Keep your eyes on this month's Camry-Altima race

Just 205 car sales separated the nation's best-selling car, the Toyota Camry, from the year's unexpected challenger, the Nissan Altima, last month.

It is as close as Nissan has ever come to America's No. 1 car crown, a position that has been dominated seemingly forever by the Camry, or the Honda Accord, or the old Ford Taurus. In past years, the Altima has placed farther down the list.

The next 10 or so days will determine whether October 2011 was simply an anomalous narrow miss for the Altima. Why? Because the Altima has arrived at its striking-distance position in part through the sweat and toil of Nissan's U.S. sales management, but also thanks to unusual circumstance: The March earthquake in Japan brought down Toyota's Camry output while Nissan was able to quickly restore production.

The result? October Camry sales – 22,043. October Altima sales – 21,838. As they say in horse racing, a nose.

Will the Nissan Altima, coming down the assembly line in Smyrna, Tenn., catch the Camry this month in U.S. sales? Photo credit: NISSAN

Have no doubt that Nissan dealers are pouring on the steam to push past Camry in November, and there are now less than two weeks left in the month – Black Friday included – to pull it off.


First, Toyota is no longer hampered by earthquake problems. And a newly restyled Camry is now reaching Toyota dealers in full volume.

And second, a bigger problem for Nissan is that Toyota has more American factory capacity for the Camry than Nissan has for the Altima. In other words, all things being equal in consumer demand, Toyota can put more units onto dealer lots than Nissan.

But that, too, is subject to change. Nissan is currently hiring 1,000 workers for its big Altima plant in Tennessee. It was widely assumed that this would be the workforce that will build the new Nissan Leaf and its battery packs late next year. But not so, Nissan clarifies. These thousand new workers are coming in to help Nissan "meet growing demand" – Altimas included.

In short, November may or may not prove to be the month that the Altima snatches the Camry's crown, depending on how sales go. But Nissan is serious about reaching for it.

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