Toyota Camry Retakes U.S. Lead as Asia Brands Rebound

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry, the top-selling U.S. car for 12 years, retook its lead last month and helped the company beat analysts’ estimates as most Asia-based carmakers posted gains amid milder weather.

Camry posted an 11 percent sales increase, moving it ahead of Nissan Motor Co.’s Altima in March and the quarter. Toyota’s total sales rose 4.9 percent, topping the 1.3 percent average estimate, while Nissan’s grew 8.3 percent and exceeded projections for little change from a year earlier.

“Some of that pent-up demand that built up over the past couple of months, when the weather was bad, finally started to come back into the market in March,” said Alec Gutierrez, industry analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “It gives us more confidence the market can continue recovering this year.”

Camry’s ability to retain its U.S. car sales lead has been tested as competitive new mid-size models from Ford Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and Nissan add to a traditional rivalry with Honda Motor Co.’s Accord. Signaling how seriously the world’s largest automaker views its rivals, Toyota will unveil a modified Camry at the New York Auto Show this month.

Combined sales for Japanese and South Korean carmakers rose 5.2 percent amid industrywide growth of 5.7 percent, according to Autodata Corp., beating estimates for a 2.1 percent gain. The rebound in March followed lackluster deliveries in January and February, when unusually severe winter storms curbed sales in parts of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest.

Shares Gain

Toyota climbed 1.5 percent to 5,899 yen as of the 11:30 a.m. break in Tokyo trading, compared with the 1.2 percent advance by the benchmark Topix Index. Honda rose 2.5 percent and Nissan increased 2.1 percent.

Gains for the industry were led by light truck deliveries, up 11 percent last month, while car sales grew only 1 percent, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata.

Among U.S.-based automakers, General Motors Co.’s sales rose 4.1 percent, Ford reported a 3.3 percent increase and Chrysler Group LLC said its deliveries gained 13 percent.

Toyota sold 215,348 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles last month, compared with a 205,342 a year earlier. Camry, the top-selling U.S. car since 2002, moved ahead of Nissan’s Altima in March after its rival led in sales through February.

Toyota’s Corolla small car, revamped last year, moved ahead of Honda’s Civic to become the market’s best-selling small car so far this year. Still, sales of the model at 29,685 were 5.5 percent lower than in March 2013.

Refreshed Camry

“Solid March sales pushed first-quarter industry results ahead of last year’s pace despite one of the harshest winters on record,” Bill Fay, Toyota’s U.S. group vice president, said in a statement yesterday. “Toyota dealers had their two best sales weekends of the year late in the month, and we’re optimistic that momentum will spring us into April.”

Camry demand is improving as the Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker prepares to show a refreshed version of the sedan in New York. The car that debuts on April 16 “will challenge conventional expectations of a mid-cycle model change,” Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister said last week, without elaborating.

Toyota’s market share was 14 percent last month, little changed from 14.1 percent a year ago, according to Autodata.

Honda’s U.S. sales dropped 2 percent and Hyundai’s fell 1.9 percent, the sole declines among Asia-based automakers in March.

Accord Declines

Honda, based in Tokyo, sold 133,318 Honda and Acura models in March, down from 136,038 a year ago. The decline was led by a 7 percent drop in sales of Accord, traditionally the second-best-selling car after Camry. In the first quarter, Accord fell to third place, behind Camry and Altima.

The company’s CR-V crossover was a bright spot, with sales up 6.5 percent. Sales of premium Acura models also rose 11 percent on a surge in deliveries of MDX and RDX sport-utility vehicles.

“I don’t think it’s anything product-related for Honda, but its strengths, in mid-size and small cars, are also an area where the competition has gotten really intense,” Gutierrez said.

Honda’s market share shrank to 8.7 percent from 9.4 percent a year ago, ranking it sixth in total U.S. sales volume this year behind Nissan.

Nissan Crossovers

Nissan’s deliveries of 149,136 Nissan and Infiniti vehicles in March helped the Yokohama, Japan-based company post a 13 percent increase for its fiscal year, said Fred Diaz, senior vice president for U.S. sales, by telephone. Gains in the month were led by light trucks, including the Rogue, Murano and Juke, as well as the Altima, he said.

“Rogue was just on fire and crossover sales are definitely helping to drive our growth year to date,” Diaz said in an interview yesterday.

Kelley Blue Book’s Gutierrez said Nissan’s gains coincided with increased incentive spending by the carmaker. The Irvine, California-based pricing and data service estimates the carmaker’s average transaction price dropped 3.1 percent from a year earlier to $27,697. By comparison, Honda’s average price rose 4.3 percent from a year ago to $28,454 and Toyota’s was 2.3 percent higher, according to Kelley Blue Book.

“Our per year vehicle unit spend was down $600 versus March last year, so we spent less to get it done,” Diaz said. “We didn’t juice anything additionally to get us there.”

Nissan’s market share was 9.7 percent in March, up from 9.5 percent a year ago, according to Autodata.

Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors Corp., South Korea’s two biggest automakers, sold a combined 121,782 vehicles last month, a 3.7 percent increase. The average of seven analysts’ estimates was for a drop of 2.6 percent. Hyundai, based in Seoul, reported a 1.9 percent decline in sales to 67,005, while Kia said its deliveries grew 12 percent to 54,777.

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru brand continued its gains, posting a 21 percent sales increase in March. Mazda Motor Corp.’s deliveries grew 9 percent and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. reported a 70 percent gain.

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