The month also had one more selling day than July 2000. Adjusted for the extra sales day, sales were flat.
Unadjusted for the extra day, light-vehicle sales rose 3.2 percent to 542,816 and medium- and large-sized cars posted their first gain since September.
Sales of 660cc minivehicles slipped 2.5 percent from a strong month a year earlier. It still was the fifth-best sales month ever for minis.
Import sales rose 5.1 percent to 23,185, led by German brands.
Honda Motor Co. had a breakaway month as strong sales of its minivans and the new Fit subcompact pushed sales up 19.9 percent. It was the only major carmaker to post a double-digit increase. Sales of the Fit, launched in June, totaled 16,588, making it Japan's third-highest selling vehicle in July.
On the other hand, Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s sales slid 17.1 percent as the company continued to struggle with the lingering effects of a recall scandal nearly a year ago. The Airtrek sport wagon, launched in June, sold only 3,139 units against a monthly sales target of 5,000.
Mitsubishi's only other new model due this calendar year is a minivehicle, which should go on sale in October, about the time of the Tokyo auto show.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s WiLL VS, launched in April as the second in the line of WiLL models aimed at attracting younger buyers, appears to be running out of steam. Toyota sold only 767 WiLL VS cars in July, down from 1,343 in June and well below its monthly target of 1,500. The original WiLL Vi, with the same sales target, sold 266 in July.
Overall, though, Toyota's sales rose 2.8 percent from a year earlier to 166,542. Nissan Motor Co.'s sales rose 7.8 percent from a particularly weak month a year earlier to 72,520.