| 3:04 PM EST

Toyota Makes Changes Big & Small

The 2015 Camry, Sienna and Yaris have undergone changes. Some striking. Some discernible only by those who are familiar with the existing models. And they all have more welds. Yes, welds.
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Let’s say for the sake of argument I’ve attended 10 new product launches for the past 10 years.

That means 100 cars.

That’s a lot of sheet metal.

And as I think back on all of the presentations made by chief engineers and large project leaders and designers and marketers, as I think of the discussions of the how and the why and the what of the cars and crossovers, the trucks and minivans, as I think of the descriptions of the styling and the suspension, the engines and the emissions, the technology and the telematics, attending the launches of the 2015 Toyota Camry, 2015 Toyota Sienna and 2015 Toyota Yaris made me realize that there was one subject in all of those other presentations that got comparatively short shrift.

Of the 100 cars, maybe seven or eight had the level of discussion of the subject that the Camry, Sienna and Yaris did.

The subject: Spot welding.

That’s right.

For example, know that the 2015 Camry has 22 additional spot welds, located around the door surround and cowl.

Know that the 2015 Sienna has 142 new welds for increased structural rigidity.

And know that the 2015 Yaris has 36 more spot welds for improved ride and handling.

Although Toyota has long been known for its manufacturing prowess, for racking up J.D. Power Plant Quality Awards at a rate that would keep a glass display case company in the black with Toyota as a single client, the word from various company personnel who work in an array of different departments is that since Akio Toyoda took over the company in 2009, the goal is to develop vehicles that are more appealing visually and from the standpoint of drivability.

That mandate is coming to fruition, particularly in the case of the 2015 Camry.

Know that the Camry, which is in its seventh-generation, having been introduced as a new car in 2011 as a 2012 model, has been the best-selling car in the U.S. for the past 12 years. And the delta between it and number-two has generally been healthy. For example, in 2013, Toyota Camry sales were 408,484 and Honda Accord sales were 366,678.

So three years into the Camry’s run, at a time when Toyota—like most all other OEMs—would have a midcycle refresh that would probably take the form of not much more than new fascias and interior trim bits, here’s the 2015 model with, says chief engineer Monte Kaehr, some 2,000 new parts. These are not minor parts, either. Kaehr points out that the only exterior sheet metal that is a carryover is the roof, and that’s because when the designers were taking on the exterior, an objective was to maintain the interior volume, so the roof remained. (The EPA passenger volume for the 2014 and 2015 models are the same: 102.7-ft3, 101.3-ft3 with moonroof; the overall vehicle is slightly longer: 190.9 in. vs. 189.2 in.) In the Georgetown, Kentucky, assembly plant where the Camry is built, there are some 1,900 change points. Again, nontrivial. 

Kaehr also points to the sheet metal on the car. Specifically to the character line that runs from the front fascia to the front quarter along and up the doors and up the rear quarter to the back of the vehicle. He points out that when they surveyed Camry customers after the 2012 model came out the word they often heard was that people wanted more style in the vehicle. So the designers at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California, set out to create a more aggressively styled Camry.

But styling is one thing and stamping is another. Kaehr acknowledges that the people responsible for stamping at the Georgetown Plant had to rethink their approach to shallow draws and few hits, which led to flat doors and other surfaces.

The interesting thing, however, is that there was wide-spread agreement that the new design had more emotional appeal, so it was something that was worth working to achieve. (Dave Lee of the University of Toyota, a training operation within the organization, says that they “pushed the limits of the steel” in creating the character, and points out that even the fuel filler door is shaped to carry the line across the bodyside.)

Another aspect of the 2015 car that Kaehr says is notable is that they made modifications to make the cabin quieter. This includes moving the side-view mirrors 5 mm (0.2 in.) further away from the A-pillar to reduce wind noise; putting custom-formed foam inserts into the door service holes to attenuate resonating noise; using better window and door seals; and using a larger (by 29%) noise-insulating cast foam layer beneath the carpet. In addition to which, on V6 and hybrid models, there is acoustic windshield glass.

Speaking of the powertrain, yes, the Camry is still offered with a V6. The optional V6—3.5-liter, 268 hp—and the standard I4—2.5-liter, 178 hp—are both mated to a six-speed electronically controlled transmission. The powertrain is a carryover from the 2012 model because, Kaehr says, the owners they surveyed didn’t indicate they had any problems with what was under the hood.

As for the hybrid, it uses a 2.5-liter four along with a hybrid transaxle for a net horsepower of 200 and a fuel economy rating of 43 mpg city, 39 mpg highway, and 41 mpg combined.

What may be interesting to know is that of all of the Camrys sold, 10% are hybrids and 6% have a V6. While 6% may look like a small number, realize that it is on the order of 24,500 units of the 408,484 sold last year. Which is not small.

Yes, there are LED low and high beams on offer for the front. There is a new 4.2-in. TFT screen for the IP. There is a new sportier trim level—XSE—with higher-rate coil springs, different shocks, firmer bushings, unique electric power steering tuning, and 18 in. wheels. (The previous sporty model—which continues to exist—the Camry SE had a take rate of approximately 45%, which surprised Toyota execs, and had a median buyer age of 45, which was also surprising.)

There is a lot that’s different about the 2015 Camry.

Arguably, it could be the eighth generation. But it isn’t.

The 22 additional spot welds notwithstanding.

And the Sienna?

A refresh of the third-generation minivan that was introduced in 2011. Yes, a new grille. The availability of the obligatory LED daytime running lights and rear combination lamps. Changes on the interior, like putting padding under places like the upper door trim. A clever feature, “Driver Easy Speak,” which uses the existing microphone in the overhead console so that the driver can have her voice broadcast through the speakers in the rear so the passengers can more readily hear what’s being said.

One interesting aspect that is undoubtedly making things somewhat easier at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana, where the Sienna is built: they’ve reduced the build configurations from 47 to 24 by combining options into the most-requested packages.

And the Yaris?

One thing that can be said about it: There aren’t all that many cars available in the U.S. that have been designed on the Côte d’Azur. That’s right: the subcompact was designed in Nice, France, at the Toyota Europe Design Development facility, known as ED2.

Another thing that can be said about it: There aren’t all that many cars available in the U.S. that are manufactured in France. While previous Yaris models were shipped to the U.S. from Japan, this 2015 model is built at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, France, which is located in Valenciennes. The French plant has experience with Yaris, having been building it for the European market since 1999. (In 1999, U.S. drivers were offered the Toyota Echo.)

This is the second-gen Yaris available in the U.S. (first: 2007-‘11; second: ’12 to present).

And while the changes aren’t as wide-ranging as the 2015 Camry, they’re more than on the 2015 Sienna, as the Yaris has been clearly eclipsed in the market by more stylish, contemporarily designed vehicles, like the Chevrolet Sonic and the Ford Fiesta (you can just hear the “Sacre bleu!” being uttered).

So the exterior has been refreshed, not only with the significantly larger front grille design (which is becoming the face of Toyota), character lines on the body side, but also a new rear fascia and tail lamps. Inside, the materials have become marginally softer (e.g., the material on the dash has gone from 0.08-in. thick to 0.1 in.), and the gauges and knobs have been updated and/or repositioned for improved ergonomics.