Toyota has likely surpassed Ford as the world's No. 2 automaker behind General Motors, a change in ranking that reflects the steady erosion of U.S. companies' dominance of an industry they have led since its inception.
Preliminary figures released by Toyota Motor Corp. on Friday showed worldwide sales for 2003 reached 6.78-million vehicles, up 9.9 percent from 6.17-million the previous year. On Thursday, Ford Motor Co. said its 2003 sales slipped to 6.72-million vehicles, down 3.6 percent from 6.97-million the year before.
If figures don't change when Toyota releases a final sales tally Monday, its jump ahead of Ford will be official. General Motors Corp. and Ford were the front runners for decades, virtually since mass production of cars began in the early 1900s. Ford celebrated its 100th year in business in June.
The change in status is a milestone but comes as no surprise to industry officials, given Toyota's steady gains in North America and elsewhere in recent years and a product lineup that has grown from primarily small economy models in the 1970s and '80s to a portfolio with pickups, sport-utility vehicles and luxury offerings.
"The fortunes of individual automakers go through cycles," said Van Bussmann, former corporate economist at Chrysler Corp. and now senior vice president for global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates.
"One of the remarkable features of Toyota's performance in the last decade or so is, they've made steady gains throughout the world," he said. "Their quality and reliability is world renowned, and I suspect their financial and product strength will propel them to further gains."
Though Japan's economy remains stuck in a slump that has lasted a decade, Toyota is coming off record earnings on strong export sales. Its U.S. arm said this month that U.S. sales rose 6.3 percent last year to more than 1.8-million vehicles _ the best performance in its 46-year history. For the second year in a row and the sixth time in the past seven years, Toyota's Camry was America's best-selling car.
Toyota's record year also increased its market share to an all-time high of 11.2 percent and established Japan's No. 1 automaker as the best-selling car brand in the United States, leaping ahead of Ford and Chevrolet for the first time.
America's Big Three automakers all saw their U.S. market shares decline in 2003 _ GM to 28 percent, Ford to 19.5 percent and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group to 12.8 percent.
Toyota spokesman Shinya Matsumoto characterized his company's sales as an "indicator" of rising customer satisfaction but played down the comparison with Ford.
Sales figures do not include vehicles sold by affiliates in which an automaker holds a stake of less than 50 percent, Matsumoto said.
Adding sales by Mazda Motor Corp. _ which is 33 percent owned by Ford _ to the total of the Dearborn, Mich., automaker would make it larger than Toyota, he said. Mazda sold 1.02-million vehicles in its most recent fiscal year.
Toyota's sales results include those for truck and bus maker Hino Motors and Daihatsu Motor Co. Toyota owns 51.1 percent of Daihatsu and 50.1 percent of Hino. Ford's tally includes its brands Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover.
GM maintained its firm hold as the world's largest automaker in 2003 by selling 8.6-million vehicles _ a position analysts say it should keep for the foreseeable future because of its large global presence and aggressive strategies in emerging markets, such as China.
GM also leads in total revenue. It reported record revenue this week of $186.8-billion last year, while Ford reported revenue of $164.2-billion, up from $162.3-billion a year earlier. Both received major boosts from their financial services businesses.
Toyota ends its fiscal year March 31. A spokesman in New York said the automaker's total revenue last year was roughly $129-billion.
Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford has said in recent interviews that achieving sales, quality and other goals established in a continuing turnaround plan and returning the automaker to peak profitability is more important than worldwide volume rankings.
Ford reported a profit Thursday of nearly a half-billion dollars for 2003 after two years in which it lost a combined $6.4-billion.
Mike Wall, an analyst with the auto forecasting firm CSM Worldwide, said Bill Ford's perspective is one way to "put the best face on the situation, but that's really the way to look at it."
"There's a bunch of automakers who aren't No. 2, and some who are making a ton of money," he said. "Look at Nissan and Honda. Ford's focus on operations and hitting goals is well-advised and makes a lot of sense."
Jim Lynch, a Toyota dealer in the St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood, Mo., said the new ranking was impressive but he didn't see it having a big influence on his customers.
"I think the reason Toyota is growing so rapidly is they make a better motor car," Lynch said. "People have come to realize they don't break down as often and they don't have as many problems as other manufacturers."
Toyota Motor Corp. outsold Ford Motor Co. last year to become the world's No. 2 automaker behind General Motors Corp.
GM 8.53 8.60
FORD 6.97 6.72
TOYOTA 6.17-million 6.78
NOTE: Worldwide vehicle unit sales. Sales figures do no include vehicles sold by affiliates in which an automaker holds a state of less than 50 percent; Toyota's 2003 figure is an estimate.
SOURCE: The automakers