Toyota is No. 3 in U.S. sales in 2006

It posts 12.5% rise as those of Big 3 fall

January 04, 2007|By John O'Dell | John O'Dell,Los Angeles Times

Storming along as if powered by a muscle-car engine perfected by its Detroit-area competitors, Toyota Motor Corp. surged into the top three in U.S. auto sales for 2006. In doing so, it blasted past Chrysler Group to end the year with a 12.5 percent annual sales gain.

Toyota's advance - a foregone conclusion after many months of finishing ahead of Chrysler - brought a symbolic end to the domestic automakers' grouping as the Big Three.

The Japanese company, riding high on the sales of fuel-efficient cars and small trucks, is on track to overtake Ford in U.S. sales this year.

"We exist in a global economy, and the American car companies just can't lead forever," said Alex Rosten, an analyst with Edmunds.com, an online automotive information provider. "The time for their North American dominance is over."

Americans bought 16.6 million new vehicles during the year, with light trucks - minivans, sport utility vehicles, crossovers and pickup trucks - making up 53 percent of the market.

There were a few surprises, analysts said, the biggest perhaps that truck sales remained strong despite high fuel prices. That's because crossovers, the newest truck category, are SUV-styled vehicles built on passenger car platforms for reduced weight and improved handling and fuel economy.

The year also was marked by a surge in small-car sales and a growing realization by U.S. automakers that the future lies in the development of alternative fuels and power plants to reduce dependence on crude oil.

General Motors Corp., buoyed by a line of redesigned large SUVs and the stepped-up introduction of several car models, remained in first place with sales of 4.03 million vehicles, 60 percent of them trucks. That was almost 400,000 fewer vehicles than GM sold in 2005, an 8.8 percent decline for the year.

Toyota's annual U.S. sales exceeded 2 1/2 million vehicles.

Ford Motor Co. ended 2006 in second place with sales of 2.72 million cars and light trucks, down 8 percent from a year earlier. Chrysler ended in fourth, with sales of 2.14 million vehicles, a 7 percent drop. Both companies were hit by sagging truck sales. Ford sales analyst George Pipas attributed a 21 percent December drop in sales of its flagship F-150 pickup largely to customer wariness over a soft housing market.

GM, Ford and Chrysler, a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG of Germany, all have suffered from a surplus of large vehicles that don't compete well in fuel economy with their Asian and European competition.

Other woes, including soaring health care and retiree benefit costs and expensive excess plant capacity, have prompted all three to re-examine their game plans.

GM and Ford have announced major reductions of their U.S. work forces and facilities as they strive to slash billions from their annual operating costs. Chrysler is undergoing an internal review expected to result in a significant restructuring to be announced early this year.

Toyota is on track to become the world's largest automaker by the end of the decade, replacing GM atop the heap as it skillfully manipulates its product lineups.

The U.S. companies saw their combined sales drop 8.1 percent for the year and their share of the U.S. passenger vehicle market fall to 53.7 percent, from 56.9 percent in 2005. Asian imports collectively gained almost 3 percentage points of market share, to end the year at 39.4 percent, and saw annual sales rise 5.1 percent.

Honda Motor Co., which boasts the most fuel-efficient lineup in the U.S., posted its best year with 1.51 million cars and trucks sold for an annual gain of 3.2 percent and a fifth-place finish.

Nissan Motor Co. rounded out the top six with sales of 1.08 million vehicles - a 5.3 percent decline brought about largely by dips in sales of its largest pickups and SUVs and a car lineup that stressed power and performance over fuel economy.

Suzuki Motor Corp. of Japan posted a 23 percent sales gain for the year, and South Korean automaker Kia Motors Corp. reported a 6.7 percent annual sales gain.

John O'Dell writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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