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Toyota slips to third place place behind Ford

A year that started badly for Toyota also ended badly. In December 2010, sales of Toyota brand vehicles dropped 5.9 percent from the same month in 2009. The decline put Toyota's total, 12-month vehicle sales for 2010 nearly a half percent lower than 2009 sales – a dismal performance for a major brand in a year in which total U.S. vehicle sales rose 11 percent. Toyota's overall rank among U.S. car companies slipped to third place in 2010, dropping below Ford for the first time in four years.

The best news for Toyota in the opening days of 2011 was that at least 2010 had ended. Early in 2010 the company struggled and stumbled through a recall crisis that dinged its once-stellar image in the United States. When the year closed, vehicle sales by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. were basically even with their 2009 level – hardly an achievement, since 2009 had been one of the worst years for the auto industry in recent memory.

After about three decades of steady and impressive growth, the company saw its position in the U.S. auto market drop from second to third place, behind General Motors and Ford Motor Co. Previously, Toyota had out-sold Ford in the United States since 2006.

Just a couple of years earlier, the company was on a trajectory to overtake even GM, which would have made Toyota the number one motor-vehicle retailer in America.

Combining sales of the Toyota, Scion, and Lexus brands, Toyota Motor Sales saw its vehicle placements drop 5.5 percent in December 2010. The company reported monthly sales of 177,488 vehicles, compared to 187,860 during the same month of 2009. That brought the company's full-year sales total to 1,763,595 vehicles for 2010, or 0.4 percent lower than its 2009 tally of 1,770,149 cars, pickups and sport-utilities.

But the situation looks even worse when you separate the Toyota division from the company's Lexus luxury brand. Lexus saw respectable growth in 2010, moving 229,329 vehicles, a growth rate of 6.2 percent from 2009's figure of 215,975. Lexus still under-performed compared to the auto-industry's overall growth rate of 11.1 percent. But its increase at least was enough to lift Toyota's overall corporate performance.

Eliminating Lexus, the Toyota division – which includes Toyota and Scion brand vehicles – saw vehicle sales drop 1.3 percent for the year. The division's 2010 tally was 1,534,226, a 19,948-unit drop from 2009.

For the month of December – an upbeat month for U.S. car sales in general – Toyota division registered a 5.9 percent fall off in sales. The brand moved 149,928 vehicles in December 2010, compared to 159,295 in December 2009.

For the full year, Toyota's Scion line of small, youth-oriented autos experienced a substantial decline in popularity. The three models in the Scion stable, which are the Scion tC Scion xB, and Scion xD, saw a combined drop in sales of 21.2 percent. In 2010, consumers purchased 45,678 Scions, compared to 57,958 purchases the prior year.

Among vehicles wearing the Toyota badge, passenger cars suffered the largest losses in 2010. Sales of the economical, sub-compact Toyota Yaris dropped by 37.1 percent, to 40,076 units in 2010 from 63,743 in 2009. Next in decline was the Toyota Venza wagon. Its annual sales dropped 13.0 percent for the year, reaching 47,321 in 2010 from 54,410 the prior year.

Toyota's high-volume performers, the Toyota Camry and Toyota Corolla, saw popularity fall 8.1 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively.

The Toyota Prius hybrid – the top-selling gasoline/electric hybrid-drive vehicle in America – managed a very small gain for the year. Toyota announced 2010 Prius sales at 140,928 units, up 0.9 percent from 2009's 12-month total of 139,682.

The brand could take some solace from its truck sales, which includes SUVs and crossover utility vehicles. While Toyota's large size, low-volume SUVs, the Land Cruiser and Sequoia, saw a year-to-year decrease in sales, every other vehicle in the truck category experienced healthy increases.

The Toyota 4Runner was the largest percentage gainer, rising by 136.5 percent, to 46,531 units in 2010. Sales of the popular RAV4 compact crossover picked up by 21,789 units, or 14.6 percent in 2010. Its 12-month sales totaled 170,877 in 2010. Sales of the Toyota Sienna minivan grew 17.0 percent, reaching 98,337 total units. The retro and rugged Toyota FJ Cruiser saw a 25.3 percent increase, reaching 14,959 in 2010.

Encouragingly, the Toyota Tundra full-size pickup truck gained a solid, 17.5 percent in popularity, reaching 93,309 in total sales for 2010, from 79,385 the prior year.

Overall, Toyota division light-truck sales increased by 14.4 percent in 2010. Clearly for Toyota, the looming challenge for 2011 is to mimic that success on the passenger-car side of its business.