Sept. Sales Show Toyota Nipping at Ford's Heels

After two years being a strong number two in auto sales in the U.S., Ford is finding its lead over number three dwindling. It raises the questions of whether Toyota will eventually reclaim the number two spot from Ford and whether this a case of Ford slipping or Toyota simply regaining its mojo.

Toyota Dealership
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Toyota Dealership

The answers remain to be seen, but from where I sit if Toyota retakes the number two spot from Ford it’s not because the U.S. automaker is slipping. Ford is a stronger, better positioned company than three years ago when it overtook Toyota . (Read More: GM, Chrysler Boost Sales in September; Ford Is Flat.)

Toyota's September Surge

Last month, Toyota (all brands including Lexus and Scion) sold 171,910 vehicles in the U.S. compared to Ford (including Lincoln), who sold 174,976.

The gap of 3,066 vehicles was considerably smaller than the average monthly gap between Ford and Toyota this year, which was 13,500 vehicles. Last year, following the production delays linked to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Ford’s monthly lead over Toyota reached as high as 83,000.

So why is Toyota closing the gap?

In part because the Japanese automaker now has a full line-up of vehicles to sell in Toyota and Lexus showrooms. They include refreshed models like the Camry and the expanded line of Prius hybrids. Ask Toyota dealers around the country and they will tell you they finally feel like they’ve got everything they need to truly compete. (Read More: Toyota Unplugs Electric Car Hype.)

Ford’s Brand Limitations

Another factor behind Toyota gaining ground on Ford is the Japanese automaker's huge advantage in luxury sales.

Year-to-date, the Lincoln brand sales have totaled 63,880 (down 1.5 percent) versus Lexus, which totaled 150,000 through August (up more than 24 percent).

While Lincoln remains stalled in the luxury market, Lexus is once again charging forward. It’s a huge reason behind Toyota picking up market share in the U.S.

Remember, the recall scandal of 2009 hit the Lexus brand hard. It tumbled from number one in luxury sales, while BMW and Mercedes jockeyed for the top spot.

Lexus is still a long ways from catching BMW and Mercedes, but it’s starting to get back in the game. The brand outsold BMW and Mercedes in August.

Meanwhile, Lincoln is bringing little to the table for Ford. For months, CEO Alan Mulally has said he is committed to growing Lincoln and making it a true competitor in the luxury arena, but we still haven’t seen it pan out. (Read More: Ford's CEO Transition Won't Change Its Biggest Problem.)

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau

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