GEORGETOWN — Toyota's global president joined workers in Georgetown on Tuesday to launch the next generation of the company's vaunted Camry, the best-selling car in the United States for 13 of the last 14 years.
"The Camry defines us. It is that important," Akio Toyoda said as he addressed Toyota plant employees in English at an afternoon ceremony. Earlier in the day, Toyoda drove the ceremonial first 2012 Camry off one of the plant's two assembly lines during a Webcast.
"This car is simply wonderful to drive," Toyoda told the crowd of assembled workers Tuesday.
Toyoda's visit echoed one by his father, retired Toyota president Shoichiro Toyoda, who visited the plant 25 years ago to see its first vehicle, also a Camry, come off the assembly line.
The new Camry features a more sporty design, as the automaker looks to appeal to younger buyers. The vehicle's dimensions have stayed roughly the same, but the redesigned interior is roomier. Models also include improved fuel economy, as well as a new multimedia system that connects with mobile phones.
The Camry, which has routinely been awarded the honor of "Most American Car" by Cars.com based on parts, assembly location and other criteria, increased its share of North American-produced parts to more than 80 percent.
Georgetown's workers played a major role in the development of the new vehicle, as employees helped lead the design activities in Japan.
"Our team worked directly with the designers and the people in the other regions," said Georgetown plant president Wil James. "In the past, it was led by Japan."
Toyoda, in an exclusive interview with the Herald-Leader, noted the Americans' role was part of a concerted effort to obtain greater information on everything from manufacturing to sales in the geographies where Toyota operates.
"I personally take great joy in seeing that, and I hope this is something that can give tremendous pride to employees," Toyoda said through a translator.
Among the proud employees Tuesday was Scott Leach, quality department project manager, who made more than a dozen trips to Japan over the last few years to help with the design.
"It's a real motivation factor to be able to be involved from the ground floor," Leach said.
The new Camry is ambitious, James told the Herald-Leader; Georgetown's workers "asked for a lot of changes in this vehicle; many, many more than we've ever tried to accomplish in the past, because everybody in the company was looking at it."
Among the changes that James highlighted was the development by workers of a circuit to help reduce battery use. "Like a computer, some of the systems go to sleep when they're not necessary," he said.
James said the company continued to tweak the Camry until the launch, making small changes as recently as Aug. 2.
The process involved far more than just Toyota. "We have to not only worry what we can do in Toyota, but what can the supplier do and the material provider to the supplier?" James said. "Changes are good for the customer but difficult for everybody who needs to come together to make it work."
That difficulty was compounded by the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan this year. The disaster shut down production at Toyota facilities in Japan and idled some production in North America because of parts shortages.
"We already had a pretty clear schedule of what we could do for the initial launch," James said. "We had to change it because of the impact of things over there. That also threw a huge wrinkle into some of our suppliers' abilities to make some of the parts we had agreed on, and we had to make some small changes based on that."
Behind all the changes was the company's mantra of quality. Toyota is working to re-establish its long-stellar reputation after enduring criticism for a series of recalls over the past year.
"In my 36 years in this business, the Camry is at a level of quality that is just unbelievable," said Steve St. Angelo, the Georgetown plant's chairman and Toyota's chief quality officer for North America.
St. Angelo's and James' emphasis on quality echoed through the sprawling factory during Tuesday's ceremony, as they sought to inspire the site's several thousand employees as they begin to build the new Camrys.
"It's your talent, skill and dedication to quality that have helped us get over these hurdles," James noted, adding the 2012 Camry will help "reinvent the perception of Toyota."
Reach Scott Sloan at (859) 231-1447 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1447.