Since May, Japan's Big 2 have been hemorrhaging U.S. sales as they dig out from the Japan earthquake and Thai flooding.
In November, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. finally broke the pattern, adding inventory and recording its first sales increase in seven months.
With Toyota's return to growth, U.S. light-vehicle sales jumped 14 percent and the market roared to its best monthly selling rate since cash for clunkers in August 2009.
Toyota's breakout left American Honda as the only monthly loser among major players, down 6 percent.
The 2011 sales races have gone topsy-turvy. In November, American Honda finished seventh, down from No. 4 last November. Passing it: Chrysler Group, Hyundai-Kia and Nissan.
Year to date, Chrysler has blown past Honda for No. 4, and Hyundai-Kia has closed from a quarter million behind Honda last year to only 5,027 units going into December.
Low fuel prices helped trucks gain faster than cars. And sales executives are predicting more growth going into 2012.
Sizzling Jeep and Chrysler-brand cars led Chrysler Group to a 45 percent gain to lead the parade of November winners.
Industrywide, sales of 994,786 units, the best November since 2007, were enough to push the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate to 13.6 million, up from 13.3 million in October.
As Toyota group replenishes dealer stocks and rolls out new models, Toyota brand boss Bob Carter is anticipating more market gains. He announced a $239 lease deal and other incentives on the new-generation Camry, the first spiffs on the 2012 model since it was introduced in September.
"I've been waiting to say this for seven months," Carter said. "For the first time since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted worldwide automotive production, Toyota sales were up last month."
Carter said Toyota's November momentum will continue because production is running normally and U.S. dealer inventory rose 30,000 units during the month.
Toyota is heavily advertising its annual Toyotathon sales event, which runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 this year, he said.
Gordon Stewart, owner of Hoover Toyota in Hoover, Ala., said he started November with just a 24-day supply of stock. Now, he said, "We have extremely adequate inventory on hand, and December looks like it will be a great month."
Dealer Bob LaRiche of LaRiche Toyota-Subaru in Findlay, Ohio, said he has "really good stock this month" after running as low as a 20-day supply in the summer.
"We're back to filling up my storage lot," he said. "I'm a little low on trucks, but I'll get seven more in a few days."
In November, Hyundai-Kia Automotive jumped 29 percent and Nissan North America 19 percent. A 20 percent gain by Ford brand carried Ford Motor Co. to 13 percent growth. Both General Motors and Toyota-Lexus rose 7 percent.
Despite economic uncertainty in the United States and Europe, sales bosses are bullish for 2012.
Three straight months of SAARs above 13 million are "not an aberration," said Ford's U.S. sales boss Ken Czubay: "We believe replacement demand will continue to support stronger levels in 2012."
Honda's dealer stocks remain abnormally low. Components from Thailand dried up in that country's massive flooding, cutting Honda's production as it was still recovering from Japan's earthquake disaster in March. American Honda doesn't expect to reach normal inventory until the first quarter.
Once again, falling fuel prices lifted light-truck sales. Sales of pickups, SUVs and other light trucks grew 16 percent for the month, outpacing the 12 percent gain for cars. Through 11 months, light-truck sales grew 15 percent; cars, 7 percent.
Last week, the U.S. unemployment level dropped to 8.6 percent after months at or above 9 percent, consumer confidence increased, and the U.S. stock market rallied as fears about European debt abated.
Jesse Toprak, vice president of TrueCar.com, said November's auto sales surge "sets up a strong finish to the year and a solid start to 2012."
He expects 2011 sales to reach 12.8 million, up 10 percent from 2010. He projects 2012 sales up a million to 13.8 million.
GM's U.S. sales boss Don Johnson said Toyota's inventory-fueled rise in November will stimulate the overall market for a month or two.
"As we go into 2012, I think competition will get back to a steady state," Johnson said. "I don't expect anything dramatic or unusual to happen."
Toyota's Carter is more upbeat.
"With consumer confidence making its biggest jump in eight years, we look for the industry to continue its recovery through December and pick up steam in 2012," he said. Toyota "is in an excellent position to take advantage of this rebounding marketplace."
Bradford Wernle and Mike Colias contributed to this report