LOS ANGELES - The Toyota Camry, more than 5,000 units ahead of archrival Honda Accord on Nov. 1 and nearly 23,500 units ahead of the Ford Taurus, appears to be headed for its second straight title as the nation's best-selling car.
With only one month left in 1998, Honda officials conceded last week that they are not inclined to mount the kind of massive push that would be needed to overcome Camry's lead.
'I'd like to say we're going to be No. 1, but for me to spend $40 million to $60 million to try to win just doesn't make good business sense,' said Dick Colliver, executive vice president of Honda Division.
'I'm not saying we're not going to try, but it's difficult to overcome being 5,000 units behind.'
Automotive News estimates Ford spent $115 million in late-year incentives when the Taurus wrested the car sales title from the Accord in 1992.
Despite the lead, limits on inventory and production will keep Camry from winning in a walkaway, Toyota officials say.
'Being No. 1 would be icing on the cake, but we have to bake the cake first,' said Don Esmond, Toyota Division general manager.
'I have to look at Toyota's total sales. When Avalon and Sienna (built on the same Kentucky assembly line as Camry) are doing as well as they are, you have to make some decisions. If Camry were our top priority, we would have diverted some Avalon or Sienna production. But we aren't.'
Last year, the Accord was slow to leave the gate because of model-change retooling. Even so, Honda shaved a 40,000-unit lead for Camry in September down to 6,000 units on Dec. 1. But Toyota then unleashed a marketing barrage to win the title easily.
Not that Honda is throwing up its hands in surrender this year. Its assembly plants in Ohio are running two shifts plus overtime and three Saturdays a month to boost Honda's 30-day supply of Accords, Colliver said. Honda plants in Japan also are running full-tilt, he said.
As for importing Accords, Honda is getting about 5,000 Japan-built Accord LX four-cylinder models a month, as a one-for-one trade for building the platform-sharing Acura 3.2TL at Marysville, Ohio.
Those production schedules are set in stone, and American Honda cannot boost its imports, Colliver said. Nor can Honda ask Acura to slow down production of the 3.2TL, which is off to a brisk start.
On the marketing side, Honda will advertise a 36-month lease for $1,450 down plus $239 per month in December. But the lease involves no monetary or rate subvention from Honda, Colliver said.
WHY NOT COMPETE?
Honda's unwillingness to jump into the game dismays one California Honda dealer. 'In promoting the No. 1 retail sales car, they do it almost with their head bowed, like they've done something terrible,' said the dealer.
Conversely, Toyota has cranked up the incentive machine to get Camry and Camry Solara sales booming to finish the year.
According to Toyota incentive charts obtained by Automotive News, Toyota recently doubled the sales manager incentive and made it retroactive for the entire 1998 calendar year if managers hit their year-end targets.
Also, nearly every region has Camry incentives that include $500 to $750 in dealer or customer cash, waived security deposits or reduced money factors. One region has zero percent financing for a 24-month contract, another has 4.8 percent for 36 to 60 months. Southeast Toyota, for example, is offering a 39-month lease on the Camry LE, the Camry volume leader, for $999 down and $239 a month.
Esmond said Honda's pricing of the redesigned Accord last fall was much lower than its predecessor, which forced Toyota to offer incentives to be price-competitive.
Perhaps because of incentive-driven sales, Toyota has even less inventory than Honda, with a 26-day supply of the Camry and a 16-day supply of the Camry Solara, Esmond said. Since Camry shares assembly space with the equally hot Avalon and Sienna, Toyota is importing as many Japan-built Camrys as politically expedient.
Both makers could claim other victories should they lose the overall sales crown.
If Camry wins, Honda could still boast of having the best-selling car among individual buyers because Camry has a higher percentage of fleet sales. And Camry would be best-selling sedan, since nearly 60,000 Accords sold this year are coupes.
The mood at Honda will not be dour Jan. 1 if Accord doesn't win. If sales trends continue, Honda will outsell Toyota in total car sales for the first time since 1991. Also, combined Honda and Acura sales are on pace to break the 1 million mark for the first time.
Of course, all this could be moot if Ford unleashes another legendary December like it did in 1992, when it sold 65,000 Tauruses in one month through massive incentives and fleet sales.
That might be enough to overtake both Accord and Camry, which Taurus trailed by 23,423 units as of Nov. 1. Still, it would be safer to place a 'show' wager on Ford rather than buying an outright 'win' ticket.