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The Big (Detroit) 3 are back on top, with nudge from Fiat

The Big 3 are back. Though maybe not for long.

The top of September’s U.S. sales chart would look fairly routine to anyone who was asleep for the past decade and plans to spend this weekend browsing dealer ads in the Sunday newspaper for a good deal on a new PT Cruiser.

No. 1: General Motors.

No. 2: Ford Motor Co.

No. 3: Chrysler Group.

You know, just like it’s always been.

Except that, as all of us who’ve canceled our AOL dial-up accounts know, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. has had a firm grasp on that third spot since 2006, occasionally supplanting Ford as No. 2. The only time since then that Chrysler has slipped back into the top three was the summer after Japan’s big earthquake and tsunami in 2011. After spending three months in fourth place, Toyota patted Chrysler on the head and sent it back to the kids’ table as soon as dealerships were able to restock.

This time, there’s no tsunami to explain the fact that Chrysler sold 2,611 more vehicles than Toyota. There is, however, Fiat.

Without Fiat’s 3,360 September sales, Chrysler would have wound up a day late and a euro short.

Toyota has been hurt by the declining popularity of small and midsize cars, segments that it dominates, as consumers flock to crossovers and SUVs, which are a strength for Chrysler. Executives today also noted that Toyota delivered about 10,000 fewer vehicles to fleet customers last month.

On the year, Toyota maintains a lead of more than 238,000 units. Whether Chrysler will be able to supplant Toyota in future months remains to be seen. The task will be tougher in October, when dealers will have a new version of the Camry, its top-selling nameplate.

Chrysler clawed its way to third place with the industry’s highest incentives, while Toyota’s discounts, though higher than they used to be, are still nearly $1,500 per unit lower than Chrysler’s. That gives Toyota more room to maneuver as it copes with the shift from sedans.

The fact that the Camry ran away with last year’s midsize sedan sales title after facing stiff competition early on shows that Toyota can flex its muscles when it senses a challenge to its standing in the market.

“I have a hard time believing Toyota is going to be OK with falling to No. 4 in the industry,” said Larry Dominique, TrueCar’s executive vice president for industry solutions.

Toyota’s drop to fourth place comes after it spent July and August in second place, overtaking Ford.

Chrysler, meanwhile, has now posted year-over-year increases for 54 consecutive months. It’s an impressive streak that becomes harder to maintain as the numbers continue to climb higher, and as growth in the overall market slows.

Regardless of when the streak ends or what Toyota does now, Chrysler can enjoy its return to third place for one month at least. It can thank Fiat -- not only for those 3,360 September sales, but for keeping it from going the way of the PT Cruiser, back when third place seemed too far away to ever reach again.

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