Toyota will deliver, again

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If you want to buy Toyota's new Camry Hybrid, get in line. The 39 MPG version of America's favorite car goes on sale next month, but there's already a waiting list. One attraction? A sticker price of $25,900, five grand below Honda's Accord Hybrid.

It's not an entirely fair comparison, for Honda packed Accord with frills, such as a moon roof, that cost extra on Camry. But Toyota went for an aggressive price and is aiming its gas-and-electric hybrid at the heart of the market.

Toyota defined hybrids with Prius, a mandatory fashion accessory for those who need to flaunt their greenness. With Camry Hybrid, Toyota takes green mainstream-crucial if it's to reach a goal of selling 1 million hybrids a year worldwide by early next decade. To get there, Toyota says it "plans to halve the cost of hybrid powertrains as early as possible."

That's right out of the Toyota marketing playbook. Camry has been the nation's best-selling car for eight of the past nine years in part because of the automaker's relentless drive to deliver value. The gas-powered Camry LE has a lower price today than the same model it sold 10 years ago.

The company touted Camry Hybrid in a Super Bowl spot, but if Toyota does one thing better than almost anyone else it is to understand that marketing is about more than advertising.

Toyotas sell because the company has promoted-and consistently delivered-a product that works. It's had 10 consecutive years of record U.S. sales; it's winning while Detroit loses. Toyota has a positive story to tell about hybrids, and it will be pumping these cars out of a factory in Kentucky.

Toyota built its reputation on one word-quality. There are troubling signs: In 2005, Toyota sold 2.3 million cars and trucks in the U.S.-and recalled 2.2 million vehicles (many built years ago) to fix problems. As Toyota guns for growth, the difference between quality scores of Toyota and rivals is shrinking.

Toyota will have no problem selling its supply of Camry Hybrids. The question is whether it can deliver the quality and satisfaction that Camry buyers expect. Based on history, rivals won't want to know the answer.
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