• Bloomberg

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Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., still struggling to deliver enough vehicles to dealers, lost share of the U.S. market as Nissan Motor Co. grew more than expected and industrywide sales were the best since April.

Toyota, held back by tight supplies of Prius hybrids and Tundra pickups, sold 17 percent fewer vehicles, reducing its share to 11.5 percent from 15.3 percent a year earlier, according to researcher Autodata Corp Monday. Honda’s 8 percent drop in deliveries cut its share by 1.7 points to 8.5 percent.

Inventory at Toyota was about 40 percent less at the beginning of the month than a year earlier, said Bob Carter, group vice president of U.S. sales. The automaker, Asia’s largest, returned to full production last month after output was disrupted by March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and supply of some models is recovering more slowly than anticipated.

“The worst is behind us, and we expect to exceed year-ago sales levels beginning in October with continued growth throughout the fourth quarter,” Carter said in a conference call Monday.

Output is rising at Toyota and Honda’s North American plants after being slowed for five months by parts shortages due to the March earthquake.

Nissan, with fewer suppliers affected, has said its North American plants have been at full output since about June. The Yokohama-based carmaker, Japan’s second-largest, boosted U.S. sales 25 percent last month from a year earlier.

Toyota and Honda “still don’t have quite the selection of vehicles needed,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Santa Monica, California-based Edmunds.com. “Their cars are being produced again, but you still have to have (the) selection consumers want. It will take time to get back to a normal level.”

Overall U.S. sales should benefit from rising inventory at Toyota and Honda dealerships, said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

“A complete inventory makes for stronger sales overall,” Taylor said. “There’s pent-up demand, and it’s based on need, not necessarily on discretionary consumption.”

Japanese and South Korean automakers sold 445,891 new cars and trucks in the U.S. last month, up 0.9 percent from a year ago, trailing the 9.9 percent industrywide increase.

Toyota said sales of its Toyota, Lexus and Scion brand vehicles totaled 121,451 last month, down from 147,162 a year earlier. The carmaker’s 17 percent sales drop exceeded a 15 percent decline that was the average expectation of five analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

The company had more than a 20-day Prius supply at the start of October, the highest “I can remember,” Carter said.

At Honda, the 8 percent sales decline exceeded the 6.1 percent drop that was the average of five analyst estimates. Still, that was an improvement from the previous four months, when deliveries slid at least 20 percent for Honda.

The company is scheduling overtime shifts at U.S. assembly plants to rebuild inventory, Ron Lietzke, a spokesman, said Sept. 28.

“Predicting future sales is always risky, but supply of new vehicles is coming into dealerships,” John Mendel, Honda’s executive vice president of U.S. sales, said via email.

“We’re optimistic that our fourth-quarter sales will be back to normal levels and, given economic stability, we could exceed last year’s sales,” Mendel said.

Nissan’s 25 percent sales gain compared with the 18 percent average of five analyst estimates. The company said its Nissan-brand cars rose a combined 32 percent, led by the new Versa compact.

With vehicle production and inventory recovering for Toyota and Honda, the fourth quarter may be the year’s strongest for auto sales, said Al Castignetti, Nissan’s vice president of U.S. sales.

“Inventory levels for all manufacturers are going to get back to normal, and people who have been sitting on the fence are likely to get back in the market,” he said. “If we have another month like September, I’d say all bets are off.”

Nissan’s September market share gained 1.1 percentage points to 8.8 percent, according to Autodata. The company’s U.S. sales so far this year have risen 15 percent compared with declines of 8.9 percent for Toyota and 5.8 percent for Honda.

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