DETROIT (AP) -- A revamped Camry sedan is selling briskly, and attracting a far younger buyer than Toyota ever expected, a top executive said Tuesday.
The top-selling car in the U.S. was reworked for the 2012 model year to make it more stylish, luxurious, and fun to drive, Bob Carter, Toyota's senior vice president of automotive operations in the U.S., told analysts and investors at the J.P. Morgan Auto Conference in New York. Sales are up almost 40 percent this year to nearly 244,000 cars. That's 60,000 more than the Camry's two closest competitors, the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.
Rising Camry sales are another sign that Toyota has recovered from last year's earthquake and tsunami that hobbled its factories and caused model shortages worldwide. Overall, sales of the Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands are up 28 percent so far this year, reaching more than 1.2 million vehicles. The company has taken back sales from GM, Ford and others — gaining nearly two points of U.S. market share
Before its remake, the Camry was reliable but boring. Handling was average and its looks were bland. As a result, it attracted mainly baby-boomers in their mid-50s who were looking for reliable transportation.
But the new version has pulled in younger buyers, knocking 10 years off the age of the average buyer, Carter said.
"We didn't anticipate that much movement in the demographics," he said.
One reason younger buyers are going for Camrys is a sportier version called the "SE," which has a firmer suspension, aluminum wheels and low-profile tires. It now makes up about 40 percent of Camry sales, Carter said.
The company also changed its marketing to focus more on the car's style and handling, Carter said.
But the Camry faces tough competition. Nissan has rolled out an all-new Altima, and Chevrolet is selling a new Malibu. Ford will come out with a reworked version of the Fusion later this year, and a new Honda Accord is in the works.
Toyota expects to sell 2 million vehicles in the U.S. this year, Carter said. And he predicts total industry sales in the U.S. will reach 14.3 million, up from an earlier forecast of 13.6 million.
Toyota sales plummeted after the earthquake struck Japan in March of last year. Before that, the company struggled with a series of embarrassing safety recalls that called its quality into question. Toyota has recalled more than 14 million vehicles globally to fix floor mats, gas pedals and other safety problems.
But Carter said the company has earned back its customers' trust. "Toyota is getting back to the top if its game," he said.
Worldwide, Toyota overcame the recalls and natural disasters to retake the crown of top-selling automaker from General Motors during the first half of the year. Toyota sold 4.97 million vehicles globally, about 300,000 more than GM. It will be difficult for GM to catch up in the second half of k2012.
GM was No. 1 in world auto sales last year on strong performances in the U.S. and China, its two biggest markets. The Detroit company held the global sales crown for more than seven decades before losing it to Toyota in 2008.