The Toyota Camry — America's best-selling car for three years in a row — looks like it will lose that title to the Honda Accord this year.

Toyota executives say that has more to do with their limiting Camry production supplies than with consumers liking the Accord more.

Toyota fell behind in the big race after the automaker limited production of 2001 model year Camrys. That's because a completely revamped '02 Camry went on sale in August. Toyota executives say they kept '01 production down because they didn't want to deal with an excessive inventory of the old model as they launched the new.

Through October, Accord sales were about 355,000 units, Camry sales about 328,000 units — a difference of 27,000 units. Toyota executives concede that margin will likely hold through the rest of the year.

Toyota is trying to take the loss in stride.

“Being number one is important in the corporate culture. But a successful launch of the 2002 Camry is more important — and also makes more financial sense,” says Ernest J. Bastien, a marketing manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

He says that if Toyota hadn't limited production of '01 models, they would be competing with the '02 models at the dealerships.

He explains, “We didn't want dealers flooded with '01s at a time when we wanted to be launching the '02s. If dealers were concentrating on clearing out a big '01 stock, it wouldn't give the '02 launch the velocity you need.

“If we put dealers in that situation, it would just piss them off and we'd stumble out of the gate with the '02s.”

Toyota all but sold out its '01 stock of Camrys, using a $700 incentive. Honda offered 1.5% financing on the '01 Accord.

Mr. Bastien says Toyota estimated it would have 12,000 of '01 models to sell down at the time of the August model change-over. Instead it had only 800 units, he says.

For the 2002 model year race that's underway, Accord and Camry are neck and neck with 35,492 units and 34,819 units sold, respectively.

Toyota executives say the Camry has the edge this year because the completely revamped model offers significant improvements over its predecessor.

The Honda gets an overhaul for 2003.