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Big Three Boost US Market Share

A BIG THREE carmaker can claim victory in one of the toughest battles of the year. But the latest numbers show 1992 had little for anyone in the auto industry to cheer about.

Ford Motor Company did win the right to brag about making the best-selling passenger car in the country - the first time in four years a domestic model captured the top spot. Ford sold 409,751 Taurus midsized sedans in 1992, beating out Honda Motor Company's Accord. Honda sold 393,477 Accords, losing the best-seller title it had held for the previous three years. `That's good for Ford'

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"It means we're making products the American public likes. And I think that's good for Ford," says Ford general manager Ross Roberts.

The American public will hear a lot about the victory in the coming weeks. At a press conference in Detroit Wednesday, Mr. Roberts showed one in a series of commercials which will focus on Ford's sales leadership.

Will that make much of a difference?

David Davis, editor of the influential magazine, Automobile, says Ford's victory "doesn't change the automotive universe one bit. The hollow claim that `We're No. 1' only proves they're willing to give away the store."

Indeed, the two carmakers fought their battle with significant amounts of cash. Industry analysts estimate Ford spent $50 million on rebates and other incentives to lure customers into its showrooms. Buyers could ink a two-year lease on a fully equipped Taurus sedan for $248 a month plus a $1,500 downpayment. With a sticker price of $18,600, that same car normally carries a monthly lease payment of $320.

"Every day on the fax they sent over something saying `Sell Taurus. Sell Taurus,' " says Scott Runyan, general manager of Crown Ford, in Roswell, Ga. "This is probably the strongest effort I've seen for one car line."

Other analysts maintain the victory will pay off for Ford.

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"A lot of people care about who is No. 1," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "It symbolizes the comeback of the American car company. American products are far more competitive than they were a few years ago, when the Japanese had superior quality and fit-and-finish."

Ford is not the only one benefiting. The Chrysler Corporation has seen its sales surge with the introduction of new models such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the midsized L/H sedans.

Overall, the Big Three posted a 6.6 percent increase in combined car and truck sales last year compared with just 1.6 percent for the Japanese. Significantly, the domestic carmakers captured 72.5 percent of the United States motor vehicle market. That was an increase of 1.7 percentage points, one of the few gains by the Big Three since the late 1970s.

"It means we're going to have to work harder and do a better job to be successful," says J. Davis Illingworth, general manager of Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, during an appearance at the Detroit Auto Show.

Toyota's Lexus introduced its newest model, the GS300, Wednesday and Mr. Illingworth predicts it will boost division sales to more than 100,000 units this year, up from 92,000 in 1992.

But the Japanese have been playing a decidedly low-key role at this year's auto show, reflecting, perhaps, their concerns about trade tensions between the US and Japan.

The most significant introductions were staged by Chrysler. It unveiled a variety of new products that could translate into big increases in sales and earnings. Chrysler sees hot sales

Meanwhile, the No. 3 automaker predicts it will roughly triple its share of the full-sized pickup truck market with the new Dodge Ram. Sales are projected at 250,000 units a year, a significant increase considering the truck is likely to yield profits of more than $5,000 apiece.

Chrysler officials caution that overall sales are likely to grow much more slowly this year.

Combined US car and truck sales climbed a modest 5 percent to just under 13 million units last year. In fact, passenger car sales fell 0.7 percent, while light trucks, such as the Grand Cherokee, increased 12.6 percent.

Ford president Alexander Trotman says the industry will be hard-pressed to reach the 13.5 million mark in 1993 unless there is an unexpectedly strong surge in the US economy.

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