Toyota (TM -0.96%) said its U.S. sales rose 15% in September, on a surge in demand driven in part by hurricane recovery efforts, and partly by an all-new version of its most popular sedan.
Toyota's sales increase outpaced the 9.3% average estimate from Wall Street analysts polled by Bloomberg. It was the largest year-over-year increase in U.S. sales posted by any major automaker, a great result in what was a good month for many rivals.
Toyota even managed a feat that it only pulls off occasionally, one good for bragging rights: It out-sold Ford Motor Company (F -3.38%) to secure second place in the U.S. sales rankings for the month.
What's working for Toyota: SUVs and pickups, for starters
Several automakers posted big U.S. sales gains in September that were driven by strong demand for pickups and SUVs. Ford sold over 80,000 F-Series pickups last month, a huge number that helped it to a 9% overall sales gain. General Motors's (GM -5.05%) sales rose 12% on strong demand for its all-new line of crossover SUVs, products that are hitting the sweet spot of the market at the right time.
Like GM, Toyota did quite well with crossover SUVs. Toyota has been able to boost production of its compact RAV4 and midsize Highlander crossovers over the last year, and it's reaping the rewards now: Highlander sales rose 36% last month to over 20,000, and RAV4 sales jumped 44%, with an impressive 42,000 sold.
Toyota's full-size Tundra pickup doesn't sell in the kinds of volumes that its rivals from Ford and GM post month after month, but it's a profitable product with a loyal following. Demand has been good: Tundra sales rose 17% to over 11,000 in September.
Both here and abroad, Toyota does best in pickups with smaller models. Its popular Tacoma leads the midsize-pickup market segment in the U.S. Sales rose 15% last month with over 18,000 sold.
Something unusual: A sedan with rising sales
Across the industry, sales of midsize sedans have slipped over the last couple of years as more buyers have chosen crossover SUVs instead of the traditional family cars. But right now, Toyota is bucking that trend, thanks to its all-new 2018 Camry.
The new Camry preserves its predecessor's virtues -- plenty of room inside, good value for money, top safety ratings -- while adding a bit of sporty pizazz not historically associated with the model. The all-new Camry is lower-slung than the old car, with a sporty interior reminiscent of Audi designs, and more nimble handling thanks to improvements in Toyota's new-generation vehicle architecture, called TNGA.
"This month marked our first full-month of sales of the all-new 2018 Camry, outselling last year's total with a double-digit gain in volume," said Jack Hollis, the Toyota brand's U.S. general manager, noting that Camry sales rose 13% in September. "[It's] a testament to the positive reception we are receiving on its bold new styling and TNGA-based performance," he said.
But aside from the success of the Camry, Toyota's car models continue to struggle. As a group, Toyota-brand car sales rose just 1.4%, as the Camry and a tiny gain for the compact Corolla helped offset big drops in sales of the large Avalon sedan and Prius hybrids.
A mixed bag for Toyota's luxury brand
For the most part, Lexus sales followed the pattern set by Toyota: SUVs did well, cars didn't. As a group, sales of Lexus's car models fell 16%, with only the big, expensive, and slow-selling LS sedan posting a sales gain. Lexus SUVs did better with a gain of 12.9%, paced by just over 9,000 sales for the RX models (up 6% from a year ago).
Incentives and average transaction prices
Like most of its rivals, Toyota's spending on incentives has risen as the pace of sales has slowed this year. But it's still low in comparison to its peers. TrueCar estimates that Toyota spent an average of $2,786 per vehicle sold last month, up 5.5% from a year ago, but still just 9% of its average transaction price ($30,786).
Most of Toyota's mass-market rivals are spending over 10% of average transaction prices, with Nissan (16.3%) and Kia (17.2%) being the most aggressive spenders.
The takeaway for investors: Toyota is on course
Because Toyota reports its earnings in yen, its quarterly profit in the U.S. often depends as much on exchange-rate fluctuations (and its hedging efforts) as it does on sales.
That makes success hard to predict. But Toyota's U.S. dealers and sales team did their part in the third quarter. This was a very good sales result driven by the thing auto investors most like to see: High demand for strong products sold with minimal discounts.
We'll find out how that translates into profit when Toyota reports its quarterly result next month.