LOS ANGELES -- Toyota is spending a ton of money to nail down this year's U.S. brand sales race, but No. 2 Ford has seized the momentum.
So while Toyota is a sure thing in 2009, there's no guarantee about which brand will be on top in 2010.
Toyota is putting the finishing touches on a triumphant decade -- nearly doubling market share to 14.3 percent since 1999 and rising from fourth place to first. But a resurgent Ford is applying pressure, both in sales volume and all-important purchase consideration by probable buyers as measured by independent market research firms.
Compete Inc., a Massachusetts research firm that studies online car shopping, says Ford has surpassed Toyota in customer consideration for the first time since it began tracking such data in 2002.
"That's huge," says Lincoln Merrihew, Compete's automotive director. "Toyota is still strong, but Ford is breaking away, gradually gaining more share of market and getting more shoppers."
Ford was the top-selling U.S. brand for 19 out of 20 years -- until 2007, when Chevrolet grabbed the No. 1 spot, and Ford slipped to third. Toyota won for the first time in 2008 as Chevy dropped to second.
As part of its push to finish No. 1, Toyota launched its annual Toyotathon winter sale on Nov. 16, about two weeks earlier than usual. The estimated $500 to $600 million campaign, which includes national and regional advertising and incentives, all but assures Toyota will be No. 1 for the second straight year. But Ford is making up ground in more ways than one.
Although Toyota has outsold its rival this year by 58,249 units through November, Ford has cut sharply into the lead. After the first 11 months of 2008, Toyota led Ford, which then was in third place, by 164,334 units.
Also important for the future: Ford is closing the gap on quality.
"Ford has pretty much caught Toyota in quality, but it hasn't translated into customer perception yet," says Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive research for J.D. Power and Associates. "The big challenge for Toyota is that as quality gets closer, what is their differentiator? Toyota can't rely on that quality gap anymore to see them through."