For the first time since it entered the U.S. auto market 40 years ago, Toyota has captured the coveted "No. 1" car title and the bragging rights that go with it.
Figures released Wednesday show that a last-minute sales blitz helped the company's Camry sedan beat Honda's Accord and Ford's once-mighty Taurus to become the nation's best-selling passenger car in 1997.
As usual, the title was won with help from a marketing push that included an intensive advertising campaign and cut-rate l0ease and interest rates--all designed to move cars at the cost of immediate profit. But industry analysts say winning usually is worth it in the long run.
"It gives credibility to the advertising claims," said Bob Schnorbus, director of automotive analysis for J.D. Power & Associates in Troy, Mich.
It also gives Toyota a competitive edge as the industry enters a year most analysts say will be marked by stiff competition for shares of a stagnant market.
Consumers are already expected to benefit from the slipping Japanese yen, which has lost 13% of its value against the dollar in the last year. The exchange rate gives Japanese car companies room to lower U.S. prices and still take home profits.
But deals could be sweetened with incentives and special promotions by car makers vying for the 1998 top-seller crown. In fact, Toyota is already advertising Camry as "America's favorite car" and will keep plugging it as "a quality car with a lot of value," said Dave Illingworth, Toyota division general manager.
And Honda plans to redouble efforts to recapture the top-seller title, which the Accord held from 1989 through 1991. Ford is also considering mounting a new campaign to win back the title for Taurus--which was the best-selling car from 1992 through 1996.
The annual race for the title usually helps dealers too, as special promotions pump up their sales figures.
"It is important to be No. 1, especially to dealers, because people like to be associated with a winner," said Ford spokesman Jim Bright.
For the first few years that Taurus held the top-seller spot, dealers saw increased traffic in their showrooms, he said. "And it has a halo effect on the whole line. People would come in to see the Taurus and some would leave in cars like the Escort or Contour."
Toyota dealers are sure to benefit the same way this year. Promoting the Camry as No. 1 "will bring more awareness and more people into our showrooms," said Norris Bishton, vice president of the Southern California Toyota Dealers Assn. and owner of Toyota of Garden Grove. "We expect to sell more cars because of it."
Los Angeles advertising consultant Willy Hopkins said that having the top car has another benefit: It helps motivate the car makers' employees and boosts corporate morale.
"There is an enormous amount of pride and respect for the team that accomplished this," he said.
Taking the top-seller title away from Ford was especially sweet for the Japanese car makers because while most Camrys and Accords are now made in the U.S., the companies still have a difficult time persuading buyers that they are, in fact, American cars.
"This will give them a platform to do that," said Wesley Brown, an automotive consultant with Nextrend in Thousand Oaks.
Still, Toyota's ad agency says the company hasn't yet decided how to use the top-car title. "We'll probably do something to politely and modestly remind people that it is the best-selling car in America," said Scott Gilbert, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles.
But others familiar with the company suggested that Toyota will want to make a big splash.
"I'm sure, come Super Bowl Sunday, there'll be big ads screaming about Toyota being No. 1," said Brown.
Previous Toyota ads have used images of awards won by the company, said Larry Kopald, chief creative officer of Think New Ideas in Los Angeles. Kopald, who previously created ads for Acura, said that while Toyota has won "incredible bragging rights," there is a downside.
"Buying a car is a rational decision, but it is also an emotional decision," he said. "The rational side wants peace of mind and security. The emotional side wants distinctiveness. Some people will ask, 'Do I really want to be one of the masses, driving what everybody else is driving?' "
A lot of people apparently do.
Bolstered by deals made during its annual December marketing push, Toyota sold 397,156 Camrys in 1997, an increase of nearly 11% for the year.
Carson-based American Honda Motor Corp. sold 384,609 Accords for a gain of 0.9%, while Ford Motor Co. saw Taurus sales plunge nearly 11% to 357,162.
Ford, though, dropped out of the race early last year when it became apparent that the Taurus would not be a contender without substantial price cutting.
Officials at Ford said the company saw a lot of benefit from Taurus' long reign as the top passenger car. But because the company spent much of 1997 reorganizing its lineup, it made a deliberate decision not to subsidize Taurus sales, said George Pipas, sales analysis manager for the Dearborn, Mich., car maker.
"Chasing the best-selling car title was getting in the way" of more pressing concerns, he said.
Honda officials said they would have been happier to come in first and suggested that Toyota's discounted fleet sales helped put it over the top.
"We gave it our best shot and came up a little short," said Honda division spokesman Art Garner. "When the numbers came in, we felt like we couldn't have done any better."
In all, Toyota sold 1.2 million cars and trucks in the U.S. last year, a 6.4% gain that kept it firmly ensconced as the top import car maker. Honda on Wednesday said it sold 940,383 cars and trucks, an 11.8% gain. General Motors Corp., the last of the domestic car makers to report sales, said it moved 4.7 million vehicles--almost a third of total U.S. sales of 15.2 million cars and trucks.
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Toyota's Camry became the best-selling car model in 1997, but cars still lag far behind the two top-selling truck models. The best-selling vehicles in 1997:
Vehicle 1997 sales % change from '96 Ford F-Series pickup 746,111 -4.1% Chevrolet C/K pickup 534,344 +1.7 Toyota Camry 397,156 +10.9 Honda Accord 384,609 +0.9 Ford Explorer 383,852 -4.4 Ford Taurus 357,162 -10.7 Dodge Ram pickup 350,257 -8.5 Honda Civic 315,546 +13.7 Ford Ranger 298,796 +3.9 Jeep Grand Cherokee 260,875 -6.3
Source: Autodata Corp.