Toyota launched a dramatic mid-cycle restyling of its Camry sedan in a move to fend off increasing competition from rivals such as the Honda Accord and the Nissan Altima.
The Camry has been the nation's best-selling passenger car for a dozen years but its lead over competitors is narrowing. Through the first three months of this year, Toyota has sold just over 94,000 Camrys. It leads the Altima by about 5,000 sales and the Accord by about 15,000 sales.
But the Accord's share of the market is growing and, when sales to rental car companies and other fleet customers are subtracted, actually beat the Camry last year, said Karl Brauer, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
Despite the new styling, "Toyota will remain under pressure to keep that car at the top of the sales chart," Brauer said. "They will have to utilize sales incentives and fleet sales but that is going to hurt the resale value of the Camry, which has been one of Toyota's traditional strengths."
Toyota is often criticized for producing boring-looking cars. It challenged that notion with the Camry's new design.
The automaker said its "designers and engineers reimagined nearly every exterior surface of the car. Only the roof remains unchanged." Typically automakers only make large styling changes when they introduce a completely new generation of a vehicle. That's some years off for the Camry.
"They are feeling the competition," said Jake Fisher, automotive director of Consumer Reports. He likes the look of the new styling.
"You expect to have a some sort of minor freshening at the three-year mark where the Camry is now but I was surprised to see such a substantial change. That has not been in the playbook for Toyota," Fisher said.
With its new look, Toyota's designers worked to make the previously pedestrian Camry far more muscular.
The hood has four sculpted lines that provide a sense that the car is in motion as they lead back to the windshield. A body line on the side of the car is meant to provide that same look. The aggressive front bumper features a wider and more prominent trapezoidal grille shape, expressing a lower center of gravity.
The new car is slightly longer -- 1.8 inches -- and features a widened track -- 0.4 inches -– that designers said give the Camry a "a dynamic stance and presence."
Toyota also upgraded the Camry's interior with more soft-touch materials.
In a move to make the Camry match its more aggressive look, Toyota bolstered the chassis and body structure with additional spot welds to improve rigidity and ride quality. It also retuned the suspension to give the Camry's handling a sportier feel.
Previously, the Camry's success was based on its practical nature and reputation for durability, but customers were "looking for a little more style, comfort and performance, and this 2015 Camry has all of the above," said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.
Toyota engineers also worked on making a quieter car by reducing wind and road noise. The window and door seals were improved to keep noise outside.
Brauer said he was surprised how much the redesign looks like the ES 350 sedan from Toyota's Lexus luxury car lineup.
"I would think that they would want to get away from the feeling that the ES 350 is a Camry dressed in a tuxedo," Brauer said. "That seems like a misstep."