Toyota’s U.S. sales still were in the red in September, down 17.5% on a daily basis vs. year-ago, WardsAuto data shows.

But the auto maker says it is moving in the right direction, calling for year-on-year increases from October forward due to bigger-than-forecast boosts in fourth-quarter production and new product.

“Hopefully, what we’re communicating is the sense of a little spring in our step,” Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div., tells media today in a conference call to discuss September results.

Last month’s tally of 121,451 represents Toyota’s second-best monthly performance since April, when a consistent sales depression began following March’s debilitating Japan earthquake and tsunami.

August was Toyota’s best U.S. sales month since the quake, with 129,482 units.

Toyota’s plants in Cambridge, ON, Canada, and San Antonio returned to 100% capacity in September, which Carter says was two months ahead of plan.

Carter credits Toyota’s manufacturing system, as well as its distribution network and dealers, for keeping sales from falling to even worse levels over the summer, given the Toyota Div.’s vehicle availability was down more than 40% from year-ago.

Toyota closed out September with roughly 120,000 units in dealer stock, for a less than 30-day supply of passenger cars and slightly above 30-days’ supply of light trucks.

Toyota received a shipment of its popular Prius hybrid, which saw its September sales fall to 18.2%, at the end of last month. The auto maker now has a 20-day supply, the highest Prius inventory in almost a year, Carter says.

Toyota will launch the Prius V wagon variant this month in the U.S.

The auto maker sold about 1,500 new ’12 Camrys last week and early results are promising, Carter says, adding the Entune infotainment system is proving to be more popular than expected, as are higher trim levels the SE and XLE.

He says Toyota plans to wholesale 35,000 new Camrys this month.

The rare models posting increases in September include the Land Cruiser SUV, increasing 21.1%; Scion tC, soaring 78.6%; and Lexus IS and non-hybrid LS model lines, rising 3.8% and 2.6%, respectively.

While Lexus sales were uneven, climbing 8.9% on the passenger-car side but falling 30.4% on the light-truck side, brand General Manager Mark Templin says a poor September performance was expected due to the ’11 model-year sell-down.

In the fourth-quarter there will be 40% more Lexus RX cross/utility vehicles built in Ontario, Canada, than was planned before the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Carter expects the seasonally adjusted annual rate to be about 13 million units when all auto makers finish reporting today.

Also, Toyota sees its initial industry forecast of 12.5 million units for 2011 being hit or exceeded.

“Auto sales continue to be one of the few economic bright spots,” he says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com