With first-quarter sales of 105,405 units, fueled by its best-ever March, Toyota Motor Corp. has its redesigned Camry mid-sized sedan well ahead of the pack in the race for best-selling U.S. car.
At the current pace of sales, the Camry could break the 400,000-unit mark for the first time since 2008.
Camry sales peaked in 2007 at 473,108 but have fallen below the 400,000 mark because of the recession, an unintended-acceleration crisis and Japan's 2011 earthquake. Last year U. S. deliveries dropped 6 percent to 308,510 units -- still enough to keep the car atop the sales chart.
And it has outsold the Nissan Altima -- the nation's No.-2 selling car -- by 9,045 units so far this year.
In March, Camry sales reached 42,567, but about 20 percent of those deliveries went to daily rental operators who put off orders during the recession. Toyota also is filling orders from fleet buyers that were asked to delay Camry deliveries because of earthquake-related shortages.
But retail volumes for the 2013 model are also strong, says Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales.
Customer demographics have also improved.
The marketing emphasis on the SE trim model has helped lower the average age of a Camry buyer down to 50, from 59. The mid-grade SE trim model is equipped with a suspension substantially stiffened compared to the standard Camry; it also boasts larger wheels and features paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Toyota could sell more SEs models -- it currently represents 40 percent of mix -- if the automaker was not capacity constrained, Lentz said.
Also, consumer intentions to purchase the Camry have jumped 5 percentage points from last year, Lentz said.
Camry sales also are expected to get a lift from a steady rebound in the U.S. light vehicle market.
Toyota, citing rising consumer confidence, this week increased its 2012 industrywide forecast for U.S. light-vehicle sales to the low- to mid-14 million unit range, up from 13.6 million units.
More players in segment
But there is no guarantee Camry sales will hit 400,000 units with the mid-sized sedan segment undergoing a major overhaul.
A redesigned Chevrolet Malibu is now in showrooms, and a redesigned Altima goes on sale in late June. In the fall, a redesigned Honda Accord and Ford Fusion will be introduced. And early next year Mazda will begin marketing a revamped Mazda6.
The redesigned Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Volkswagen Passat also are gaining ground in the segment.
That's a lot of competition. But Lentz is confident that Camry can maintain its sales rate, especially since 52 percent of current volume is coming from conquest sales.
Despite rising gaoline prices, the mid-sized sedan segment is also producing stronger sales gains, in some cases, than compact and subcompact sales, Lentz said.
"Maybe it's because people can get a Camry Hybrid that gets 43 miles per gallon," Lentz said. "People don't want to make the (size) compromise."
Even with the tough competition, the new Camry is so far fighting the good fight saleswise, with the SE being a good reason why people are buying the car, and even having conquest sales. When Toyota lowers their fleet numbers, will it be enough to be #1?
If people buy Camrys no matter what, they'll do so despite a stiffer ride.
In that respect, get rid of the LE and L grades.