After posting a 31.4% drop in August, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. finds redemption in September, with deliveries rising 16.8% above year-ago on a daily-rate basis.

Toyota Div., which includes the Toyota and Scion brands, was the star of the month, with the luxury Lexus brand lagging year-ago due to declines for nearly all of its car lines.

Even light trucks, a strength for Lexus this year, fell from year-ago levels, thanks to an unusual decline in demand for its best-selling RX cross/utility vehicle. RX 350 deliveries slumped 10.7%, while RX 450h sales dipped 4.8%, Ward’s data shows.

Brian Smith, vice president-Lexus sales and dealer development, shrugs off the monthly dip and points out Lexus still is “well ahead” for the year, with sales up 9.2% through September.

He also dismisses talk of the perennial top-selling U.S. luxury brand being overtaken in 2010.

“It is a close race, and frankly we expected that. (But) I don’t think we’re going to lose leadership this year,” he tells media during a conference call today.

Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz currently is the No.1-selling luxury brand in the U.S. this year, with 165,000-plus deliveries vs. 162,000 for Lexus.

Bright spots for the Toyota brand last month included a 48.7% jump for the Yaris subcompact, which has been underperforming year-ago as of late, and the 26.6% increase in sales of the Camry Hybrid.

Toyota’s Prius hybrid-electric vehicle saw sales inch up 3.7% last month vs. like-2009.

Toyota’s light trucks rose a collective 34.9% in September, as all but the Venza CUV and Land Cruiser SUV posted gains from year-ago.

Sales of the redesigned Toyota 4Runner SUV rose a whopping 437.1% in September, while demand for the FJ Cruiser skyrocketed 244.8%. Still, both models remain two of Toyota’s lower-selling, with 2010 sales of 33,177 and 11,350, respectively.

The rise in light-truck sales this year, thanks to low fuel prices, won’t continue long term, says Bob Carter, Toyota Div. group vice president and general manager.

“It’s far too premature to say we’re seeing a long-term industry trend here,” he says, adding Toyota still is counting on buyers to flock to smaller, less-thirsty vehicles in the future.

Carter calls September overall a “very good month for Toyota and the industry” as Labor Day sales early in the month spurred demand. “It felt like 2006 again,” he says.

However, U.S. consumers still are a fragile bunch, as showroom traffic slowed in late September.

Carter says Toyota has not suffered severe damage from its recall scandal earlier this year, noting once again its loyalty numbers were at pre-January levels in September and competing models comprised 57% of all Toyota Div. trade-ins in the month.

Carter says Toyota Div. fleet sales again comprised less than 10% of its sales last month.

Toyota’s incentive spending is higher than traditional levels, but Carter says “it’s still an 11.8-million” industry.

Edmunds.com reports TMSUSA incentives rose slightly from August to September, $2,193 vs. $2,212.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com