LOS ANGELES -- For years, industry watchers trembled at the idea that Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. could pass Chrysler Group in annual sales and somehow ruin the glory that was the “Big Three” in the U.S. market.
Once that happened in 2006, the sea changes have come fast and furious. Toyota likely will maintain its lead over Ford Motor Co. this year, and other Asian brands are solidifying market share gains in this down market.
But the underlying thought was that it was still Toyota against the Detroit 3. That will change in a month, with the fait accompli of American Honda passing Chrysler Group to become the No. 4 automaker in the United States.
Through November, American Honda had sold 1.044 million units, holding a 200,000-unit lead over Chrysler. At this time last year, Chrysler led Honda by 21,000 units and squeaked out a 25,000-unit victory at year's end. There is no chance for Chrysler to throw a Hail Mary this time.
Chrysler spokeswoman Kathy Graham said the company is aware that it has fallen behind Honda in sales but said Chrysler officials think the situation is temporary.
“We are taking the steps that are necessary to have a good foundation and to build consumer confidence,” she said. Graham said Chrysler's increased ad spending, which started last month, should help shore up sales.
“We are on the right path. There will be short-term pain to get to our long-term goals,” she said.
John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president, said no celebrations are planned to mark passing Chrysler.
“We only look at our sales and our objective,” Mendel said. “We may look at Civic and Corolla or Accord and Camry, but not at who ranks where.”
But as politicians ponder the pouring of billions of taxpayer dollars into rescuing Chrysler, getting passed by Honda might confirm some cynics' belief that Chrysler is beyond saving. But Mendel disagrees, saying the current recession has thrown everyone's sales numbers into confusion.
“We are all in the same hospital, and some of us are more critical than others,” he said. “Everyone is hurting. We cut Formula One. We cut 200,000 units of production. It was the right thing to do, but it was painful.”
He added: “Either you pay in production cuts, increased fleet sales or increased incentives, but everyone is paying right now.”