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Big Three market share erodes again

The traditional Big Three automakers retained their positions atop the U.S. industry in 2004, but record years for Japanese carmakers helped them chip away further at Detroit's hold on the American automotive market.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the nation's two largest automakers, reported lower U.S. sales in 2004 despite an onslaught of new vehicles, while DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group rode the success of the popular Chrysler 300C sedan to the lone gain for the Big Three.

Meantime, the American arms of Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. sold more cars and trucks in the United States than ever before.

Toyota's U.S. division sold more than 2-million vehicles for the first time in its 47 years of existence as its sales grew 10 percent for the year. Business in December rose 18 percent.

Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit's Big Three, sold 146,000 more vehicles than Toyota last year. Chrysler's edge in 2003 was roughly 260,000.

"Our products have stimulated demand," said Yukitoshi Funo, president and chief executive of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

"The sales milestone is a reflection on the acceptance of products as varied as Scion, Sienna and Prius."

Honda's 30 percent rise in sales in December helped propel the automaker to its 11th straight year for a sales increase. With 1.4-million U.S. vehicle sales, Honda said business rose 3 percent in 2004.

Nissan North America, aided in part by full-year sales of its full-size Titan pickup and other new vehicles, said sales rose 23.7 percent for the year and 32.7 percent in December.

GM's business declined 1.4 percent in 2004, a disappointment given its industry-leading 29 vehicle introductions. Car sales were down 3.7 percent; truck sales rose less than 1 percent.

Two bright spots were Chevrolet and Cadillac, two brands that received billion-dollar infusions in recent years to increase offerings and appeal. Chevy had its best year since 1988, Cadillac its best since 1990.

Chevy also made considerable progress against Ford in the battle for America's top-selling brand, but Ford retained the distinction for the 18th straight year.

GM's sales for December fell roughly 7 percent, with losses on the car and truck sides.

"For the year as a whole, we came up a bit short," said Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis. "We certainly have been talking about that as the year played out. We did see a stronger second half. However, that couldn't fully offset the weak start we had in the first half."

No. 2 Ford's U.S. sales fell 4.9 percent for the year and 3.6 percent in December, the 10th monthly decline of 2004.

Ford said sales of its Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars rose nearly 1 percent in December, helped by late-year arrivals such as the next-generation Ford Mustang and its new flagship sedan, the Ford Five Hundred.

Ford's retail car sales rose on a monthly basis for the first time since January 2003, said Ford's top sales analyst, George Pipas.

"It's just one month, but it's very encouraging to see car sales improve as we filled the pipeline with the products we introduced in October and November," Pipas said.

But truck sales fell 5 percent in December.

For the year, car sales were off 14 percent, despite Ford's "Year of the Car" promotion.

Truck sales fell slightly less than 1 percent for the year, but Ford's F-Series lineup retained its position as America's bestselling vehicle for the 23rd straight year.

Truck sales include pickups, vans and sport utility vehicles.

Another high point: Ford set an industry record for full-size pickup sales in 2004, breaking its mark of three years ago.

All percentages are adjusted and based on the daily sales rate. There were 27 selling days last month and 26 in December 2003. There also was one extra selling day for 2004 vs. 2003.