That's an ominous sign for Detroit for several reasons. First, it shows that North America is so competitive that no one -- not even Toyota, whose sales are up 6% this year in a U.S. market that's down 5% -- can get price increases for a new vehicle. Worse, it demonstrates that Toyota can wring enough costs from its product-development and manufacturing system and use favorable exchange rates to cut prices. "The company that has a huge box of money next to the chairman's desk can now make cars cheaper," says James Hall, vice-president of AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, Mich.
NIP AND TUCK. "Do you see this as a problem for Detroit?" asks Hall, tongue-in-cheek. Well, yes, it will be in the passenger-car business. Camry is already a best-seller in the midsize segment -- comprising some 3 million vehicles, or 18%, of the U.S. vehicle market. Toyota sells about 400,000 Camrys a year, making it the most popular car in America for the past four years. This year, it's nip and tuck with Honda's Accord for the passenger-car sales crown. And Camry has always commanded a premium price vs. its competitors.
Even with such an impressive history, Toyota is still cutting prices -- which range from $19,000 to $26,000 -- by $600 to $1,800, depending on the option package. Says Toyota Division Group Vice-President Donald V. Esmond: "We need to price to the market."
And the market is slowing. Sales of all vehicles were down 5% through July. Passenger cars were hit worse, falling 6.5% this year. Even rebates of $2,000 or more per vehicle industrywide can't keep sales up. Says Nextrend analyst Christopher Cedergren: "It's a deflationary period in the auto industry."
"REALLY SCARY." Even so, Toyota may be best positioned to keep its sales and profits up in a tough market. In developing the new Camry, the Japanese powerhouse cut development costs by 30%, says AutoPacific's Hall. And it cut costs without cutting corners -- it offers more powerful engines and a sportier-driving 2002 model. Esmond says the car will still sell at a premium and will crank out profits. "This is really scary if you're Detroit," Cedergren says. "Chevrolet and Ford will be hit."
This isn't the first time Toyota cut prices. When the auto maker launched the last all-new Camry in 1996, it cut costs and slashed prices by as much as $1,300 per vehicle, notes Cedergren. The result: Sales jumped 11% the next year, and the model overtook Ford's Taurus that year as the best-selling midsize car.
Detroit is doing everything it can to keep its cars moving off dealer lots. All of the Big Three have incentives that average more than $2,100 per vehicle. Toyota and Honda, on the other hand, have pretty much kept their incentive levels below $800 per car. Toyota just started laying out incentives averaging $1,400 to move 2001 Camrys to make room for the new model. Honda plans to hold its turf with an all-new Accord next year.
From all appearances, Detroit's auto makers will have a tough time competing with the new Camry. Says Hall: "It should be a smash hit." If Toyota can pull that off even in a down market, its American competitors may have to sit up and take notice. By David Welch in Detroit