DETROIT — It would be easy to think Toyota's biggest problem is its damaged reputation caused by sudden acceleration recalls, millions in government fines and massive lawsuits and settlements. But what's hurting the company most is an aging lineup of boring cars.
Over the past decade, Toyota and its U.S. dealers had it easy. Cutting edge design wasn't required because the cars sold themselves on reputation. Everyone knew Toyotas held their value, were safe and got drivers from point A to point B with little drama. Then came the recalls, which called all of that into question.
Ending the year on a low note, Camry sales fell 10 percent in December from a year earlier. Corolla sales plunged 35 percent. Unless things turn around quickly, Camry is in danger of losing its 10-year crown as the nation's top-selling car this year to the Honda Accord.
Ho hum cars are "probably the worst problem for them," says Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and industry analysis for Edmunds.com. "They always had their (safety) reputation to fall back on, but now that's not the case."
CEO Akio Toyoda acknowledges that Toyota is at a design crossroads. He has told dealers several times that he's working to improve Toyota's exterior styling, pushing designers to come up with something more exciting. The company is "intent on making Toyota cars better looking," he told reporters Monday during his first-ever visit to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
After becoming the world's largest automaker in 2007, Toyota reversed course and resumed giving executives in Japan the final say on design decisions for the U.S. market. Some question whether that change left Toyota at a disadvantage as Hyundai, Ford and General Motors moved quicker to tailor new designs specifically for U.S. car buyers.
Mike Jackson, CEO of Autonation, the country's largest car dealer network, says that in the past, sedans sold based primarily on their quality, reliability and resale values. Automakers believed "the styling should be conservative enough to not put people off," he said. "I don't think that's the future. Now you have to differentiate yourself."
Company insiders dispute that notion that Toyota is facing anything approaching a design crisis. "Styling is subjective," said Bob Carter, vice president and general manager of the Toyota division. Outsiders may say Toyota cars are boring, but that's the downside of being so popular, he said. "When you see so many of them on the road, they start to look familiar."
The first peek at the next generation of Camry won't come until the New York Auto Show in April. They'll be in showrooms this fall. Early reviews of the next Corolla model were not enthusiastic when it was unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show in November. People at the show couldn't tell it from the 2010 Corolla unless they read a sticker Toyota put on the newer model.
Toyota is focusing most of its attention at the Detroit show on an expanded Prius lineup. The centerpiece is a Prius MPV, a minivan-like car. It's also showing a five-seater that is smaller than the current Prius sedan. It eventually will be sold in the U.S., although the timing is still unclear. And it's bringing a plug-in electric Prius to compete with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. The minivan goes on sale this summer, and the plug-in will be on sale this spring.
But even if the Prius debuts are hits at the auto show, hybrids aren't the company's bread and butter. They were outsold 4-to-1 by the Camry and Corolla in 2010, when Toyota was the only automaker to sell fewer cars and trucks than in 2009. Even after piling on incentives, it lost 2 percentage points of market share and slipped behind Ford as the runner up to GM in sales.
Working in Toyota's favor is that about 60 percent of its customer base have owned Toyotas in the past and are loyal to the brand. "The recall crisis is hurting them, but it's not like they are in dire straits," says David Whiston, an auto analyst with Morningstar investment research firm. "But they may never get back to that halo status they had a few years ago."
Toyoda says the company is recommitting to focusing on consumers and on styling, but they need to move fast if they want to keep up with the competition. "Their big mantra before the recalls flurry was that their customers liked predictability and reliability, and they gave them that more than any other manufacturer," says Peter DeLorenzo, editor of auto blog AutoExtremist. "But the game has changed."