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Toyota Camry: Can It Beat the Ford F-150?

After years as the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., the F-150—and other pickups—will soon cede top spots to cars like the Toyota Camry

Could the Toyota Camry become the best-selling vehicle in the U.S.? It could happen, if sales keep falling for large pickups, and cars keep climbing up the list of Top 10-selling vehicles.

The Camry is already the No. 1-selling car in the U.S. market and has been for 10 of the past 11 years. The one exception was Honda's (HMC) Accord in 2001, according to Automotive News. But for all that time, full-size pickups from General Motors (GM), Chrysler, and Ford (F) outsold the Camry and every other car by such a wide margin, it seemed that pickups could never be knocked from their perch.

Above it all, the Ford F-150 and its ancestors have been the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. for 26 years in a row, and the best-selling truck for 31 years in a row, according to George Pipas, Ford's U.S. sales analysis manager.

Closing the Gap

But as the big domestic pickups have fallen and Camry sales have slowly improved, the Camry has been closing the gap. For the month of April, the Camry outsold the perennial No. 2 overall, the Chevrolet Silverado, something that's never happened for a full year. The Camry has outsold the Dodge Ram pickup since 2006, at first by only a few hundred units in a full year, but this year by more than 50,000 after only four months.

Nobody until recently thought Toyota Motor (TM) would outsell General Motors worldwide, either, yet that happened last year.

In the U.S. market, gas prices, the housing meltdown, and changing consumer tastes have all combined to drag down sales of large pickups. The same high gas prices have made fuel-efficient cars more attractive, especially gasoline-electric hybrids like the Toyota Camry Hybrid. The hybrid model accounts for the entire 2008 improvement in Camry sales overall. The all-hybrid Toyota Prius isn't in the overall Top 10 yet, but it's knocking on the door, and it was a Top 10-selling car last year. On May 15, Toyota reported for the first time that it had sold more than 1 million Priuses.

As recently as 2004, the year gas prices started to spike, Ford sold more than 900,000 units of the F-Series pickup, outselling the Camry by more than 2-to-1. In 2008 the F-150 continues to outsell the Camry, but only by about 30% through April. That's still a lot, but if the present trend continues and the F-150 stays in free fall, those lines cross within the next couple of years, and the Camry will outsell the F-150.

Fighting for the Top

Ford is going to do everything it can to keep that from happening, starting with the launch of a redesigned F-150 this fall, for the 2009 model year. And Ford has had some success of its own in other product segments, including the revived Ford Focus small car, which has reached the Top 10-sellers list this year.

The Focus was redesigned last fall for the 2008 model year, just in time to take advantage of the U.S. market's move to small cars and away from big trucks. The trouble for Ford and its domestic rivals is that it takes several small cars to make up for the revenue and profits from one big pickup.

Besides the switch to smaller vehicles, consumers are opting for smaller, less powerful, more efficient, and less profitable engines as well, said Mark LaNeve, vice-president of GM North America vehicle sales, service, and marketing, in a May 1 conference call.

Small Is Beautiful?

"In the last few months, when a customer has a choice of a 4 [-cylinder] or a 6, a 6 or an 8, we've been seeing a shift to the smaller engine. It was particularly sharp in the month of April," he said. For instance, he said the 6-cylinder model mix is higher for the Cadillac STS.

LaNeve said GM would stick to its strategy of trying to keep a lid on incentives and fleet sales at the risk of losing market share. Ford has made similar comments. LaNeve said pricing for full-size pickups and SUVs is "inelastic." That suggests demand is so low that only the most drastic incentive would work, and GM doesn't want to go there.

"The full-size truck market seems very inelastic. We're not going to try and buy it [sales volume]. We're going to try and stay competitive as we can," LaNeve said.

"Two of our biggest segments are full-size pickups and SUVs. We've got great product, great brands, we're gaining share, and our dealers know how to sell them," he said. "But we're losing volume, and that makes our numbers tough."

Click here to see the best-selling cars and trucks in the U.S.

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