GM, Honda to compete with style
Competitors try to take on the Camry with aggressive styling.
DETROIT (AP) -- Some of the midsize passenger cars coming to the North American International Auto Show could give a fresh approach to a long-standing question: How does any automaker unseat the Toyota Camry?
The Camry has been the top-selling passenger car in the United States for the past five years and led the pack for nine of the past 10. In 2006, Toyota Motor Corp. introduced a restyled, more athletic version that has kept the dependable vehicle No. 1.
In Detroit, two of Toyota's main competitors, General Motors Corp. and Honda Motor Co., could be offering roadmaps on how they may try to challenge the Camry. In the competitive midsize segment, the industry is offering more stylish, sporty models in an attempt to reduce the boredom factor that has marked some of the dependable midsize vehicles in the past.
"The various manufacturers recognize that to keep the sales alive it can't just be a good workhorse anymore -- it really has to be exciting. There has to be more appeal," said Dave Conant, president of the Newport Beach, Calif.-based CAR Group, which sells Honda and Toyota brands.
The new 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, debuting today, will be drastically restyled, with sweeping lines, a bold front grille and a wider stance atop a more powerful engine. Consumers often associate quality, fuel economy and safety with Asian manufacturers, but the Malibu can be equal or better in those categories, GM says.
The new Malibu will try to make an emotional connection with consumers looking for an eye-catching midsize car while also offering practicality: GM's five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Honda Motor Co., meanwhile, is showcasing an Accord coupe concept, which could give buyers a better sense of how the Japanese automaker will restyle future Accord sedans.
Analysts said the Camry brand could be vulnerable because the average owner's age is in the mid-50s and the midsize segment has been moving in a bolder direction.
Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for the auto consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, said U.S. brands can beat the Asians by taking risks with uniquely American designs like DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group did with the popular 300.
"I think the Japanese are incredibly vulnerable in terms of design. Toyota, they're Maytag," Merkle said. "They can be beat on designs, but the American automakers have to take risks themselves."
But others note that the Camry has held its nearly perfect streak since dethroning Ford Motor Co.'s Taurus as the nation's best-selling car and any challenge -- especially from GM -- will not come easily.
"The worst possible scenario for Detroit is if the Japanese started designing expressive vehicles -- getting some emotion into their designs," said Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at Global Insight, an economic research and consulting company. "We see the trend in Japanese vehicles toward more expressive design -- that in fact could make them that much more stronger."