Riding high on its image as a leader in fuel efficiency, Toyota Motor Corp. surpassed Ford Motor Co. in July to become, for the first time, the nation's No. 2 auto retailer.
Toyota's feat helped Asian-based automakers post their best showing ever, grabbing 41.4% of the U.S. passenger vehicle market in July.
General Motors Corp. held on to the top spot but the American car companies' collective market share dropped to a record low 52%, according to data reported Tuesday.
"Look at the trend over the past four years, and if you assume that all else remains the same, we believe Japanese automakers will be outselling domestics in the U.S. by 2014," said analyst Jesse Toprak of online auto information provider Edmunds.com in Santa Monica.
Analysts were divided, though, on whether Toyota's strong showing for the month was an anomaly driven largely by buyers' concerns over fuel prices, or the start of a new chapter for the leading Japanese automaker.
For the first seven months, Toyota remained in fourth place in the U.S. behind the three Detroit-area companies, although with a 10.1% sales gain that outstripped all other major automakers.
Honda Motor Co., typically No. 5 in the U.S., also vaulted ahead in July, overtaking DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group to capture fourth place in sales for the first time.
Toyota and its Lexus brand outsold Ford and its Lincoln and Mercury brands by 17,696 vehicles.
Honda and its Acura brand edged past the combined Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands by 1,455 vehicles.
Toyota has outsold Chrysler in several months in the last two years to take the No. 3 position in the U.S. In 2003 it passed Ford in global sales to become second in the world behind GM.
Most analysts believe Toyota could become the global leader by the end of this decade even if it doesn't surpass Ford in the U.S.
As Toyota's U.S. sales soared in July, the traditional Detroit Big Three automakers all fell sharply in comparison with year-earlier sales that were inflated by customer excitement over incentive plans that offered employee discounts to all buyers.
Only Chrysler was offering similar discounts this July, and they didn't help much as the carmaker's sales plunged 37.4% from year-earlier levels. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the weak performance of its employee discount incentive in July, Chrysler said Tuesday that it would extend the program through August.
Ford's sales were off nearly as much -- 35.3% -- and GM's fell by 22.2%.
"People are seeing that the employee discounts don't really offer that much of a bargain," analyst Toprak said.
GM, Ford and Chrysler also are heavily dependent on the large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles that buyers are avoiding as they turn to more fuel-efficient passenger cars and smaller SUVs, particularly the lighter, car-based "crossover" utility vehicle models such as Toyota's hot-selling RAV4.
Among large automakers, Toyota's 11.7% July gain from a year earlier, spurred by strong sales of its Corolla compact car and redesigned RAV4, was by far the largest.
The next biggest gains were recorded by Hyundai Motor Co., up 6.2%; Honda, 6%; and Mazda Motor Corp., 4.6%.
All three have several new models on the market, "and you consistently see a sales increase reward for innovation, for bringing out new models," said David Hilton, senior manager of the Detroit-based automotive practice at Capgemini, a global business consulting firm.
Nissan Motor Co., hurt by a lack of new models and falling sales of its full-size Titan pickup and Pathfinder and Armada SUVs, posted a 19.5% sales decline in July. Nissan executives have said that a portfolio of new and redesigned models to be launched through the second half of the year should boost the automaker's performance.
Industrywide, July sales of 1.49 million cars and trucks kept 2006 on track to remain among the 10 best years on record for passenger vehicle sales, analysts said.
American manufacturers accounted for 777,119 sales, Asian companies for 617,802 and Europeans for 98,157. Light trucks -- pickups, minivans and SUVs -- outpaced passenger cars to account for 52.1% of the month's sales. But the truck segment's share of the market is falling steadily as gasoline prices remain high.
Because of last year's heavy summer incentive programs and the consequent sales drop in the fall and early winter, "it won't make much sense to do month-to-month comparisons for the rest of this year," said Rebecca Lindland, auto industry analyst for Global Insight economic forecasting in Lexington, Mass.
The effects of gas prices also are skewing the sales picture right now: Suzuki Motor Corp., which makes only small, fuel-efficient cars and SUVs, posted a 12.7% gain in July that topped even Toyota. But Suzuki dealers sold just 8,030 vehicles for the month -- about one day's sales for Toyota.
"We'll have to wait for the end of the year and then look at the whole year compared to 2005," Lindland said, to really tell how the various automakers fared.
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Sales dropped sharply for U.S. automakers from July 2005, when discounts boosted sales.
*--* July sales % change YTD (In thousands from market of units) July '05 share GM 402.6 -22.2% 24.5% Toyota 241.8 +11.7 14.9 Ford 224.1 -35.3 17.0 Honda 151.8 +6.0 9.1 Chrysler Group 150.3 -37.4 13.0 Nissan 86.4 -19.5 6.1 Hyundai 47.2 +6.2 2.9 Kia 26.4 +1.4 1.8 Mazda 26.0 +4.6 1.7 VW 22.6 +5.0 1.4