updated 1/4/2007 9:46:09 AM ET 2007-01-04T14:46:09

The list of the 10 top-selling vehicles for 2006 pretty much tells the story of why Toyota Motor Corp. passed DaimlerChrysler AG as the No. 3 auto seller in the U.S. for 2006.

Toyota took the third spot for a full calendar year for the first time, according to sales figures released by the auto companies Wednesday, with its Camry and Corolla models securing the third and fourth spots on the top-10 list by posting strong growth for the year.

Chrysler’s Dodge Ram pickup was in fifth place and its Dodge Caravan minivan was 10th, but both declined in sales and were outsold by the two Toyota cars as consumers spent much of the year shifting to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles due to high gasoline prices.

“Toyota’s on a roll right now that’s unprecedented in recent years,” said Joe Barker, senior manager of global sales forecasting for CSM Worldwide, an automotive forecasting firm in Northville. “It’s going to take blunders from Toyota to slow Toyota. It’s hard to envision Toyota slowing anytime over the next few years.”

Toyota, which includes the Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands, ended the year with 15.4 percent of the U.S. automotive market compared to DaimlerChrysler’s 13.3 percent, according to Autodata Inc.

Toyota’s market share rose more than 2 percentage points, from 13.3 percent last year. The company had its best year ever in 2006, with sales up 12.9 percent for the year at more than 2.5 million vehicles.

The growth came while industrywide, U.S. light vehicle sales dropped 2.6 percent last year to about 16.5 million from just under 17 million in 2005, Autodata said. With total sales dropping, Toyota’s gains came at the expense of other manufacturers.

Burnham Securities analyst David Healy said the reason for Toyota’s success can be boiled down to one word: Product. Healy, like other analysts, said the Japanese automaker benefited from its reputation for quality and fuel efficiency.

Toyota also has worked to learn U.S. consumer tastes as it has shifted more production to the U.S., Healy said.

“Toyota’s drive, I think, to becoming an American company has given them a feel for this market over the years that can’t be beat,” he said.

Ford Motor Co. was able to hold off Toyota and keep its title of No. 2 for 2006 after Toyota’s sales surpassed Ford’s for the first time in July and again in November.

Ford ended the year with 16.4 percent of the U.S. market, and it has forecast a 14 percent to 15 percent market share for the next several years. That means Ford almost certainly will be passed by Toyota as No. 2 sometime next year.

“They’ve got a lot of momentum going into 2007, and we don’t see the momentum slowing anytime soon,” Barker said of Toyota.

Ford has said it is not focused on keeping market share, but rather wants to sell cars at a profit. The company lost $7 billion during the first three quarters of 2006 and is in the midst of a major restructuring plan to shrink its factory capacity to match lower consumer demand.

Ford sales were off 8 percent for the year at about 2.9 million vehicles, with the company attributing the decline to a drop in truck and sport utility vehicle sales and the end of production for the Taurus sedan.

Ford sold a total of 231,900 light vehicles in December, down nearly 13 percent from the same month in 2005. Toyota was just behind the Dearborn-based automaker at 228,322, but Toyota’s sales for the month increased, up more than 12 percent compared with December 2005.

DaimlerChrysler, including Chrysler Group and Mercedes-Benz, saw last year’s sales drop 5 percent to more than 2.39 million compared with 2005. Chrysler was off 7 percent while Mercedes was up 11 percent.

In an effort to boost sales, Chrysler on Wednesday announced low-rate financing on some products and up to $5,000 in incentives on selected 2007 models.

Steven Landry, Chrysler Group’s vice president for sales and field operations, said during a conference call that the company’s new products are selling well. Jeep Wrangler models, for instance, saw a 61 percent sales increase over December 2005, he said.

General Motors Corp., the world’s largest automaker, reported Wednesday that its sales dropped 8.7 percent for the year to just over 4 million vehicles. Its market share slipped to 24.3 percent.

GM’s skid was led by a nearly 19 percent decline in truck sales, while its car sales were off 1.6 percent.

Ford’s decline for the month was led by the F-Series pickup, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., whose 2006 sales were down 11.7 percent to 796,039, compared with 901,463 in 2005.

The company has said that softness in housing construction and higher fuel prices were responsible for the sales decline.

If the F-Series doesn’t recover, it spells serious trouble for Ford later this year even though it has some new products in the pipeline and its Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ midsize cars are selling well, said Jesse Toprak, senior economist for the Edmunds.com auto research Web site.

“They must have healthy F-150 sales in order to survive in the long term,” he said.

Honda Motor Co. said its sales for the year grew 3.2 percent to 1.5 million vehicles. Its market share rose from 8.6 percent last year to 9.1 percent this year.

Nissan Motor Co., which includes the Nissan and Infiniti brands, saw a sales decline of about 5 percent in 2006. The company sold just over 1 million vehicles last year, finishing with 6.2 percent of the market, a slight decline.

GM shares fell $1.27 to close at $29.45 and Ford shares finished unchanged at $7.51 on the New York Stock Exchange, while Toyota’s U.S. shares rose 99 cents to end at $135.30 and DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. shares rose 62 cents to settle at $62.03.

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