"My design brief to the team was to do an absolute drop-dead gorgeous head-turner," said J. Mays, Ford Motor Company's (NYSE:F) head of global design, according to the Detroit Free Press. "And it was to look $10,000-$15,000 more expensive than it is."
Check, and check.
Ford's design team definitely produced a head-turner with the debut of its redesigned Fusion -- which is Ford's best-selling car in the U.S. -- in 2013. Sales of the midsize sedan quickly caught fire and began gaining ground on the segment leader, Toyota Motor Corp's (NYSE:TM) Camry.
Fast-forward to today. Is it possible the Fusion can finally top the Camry in coming years to end the latter's more-than-a-decade stint on top in terms of midsize segment sales?
Camry defends its crown
When the Fusion hit the streets, it immediately began eating up competitors' market share, and even managed to shrug off the Great Recession, which caused almost every model's sales to plummet. Toyota's Camry is known for many things, including great fuel economy, high quality, and reliability.
However, the Camry is also known for being fairly bland design-wise. In a response to an increasingly competitive and flashy midsize segment, Toyota is making major changes to the 2015 Camry rather than the typical slight alterations often found in midcycle refreshes. (Remember that the Camry was redesigned only three years ago.)
"Buyers became increasingly aware that you didn't have to buy a Camry to get faultless reliability and strong resale," Ed Kim, AutoPacific vice president of industry analysis, told Automotive News. "An increasing number of alternatives offered more engaging styling and more modern technology."
With that in mind, Toyota aimed to make the 2015 Camry the best it's ever built. Toyota's refreshed midsize sedan will be roughly two inches longer due to its more aggressive front-end features, and a half-inch wider to improve stability and handling. Toyota also claims that 2,000 new parts are used in the 2015 Camry refresh, and even that its electric power steering has been retuned for better steering feel. In fact, all exterior sheet metal panels were changed, with the exception of the roof.
Furthermore, in an interesting twist for Toyota, the Japanese automaker is redesigning its ad campaign to match the more aggressive design. However, some believe it's a misstep.
A more "bold" Camry
The idea behind the criticism facing Toyota's marketing campaign for its 2015 Camry is that if it's not broke, why fix it? That's fair, considering that Toyota's previous marketing placed the Camry as king-of-the-hill in the U.S.' most competitive vehicle segment for more than a decade. That said, Toyota is aiming for a flashier, emotional, and bold advertising campaign to attract the younger consumers that the Fusion has succeeded with. Check out these two ads to get a general feel of the direction in which Toyota is moving: "Breakout" and "Guitar."
Christie Nordhielm, an associate professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, told Automotive News that playing up style instead of quality -- Toyota's hallmark -- "is the opposite of what you want to be doing." She continued: "They've left their equity and put themselves at parity with other cars. In the end, reliability is what Toyota's all about."
Ultimately, the Fusion has had much success in recent years, but if it wants to finally catch and top Toyota's Camry, the latter may have to make a misstep in its marketing or product. While that's possible, and investors should watch sales of the Camry throughout 2015, don't count on a flop from Toyota. Rather, if the Fusion is to take the top spot, it's going to have to do a substantial refresh to its model in the near term -- something it might not be willing to do after hitting a home run with its redesign.
Stay tuned. This race is just heating up, and significant bragging rights for the industry's largest-selling segment could be up for grabs in the next five years among multiple competitors.