DETROIT (AP) — A sporty version of the new Camry is helping the car shed its ho-hum image.
It's also drawing in younger buyers who are driving a huge sales increase for America's top-selling car.
Through July, Camry sales were up almost 40 percent to 244,000. That's 60,000 more than its closest competitors, the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.
The rising sales are helping Toyota find its way back from three years of embarrassing safety recalls and natural disasters, and the new customers are broadening the company's graying customer base.
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. Much of the big increase is because Toyota ran short of cars last year and dealers had few to sell. A March earthquake and tsunami in Japan hobbled the company's factories, and supplies didn't return to normal until the middle of this year.
Yet the return of normal factory production doesn't tell the full story, Bob Carter, Toyota's senior vice president of auto operations in the U.S., said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. Younger buyers, especially those attracted to the Camry sport edition, also are boosting sales.
So far this year, a Camry buyer's average age is between 51 and 52, almost nine full years younger than last year, Carter said.
The sport edition, or "SE," now accounts for 40 percent of the car's sales, while it was only 7 percent a year ago. The average sport edition buyer is 45 years old, 15 years younger than the average Camry buyer last year. Almost half the Camry buyers this year are under 49, but it was only 34 percent for last year's model.
"That's what's driving it down, bringing the younger buyer in," Carter said Tuesday in an interview. "We didn't anticipate that much movement in the demographics."
The Camry has been America's top-selling car for the past decade. Buyers drawn by its reputation for reliability kept replacing their Camrys with newer models.
The car, with bland styling and so-so handling, seldom breaks down and can run well over 200,000 miles.
This year, though, the new Camry isn't so much of a yawner. Toyota rolled it out last fall, and Carter says it was reworked to be more stylish, luxurious and fun to drive.
The sport edition has big aluminum wheels and tires that make it handle better. Its suspension is firmer and the steering is tighter. It also has a sportier interior, with firm-fitting seats and gauges to help monitor performance. The company changed its marketing to focus more on the car's style and handling.
"It's not a Ferrari, but it's got a much more sporty characteristic," Carter said.
A base Camry starts at $21,995. The sport edition has a starting price of $23,220.
The SE is pulling in younger buyers because it allows them to buy a practical, reliable car with a little more style, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for the Edmunds.com automotive website.
"It's a compromise of wanting to buy something that's dependable but still not wanting to look so much like a middle-age person's car," she said.
The Camry, with its low-cost, sport, luxury and gas-electric hybrid models, appeals to a wide range of buyers, Caldwell said.
But Toyota is going to have a hard time keeping the Camry on top. Competitors are launching their own revamped midsize sedans, the biggest segment of the U.S. auto market. Nissan is selling a competitive new Altima, and Chevrolet has the Malibu in showrooms. Later this year, Ford will come out with a reworked Fusion and a stylish new version of the Honda Accord is in the works.
Carter concedes that the competition will only get tougher for Camry, but he says Toyota is determined to keep it No. 1.
"There's a lot of great product coming to market, which is good for consumers," he said. "We will absolutely continue as the most popular car in America for 2012."