota camry s positive post shutdown pandemic performance in a

The 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?

It’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.

But 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.

Sure, 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.

Timothy Cain
Timothy Cain

More by Timothy Cain

Join the conversation
3 of 35 comments
  • Volvo Volvo on Oct 24, 2020

    Great Summary Johnster NA ice engines with great power/displacement and multispeed ATs. What's not to like

    • Johnster Johnster on Oct 24, 2020

      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.

  • Pveezy Pveezy on Oct 31, 2020

    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.

  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.