By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Co <7203.T> showed off its all-new Camry on Tuesday, aiming to recover lost sales momentum with price cuts and a high-powered ad campaign for its flagship sedan that remains America's best-selling car.
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Sales of the Camry are down 8 percent this year but it is still No. 1 in the United States despite market-share gains by rivals including the Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> Altima, Ford Motor Co <F.N> Fusion, Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> Sonata and the General Motors Co <GM.N> Chevrolet Malibu. The Honda Motor Co <7267.T> Accord is still No. 2 despite also losing share.
The launch of the new Camry comes at a time when Toyota is struggling to shake free of the damage from costly safety recalls and the more recent problems caused by production shortages after the March earthquake.
The Japanese automaker has seized on the redesigned Camry as a symbol for its own return as a force in its most important overseas market.
Toyota unveiled the 2012 Camry with unusual fanfare at events staged in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York that featured a live video link from a plant in Kentucky where President Akio Toyoda drove the first production vehicle off the assembly line.
"The launch of the new Camry is very important to our company," Toyoda told workers at the plant.
"This car has become a symbol of Toyota's success over the years. So you might say this is an opportunity to show the world again what Toyota is all about," Toyoda said.
Camry's U.S. sales peaked in 2007, as Toyota extended a lead over GM in global auto sales. That was also the first year of the current generation of Camry.
Some 15 million Camrys have been sold worldwide since it debuted in the U.S. market in 1983. It has been the top-selling car in the U.S. market for nine years running and 13 of the last 14 years, said Bob Carter, who runs the Toyota brand in the United States.
Overall, U.S. Toyota sales fell 7 percent through July for the No. 3 spot behind GM and Ford. Most of its competitors gained, led by Hyundai with a sales increase of 23 percent.
VANILLA BUT POPULAR
The Camry has been criticized by some auto enthusiasts -- and Toyota's rivals -- as being plain-vanilla in its styling. But the car's reputation for worry-free reliability made it a favorite of a generation of American consumers now entering or already in their retirement years.
The average age of the U.S. Camry buyer is 60, which the automaker hopes to lower with the 2012 model, the sedan's seventh generation.
Hybrid versions of the Camry will be at U.S. dealerships by December.
Among competitors, the Chevrolet Malibu goes on sale in early 2012 followed later in 2012 by new versions of Honda's Accord and Nissan's Altima.
Earlier this month, General Motors North American President Mark Reuss said he expected Toyota and major Japanese automakers to be "back with a vengeance" in the U.S. auto market as they are able to recover from the March earthquake.
A sign of that may be the pricing of the 2012 Camry lineup. Of the six versions of the Camry, five will have lower prices than their 2011 counterparts, which Toyota executives say is partly because of the intense competition in the mid-size sedan market.
While Camry prices are lower, fuel economy ratings are higher, led by the Camry Hybrid LE, the lower-priced of two hybrid offerings. It will get a combined city and highway average of 41 miles per gallon. The four-cylinder gasoline models will get a combined 28 mpg.
"Competing in the industry's most competitive segment, we expect the Camry to continue as America's best-selling car," said Carter.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; Editing by Gary Hill)