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Toyota and Honda miss auto industry's November sales wave

December 1, 2011 | 11:00 am

The new generation Toyota Camry helped Toyota's November auto sales.

While most automakers posted healthy gains in U.S. auto sales in November, Toyota and Honda, the Japanese giants of the industry, continued to struggle.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its sales rose 6.7% to 137,960 vehicles in November compared with the same month a year earlier. Honda Motor Co. sales fell 6.4% to 83,925 vehicles.

They continue to lose market share to domestic automakers and rivals from South Korea and Germany.

Ford Motor Co. said its November sales rose 13.3% to 166,865 vehicles compared with a year earlier. General Motors said its sales rose 6.9% to 180,402 vehicles. Chrysler Group said its sales rose 45% to 107,172 vehicles.

Hyundai Motor America said its sales rose 22% to 49,610 vehicles in November. Volkswagen of America said sales of its VW brand jumped 40.7% to 28,412 vehicles.

Nissan was the lone standout of the big Japanese brands with sales growing 19.4% in November to 85,182 vehicles.

Altogether, the industry sold vehicles at an annual sales pace of about 13.5 million units, the highest level since the 'cash for clunkers' stimulus program of August 2009.

To be sure, Toyota and Honda were snakebit by events out of their control.

The March earthquake and tsunami in Japan interrupted global production for both automakers and created inventory shortages for some of their most popular cars. More recently, flooding in Thailand has shut auto parts suppliers and also slowed manufacturing for both companies.

But Toyota and Honda also have made strategic mistakes that are hurting their U.S. sales, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with auto information company TrueCar.com.

With their most recent model redesigns “they are just being too safe in terms of vehicle styling. They are not taking the competition as seriously as they should,” Toprak said.

The latest generation of both companies’ best sellers -- Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Civic -- look too much like the older models and only the most “die-hard fans” would note any difference, Toprak said.

“The competition, like Hyundai, as well as the domestic brands are taking greater chances with their styling,” Toprak said.

That’s shown up in sales figures. Chevrolet has sold 215,000 units of its new Cruze subcompact car so far this year, more than double the Cobalt model that it replaced. This is first time that General Motors has had a popular alternative to the Civic and Toyota’s Corolla.

During the same period Hyundai’s Sonata mid-size sedan has become a strong competitor to the Camry and Honda Accord, Toprak said. The Sonata outsold the Accord 15,668 to 14,355 in November.

He said the latest generation Civic is an example of design complacency. The new version was panned in many reviews, including the influential Consumer Reports magazine that has previously given the Civic good marks.

Honda is now rushing to redesign the vehicle yet again.

Toyota and Honda also have been slow to react to changes in consumer attitudes.

Shoppers aren’t as loyal as they once were and they now have more choices in almost every segment of the market in which Toyota and Honda have historically been strong, Toprak said.

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-- Jerry Hirsch

Twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Photo: The 2012 Toyota Camry was little changed from the previous year's model, a factor in the carmakers' lackluster November sales, according to at least one analyst. Credit: Associated Press

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