NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Will Detroit's Big Three soon have a Japanese member? Or will the nation's largest automakers soon be known as the Big Two, or maybe the Big Four?
Those are reasonable questions after August sales numbers showed Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the Toyota, Lexus and new Scion brands, surpassing Chrysler, the North American unit of German automaker DaimlerChrysler, that sells Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brand vehicles. In its best U.S. sales month ever, Toyota sold 200,482 vehicles, while Chrysler Group sales fell 6 percent to 190,388.
No one is suggesting that one month's worth of sales results reflect a permanent shift in the industry's rankings. In fact Chrysler, which recently increased its sales incentives, is likely to be back in front of Toyota when September sales numbers are released.
But a look at the numbers over the last decade clearly suggest that a reshuffling of the leaders in auto sales is coming soon.
As recently as 1997, Chrysler Group had more than twice the U.S. sales of Toyota. But that gap has been rapidly closing, as Toyota is heading for its eighth straight record U.S. sales year, while Chrysler Group has seen its U.S. sales slip steadily since hitting a high of 2.6 million in 1996. So far this year, sales figures show Toyota sales equaling about 86 percent of Chrysler Group sales.
Toyota cars have outsold Chrysler cars for some time, but Chrysler today is primarily a maker of pickups, minivans and sport/utility vehicles. More than three-quarters of its sales are in the so-called light truck segment, compared to just under half of Toyota sales in that sector.
But Toyota has been seeing its greatest market share gains in the light truck segment, often at Chrysler's expense. With a new minivan and the first double-cab version of its Tundra pickup truck out this model year, its gains are only expected to continue. Toyota is also rolling out a new brand, Scion, across the United States next year, which is expected to sell about 100,000 vehicles by 2005.
"I definitely think Toyota could beat out Chrysler Group as soon as next year," said David Lucas, analyst with Autodata, which tracks auto sales. "They are very aggressive and they're well managed. These new products are aimed directly at the domestic automakers."
Mike Flynn, an auto expert at the University of Michigan, said he thinks it may take until 2005 for Toyota to replace Chrysler as No. 3, adding that two other Japanese automakers -- Honda and Nissan, could also be challenging Chrysler's U.S. sales total soon.
It's a "lot less significant than it would have been 10 years ago," he said. "Toyota passing Chrysler doesn't mean Chrysler slides into oblivion. It just means they're back in the pack. It'll be a continuing dog fight between Toyota, Chrysler, Honda and maybe Nissan. It'll depend on who has one hot vehicle. One hit vehicle can make a tremendous difference for a company."
Chrysler officials noted that if U.S. sales from Mercedes Benz, the other major unit of parent DaimlerChrysler, were added to Chrysler Group in August, it would have topped Toyota's sales even in that month. And they say rankings and titles like the "Big Three" aren't quite as important as they used to be.
"It's becoming harder and harder to make that claim there's a 'Big Three'," said Chrysler spokesman Mike Aberlich. "We're a different company than we used to be -- we're not just Chrysler. With the global automotive world, it's no longer a neat package of Detroit over in this corner, everyone else in that corner. The significance is questionable what it means. All we can do is try to continue to grow profitably, that's what we're going to try to continue to do."
Bob Schnorbus, chief economist at J.D. Power & Associates, said losing the No. 3 ranking is less of a problem for Chrysler if it can get sales growing again -- even if it is overtaken by Toyota -- than if its sales continue to slide. But either way he believes it'll be hard but not impossible for Chrysler to hold off Toyota, given Toyota's better perceived vehicle quality among U.S. consumers.
J.D. Power's survey of vehicle dependability shows Chrysler and the other U.S. automakers narrowing the gap in terms of problems with vehicles, but it could take some time for that to change buyers' perceptions.
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"It takes a number of years to demonstrate that their durability is on par with Toyota or Honda," said Schnorbus. "There's always a chance they could turn it around, but I think it's going to be difficult over the next year or two."