DETROIT (AP) – Toyota Motor Corp. continued to gobble up market share in 2006, passing DaimlerChrysler AG as the No. 3 U.S. auto seller for the first time during a full calendar year.

In sales figures announced yesterday, 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 percent, up from 13.3 percent at the end of 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.

Industry analysts say the Japanese automaker benefited from its reputation for quality and fuel efficiency as gasoline prices sent consumers fleeing to cars from trucks and sport utility vehicles during much of the year.

Industrywide, U.S. sales dropped 2.6 percent for the year to about 16.5 million from just under 17 million in 2005, Autodata said.

Ford Motor Co. was able to hold off Toyota and keep its title of No. 2 for 2006 and for the month of December. Ford ended the year with 16.4 percent of the U.S. market, and it has forecast a 14 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,” said Joe Barker, senior manager of global sales forecasting for CSM Worldwide, an automotive forecasting firm in Northville.

Ford repeatedly 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 the year and is in the midst of a major restructuring plan to shrink its factory capacity to match lower consumer demand.

Ford sales dropped nearly 13 percent in December compared with December of last year, and they were off 8 percent for the year at about 2.9 million vehicles. Ford attributed the decline to a drop in truck and sport utility vehicle sales and the end of production for the Taurus sedan.

DaimlerChrysler, including the Chrysler Group and Mercedes-Benz, saw a 1 percent U.S. sales decline last month due largely to a dip in Mercedes sales. Chrysler’s sales rose 1 percent, but Mercedes sales dropped 10 percent in December when compared with the same month of 2005.

For the full year, DaimlerChrysler’s sales were down 5 percent to more than 2.39 million compared with 2005. Chrysler was off 7 percent while Mercedes was up 11 percent.

Ford sold a total of 231,900 light vehicles in December, with Toyota just below the Dearborn-based automaker at 228,322. But Toyota’s sales for the month continued to increase, up more than 12 percent compared with December of last year.

General Motors Corp., the world’s largest automaker, reported December sales fell 13 percent, and its sales for the year dropped 8.7 percent compared to last year. Its market share was 24.3 percent for the year, with just over 4 million vehicles sold.

Jesse Toprak, chief economist for, a research website for car buyers, said that of the major automakers, only Honda and Toyota saw increased market share.

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