Toyota continued to reap benefits from its fuel-efficient lineup in America as it closed on Ford's position as the second biggest car maker there.

The Japanese firm posted an industry-leading 20 per cent gain in vehicle sales last month, boosted by an increase in the light trucks sector traditionally dominated by the American Big Three of General Motors, Ford and the Chrysler arm of DaimlerChysler.

As usual, the Camry led Toyota's push, but smaller cars like the Corolla and the Yaris also performed well, the company said.

Toyota sold 222,950 vehicles in September, with car sales up by 18.4 per cent and truck sales soaring by 34.9 per cent.

"They're this 800-pound gorilla out there that nobody can stop," said Erich Merkle, an analyst with auto consulting company IRN.

Toyota's strong results represented the Japanese auto-maker's fifth consecutive double-digit percentage sales increase in the US market - the world's largest.

The increase in truck sales also gave some breathing room to Ford and Chrysler which have cut production and struggled to clear a backlog of unsold 2006 models.

Overall US vehicle sales slipped two per cent in September to 1.35 million vehicles, a figure which was pulled lower by a six per cent drop for car sales.

But sales of light trucks rose one per cent, lifting out of a downturn that began earlier this year in response to slowing house building and higher interest rates and petrol prices.

After rising above $3 per gallon this summer, US petrol prices tumbled in September, dropping to near $2.30 on average. Analysts and industry executives said that gave some truck buyers more confidence, although they cautioned against reading too much into a single month's results.

"What's happened is that those people that really needed a pickup or a big SUV, when they saw gas prices come down said this is the time to do it," said George Magliano, analyst with Global Insight.

GM reported a seven per cent sales drop, but said more profitable deals through dealers were up slightly and truck demand remained steady.

Buoyed by gains for its market-leading F-Series pickups and SUVs such as the Explorer, Ford eked out a one per cent rise in adjusted sales, its first monthly sales gain since January.

Ford's sales report was the first since it announced an aggressive cost-cutting programme, including the elimination of 14,000 jobs in September.

"I think it was a good month, but I don't think I would hang the word 'great' on it," said Ford sales analyst George Pipas.

"There are still some head winds out there - there's going to be a hangover from this year's gas prices for many months to come. And it's quite clear that the economy is slowing."

As reported in yesterday's Birmingham Post, sales at Ford subsidiary Jaguar were 46 per cent down at 2,135 cars while stablemate Land Rover was one per cent up on the month at 3,469.

Honda and Nissan, the fifth and sixth largest automakers in the American market, both posted lower sales.

Nissan sales were down nine per cent. Honda's overall sales dropped eight per cent, although its truck sales were up seven per cent.