The Camry has been the best-selling sedan in the U.S. for 13 of the past 14 years. It accounts for 22% of Toyota's overall sales volume here, and it's the one car consumers associate most with Toyota.
It has also become synonymous for bland and boring cars. Buyers don't opt for the Camry because of its styling -- they bought it for its reliability and reputation. But now other automakers -- most notably Ford, GM and Hyundai -- are gaining in reliability and reputation. And their cars tend to be more modern and fun.
"It's critical they get this right," said Michael Robinet, vice president of global vehicle forecasts at IHS Automotive. "They are facing a deluge of competitors that are really getting it right."
The Camry could help reverse two years of setbacks for Toyota. The automaker took a hit last year due to massive recalls related to sudden acceleration woes, caused by sticky gas pedals and floormats that snagged gas pedals. And this year, the automaker was dealt a blow when a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, forcing many parts suppliers to close and seriously hindering supplies of popular cars.
AOL Autos drove the 2012 Camry a few weeks ago at a resort in Cle Elum, Wash. Toyota has clearly taken a lot of care designing the interior – the dashboard looks like a hand-stitched horse saddle, and the seat and roof materials are a clear improvement over the prior generation.
Toyota has added a new in-car information service, Entune, which is easy to use and lets drivers connect to services like the popular Internet music service Pandora.
View More Photos: 2012 Toyota Camry
And the car drives solidly and quietly. The only major downside is the exterior, which looks slab-sided and boxy. But it's not distasteful, and likely won't turn off Camry's core buyers.
The most notable improvements are with the new Camry hybrid. It hardly drives like a hybrid. It's quiet, and there is none of the standard transmission hesitation that comes along with hybrid drivetrains.
The new Camry is not a revolutionary improvement, but builds on Toyota's history of continuously evolving its designs and products to keep customers happy.
Enthusiasts -- otherwise known as hard-core car guys -- will probably tell you the new Camry doesn't go far enough to be fun or isn't cool enough inside to compete with what's already on the market. But the Camry doesn't need to be a hip, trendy car to be successful.
It just needs to make current owners feel happy moving into a new Camry, and be nice enough to lure a few more other shoppers Toyota's way.
"None of the vehicle's improvements will stop certain enthusiasts from scoffing at the 2012 Toyota Camry and its less-than-revolutionary suit of clothes," said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at consumer web site Edmunds.com. "But enthusiasts never sat square in Toyota's crosshairs to begin with."
Still, the automaker wants to attract a younger crowd. The Camry has the oldest age demographic in the industry for mid-sized sedans, at 60 years old. The average age of sedan buyers is 57 -- but that figure is somewhat distorted by the fact that Camry is such a large part of that segment. The automaker wants to bring the age down to around 55, but if it's successful, the average age of the segment will probably come down, too.
Competitors like the Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord, Kia Optima, and Volkswagen Jetta have pretty much eliminated the one strong selling point Toyota used to have over everyone else: Reliability. Cars today overall are better in quality, so customers are looking more at interior features, entertainment systems, price and styling to make their decisions.
"The players in this segment have all raised their game in terms of reliability," Robinet said. "That's the biggest competitive threat Toyota is facing."