At stake are more than bragging rights. The companies can tout the No. 1 status in advertisements. And the crown would add momentum to General Motors' comeback - or boost financially ailing Ford Motor Co.
Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power & Associates, said the race could come down to one vehicle: the redesigned 2003 Ford Expedition. Ford sold 178,045 Expeditions in 2001.
"We're not expecting a significant increase in sales for that product. But that ramp-up, as far as Ford goes, is probably more crucial than the Chevy ramp-ups" because Ford has fumbled the launches of sport-utilities, Schuster said.
Ford needs a quick, problem-free launch for the Expedition and other vehicles this year to maintain its sales momentum, he said.
Also on Ford's launch schedule this year is the re-engineered 2003 Crown Victoria and the mildly restyled 2003 Ranger. And while Ford's sales numbers will be helped by a full year of production for the popular Explorer and the Thunderbird, the automaker is phasing out the Escort sedan, a car that last year accounted for approximately 46,000 units.
In addition, Ford is wrestling with declining sales for the Focus, Taurus and its bread and butter, the F-series pickup, all of which are long in the tooth.
Ford vows to fight for the title.
"It is obvious that Ford wants to maintain their leadership position," said dealer Dick Heaton, owner of Conway Heaton Inc. in Bardstown, Ky. "It is rare that we have large incentives on best-selling vehicles such as F-series light-duty and SuperCrew. That tells me that Ford is serious."
In the Cincinnati region, Ford is offering a $2,500 incentive or 0 percent financing on light-duty F-series; $2,000 or 0 percent financing on the Ford Ranger; and $1,000 or 0 percent on the SuperCrew through April 1, Heaton said.
"The Ford brand has been the No. 1 brand in America for 15 years and we expect it to be for 16 years," said Susan Krusel, Ford spokeswoman.
"We've got the availability of the product and we've got the right marketing and incentive support to help drive sales," Krusel said.