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GM, Ford, Toyota use deals to fight for top sales spot

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GM, Ford, Toyota use deals to fight for top sales spot



It ain't pretty, but the race for leadership in U.S. auto sales has turned into a fascinating neck-and-neck-and-neck tussle among General Motors, Ford and Toyota.

Like jockeys prodding their horses to speed up on a muddy track, the automakers used incentives to pull in customers in March, pushing sales to the highest level since the cash-for-clunkers rebates of last August.

GM sold 188,011 cars and light trucks last month, narrowly edging out Toyota (186,863) and Ford (183,425), as each of the three grabbed nearly 18% of the U.S. market.

Overall, the annual sales rate in March was about 12 million vehicles. That's better than the paltry rate of 9.8 million a year ago, but a far cry from the glory days of 1999-2007, when sales exceeded 16 million every year.

So it's still a struggle, but a very intriguing one for the three auto giants:

• Toyota, reeling from a wave of safety recalls and lawsuits, offered zero-percent loans on 10 models after its sales slumped 9% in February. The incentives worked: Toyota sales jumped 41% in March. But are Toyota's troubles over, or will safety issues continue to plague it?

• GM, still shuffling sales managers during its post-bankruptcy transition from eight brands to four, showed a 22% overall sales gain in March and said it continues to boost prices and profitability of its new vehicles.

• Ford continued its steady growth in market share, dating to the fall of 2008, when it began gaining sales momentum after not seeking the government rescue that led to bankruptcies and ownership changes for GM and Chrysler. Ford sales jumped 40% in March, as Ford extended zero-percent financing for 60 months on Focus, Fusion and Mercury Milan models that compete head-to-head with Toyota's Corolla and Camry.

Toyota, despite its travails in recent months, didn't hesitate to take a mild jab at its chief rivals, noting that Toyota dealers sold 40,000 more cars and trucks to individual retail customers in March than either GM or Ford. That's because GM and Ford sell more of their vehicles to rental-car and commercial fleets -- about 30% of total sales for GM and Ford, versus 10% for Toyota.

"We may have stumbled, but we didn't fall flat on our face," said Don Esmond, a Toyota senior vice president.

Total U.S. car and truck sales jumped to 1.07 million units in March, up 24.3% from a year ago -- but no, that does not mean happy days are here again for the industry.

Noting that February sales varied wildly from region to region because of erratic weather and March sales were aided by aggressive incentives, Ford chief economist Ellen Hughes-Cromwick warned against making too much of one month's results. Still she added, there is evidence that a slow, steady recovery is under way.

That, and the spirited race among Ford, Toyota and GM for the sales crown, will have to do for now.



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