Toyota gains badly needed momentum in the first month of the year, with U.S. sales climbing 7.5%, compared with year-ago, to 124,540 units.

The January increase largely was due to the Camry, whose deliveries soared 51.4% to 26,179 units.

Despite the dramatic increase, Camry sales “could have been better,” Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div., says in a conference call with reporters and analysts.

Sales of the entry-level Camry SE drove demand, he says, noting the model has drawn down the average age of a Camry buyer to 45. If Toyota had more SEs to sell, Carter says he’s confident deliveries would have climbed higher. It is a problem the auto maker intends to rectify.

Toyota plans to modify the Camry production mix, with 40% of all units built to be the SE model. “We’re going from about an 8% SE mix from the previous generation,” he says.

Carter expects the Camry will get a further boost as the featured vehicle in two new television commercials to run during the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, the first time in three years Toyota has advertised in the game that typically draws 110 million viewers.

Camry will follow up the football event by serving as the pace car for the Daytona 500 race on Feb. 26.

In contrast, another perennial hot-seller for Toyota, the Corolla, disappointed in January, with an 8.6% drop in sales to 17,522 units. Carter is not concerned, noting most marketing efforts currently are focused on the Camry and Prius family of hybrid-electric vehicles.

“(The) Corolla is an important part of our business, but we’re staying focused where the new products are at the time,” he says.

The Tacoma small pickup helped make up for the Corolla’s January slump, with deliveries jumping 24.6% to 8,898 units. Carter says Toyota plans to increase production of the truck at its San Antonio plant.

The extra output will come at the expense of the Tundra fullsize pickup, also built at the facility. Tundra sales fell 9.4% last month to 5,512. Demand for both trucks remains strong, Carter insists. Dealers are clamoring for “anything with a pickup bed.”

As soon as Tacoma inventories are brought up to the necessary level, focus will turn to the Tundra. “We have flexibility coming out of San Antonio to do a 60/40 mix either way,” he says. “Right now, the 60 is Tacoma. But don’t expect that to last all year.”

Toyota’s Lexus luxury division didn’t fare well in January. Despite a 9.1% rise in car sales to 6,069 units, truck deliveries tumbled 14.9% to 6,205. The top-selling Lexus model on a volume basis was the RX350, though sales were down 13.7% to 4,285.

Mark Templin, group vice president and general manager-Lexus Div., says production now is back to normal following inventory disruptions caused by Japan’s March tsunami and flooding in Thailand later in the year.

Lexus will be featured in its first-ever Super Bowl ad, which will focus on the “new look” of the marque, Templin says.

Upcoming Lexus models, including the new GS and LX, will offer a new emotional design and improved driving dynamics that will “elevate the customer experience even more,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com