HALF MOON BAY, CA – A seventh-generation version of the Toyota Camry, the best-selling passenger car in the U.S., is due for a fall launch, a top company official confirms.

"We haven't announced the next-gen Camry, (but) I will tell you (the current) Camry is very close to the end of its lifecycle, and a fall introduction is a pretty good educated guess," Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div. tells Ward's during a Prius V event here.

Carter denies there has been a model delay, before or after Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. “There has been no significant change to our plans,” he says. “Any adjustments I've made have been a matter of days, not weeks."

Toyota sold 327,804 Camrys last year, the car's lowest tally since 1994, Ward's data shows.

The current-generation Camry debuted in March 2006 as an ’07 model, giving it a 5.5-year lifecycle, if the new model debuts in the fall as expected.

While that’s a longer span than ’80s and ’90s-era Camrys, it's on par with the last-generation model. It also is similar to the gap between the current and previous Honda Accord, the second-best-selling midsize sedan in the U.S.

However, Korea’s Hyundai and Kia brands have been more aggressive in their replacement schedules, with just four years between the current and last-generation Hyundai Sonata, for example.

The latest Sonata, along with Kia's new Optima midsize sedan, are considered by many industry watchers to be serious competitors to the leading Japanese models due to their highly styled exteriors and improved fuel economy.

Both the Sonata and Optima saw sharp sales increases through April, while Camry deliveries inched up by a slimmer margin and the Accord dipped slightly.

The Sonata sold 73,616 units in the first four months, up 46.4%, according to Ward’s data, while Optima deliveries numbered 22,087, up 81.4%. Camry sales reached 107,264, up 11.1%, while Accord deliveries slipped to 94,375, down 0.5%.

Although the Camry has been Toyota's long-time best-seller, company officials believe that honor eventually will go to the Prius hybrid, should gasoline prices remain high long-term.

“(The) Camry and Corolla defined the brand in the ’80s and ’90s,” Carter says. “In the 2000s, Camry has defined the brand. And when you get to the latter half of this decade, Prius will define the brand. That's where the customer is going.”

Regarding the Prius, Carter says Toyota will have 36,000 units in stock at U.S. Toyota dealers this summer to satisfy demand. That’s about 60%-70% of the typical summer inventory level for the car.

2011 U.S. Midsize Car Sales

While Prius sales rose through the year’s first four months, April U.S. deliveries slipped 4.3% due to the disruption in supply from Japan, where the car is assembled.

Prius production, which was halted for two weeks following the quake, has been running at 50% since late March but is expected to increase to 70% in June.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com