An hour before the awards ceremony was set to begin, Toyota Korea was told that its Camry would be crowned the 2013 Korea Car of the Year, a stunning feat for a foreign brand.

According to the Korea Herald, it was unprecedented for an imported car to grab the honour and especially for Toyota which had stood resilient against the widespread doubt that had shrouded the release of the vehicle last January.

Toyota had pretty much known that its hybrid compact Prius would win the “green car” award, but did not expect the Camry to do so well, the report said.

Toyota Korea president Hisao Nakabayashi, who spoke in fluent Korean in his winning speeches for the Lexus GS and Prius in sub categories, asked to speak through an interpreter when the Camry was named as the year’s best car to more accurately relay his emotions, which ran quite high.

“I feel great honor to win this award. It is really unexpected,” he said, tearing up during the awarding ceremony held at a Seoul hotel. 

The Camry became the second most sold import car following BMW’s 520d sedan in 2012 and the award was in recognition of such achievements.

Hyundai Motor Group was caught by surprise at the Camry’s rise, industry watchers and insiders at the carmaker, told the Herald.

Since the Korea Car of the Year award was established by the Korea Automobile Journalist Association in 2010, Hyundai had swept the awards. In 2011, affiliate Kia Motors’ K5 took home the top prize, in 2012, it was Hyundai’s i40.

The humiliation for Hyundai was made more complete, some critics said, as Hyundai’s Santa Fe sport utility vehicle and BMW’s 3 Series were chosen for a “special award” to soothe them for having lost to the Camry by a “razor-thin margin”.

Having been tipped off about Toyota’s victory, no Hyundai officials attended the event.

“We are perplexed. It would been a lot better if a Korean brand won the top prize,” said a Hyundai official, declining to be named.

Toyota’s victory was more significant because it was so unanticipated, the paper said.

“When we pledged to sell 600 Camrys every month, scepticism was prevalent,” said Kim Sung-whan, a Toyota Korea spokesperson. “Toyota was not on the shopping list of Korean consumers at the time.”

To take advantage of the favorable won-dollar foreign exchange rate, Toyota imported all Camry vehicles for sale in Korea from the US. The Korea-US free trade pact helped keep prices down.

The Korean unit also started a TV commercial featuring actress Kim Tae-hee as a passenger, not a driver, to add a more affectionate image to the flagship classic sedan ? an idea that came from the Korean chief, Kim said.

One year later, the Camry was second only to BMW’s 520d sedan as the most sold imported car. In December, the Camry was the monthly top seller.

During the same period, Toyota’s car sales also soared, more than doubling to 10,795 last year from the 5,020 the company sold in 2011. Despite the strong presence of German carmakers in Korea, Toyota’s market share increased from 4.78% to 8.25%.

Japan’s national television channel NHK reported the awarding event on the scene, while the news was features on the front page of Yahoo Japan all day long.

The weakening Japanese yen is another positive factor for Japanese brands in Korea.

Toyota’s Kim told the Korea Herald the local unit has no plan to make major changes in its operation for now, including pricing policy.

“Toyota now produces much of its cars in overseas plants. The volatile currency would not affect our business policy in the short term,” he said, adding that the company would continue its offensive with US-made models such as the Avalon.

Hyundai, which is losing market share gradually to import brands at home, is also expected to step up efforts to respond to the sales recovery of Toyota and other Japanese carmakers this year.

“If the yen continues weakening, Japanese carmakers would import Japan-made cars as well as US-made models. That is likely to lead to price cuts,” said Lee Won-hee, Hyundai’s chief financial officer.

Hyundai that has already cut prices of flagship models, pledged to roll out Korea-exclusive models to better appeal to domestic demands, he said.