BOSTON — The scramble for bragging rights to "bestselling car in the US" this year, turned out to be no tussle at all.
Toyota is set to take the title from Ford with its Camry, but neither company seems too worked up.
"It's going to be very nice if we end up No. 1," said Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt a few days before the final results were announced this morning. But he added, "we're not going to get there at all costs."
By the end of August, the Camry had sold 360,274 cars to the Taurus's 337,329.
For six years Ford had dominated the race with its hot-dogs-and-apple-pie Taurus.
Next year may tell a different tale, though, as a former title-holder looks for a comeback.
The all-new 1998 Honda Accord is bigger than Camry or Taurus. And Honda has taken aim squarely at the American market, designing this Accord specifically for American tastes.
"The new Accord is going to be much more competitive," says Bob Schnorbus, a market analyst at J.D. Power & Associates.
Honda has poured millions of dollars into launching this new Accord in an effort to regain the prize it last won in 1990.
The bestselling car crown "is very important to us," says Jennifer Garber, a Honda spokeswoman in New York. Honda's factory in Ohio is boosting capacity to crank out enough new Accords to take the prize, she says.
In the past, Honda has imported a few Accords to meet demand. But with this new model, Accords made in Japan will be smaller and not meant for American buyers.
"No. 1" has become an expensive title lately.
Honda and Toyota charge that Ford as retained the title for the past six years through big rebates and subsidized leases on the Taurus. The company also sold as many as half the cars to low-profit fleet buyers, including rental-car agencies.
That's why, Mr. Hoyt says, even if Camry hadn't won, Toyota dealers shouldn't have been upset. "They should all be making plenty of money on the car anyway."
Big winners: dealers
The main beneficiaries of the top-selling car title are local car dealers, who can use the advertising slogan to boost sales the next year.
Ford executives have said if they had wanted to buy the title again this year they could have. But that's no longer the company's priority, says Joel Pitcoff, a market analyst at Ford.
"We're not interested in individual model races," Mr. Pitcoff says, "we're interested in total profitability and the success of all model lines."
He notes that Ford can boast the bestselling vehicle overall, 12 years running (the full-size F-series pickup) and is the bestselling brand name.
The car market as a whole is weak compared with light-truck sales, says Mr. Schnorbus.
Last year, the new Taurus got close enough to No. 1 to bring the cost of going for it within Ford's budget, says a Ford executive. The company offered rebates up to $1,500 in August to boost year-end sales, and the car came away the winner for the sixth year.
But that won't happen in '97, even with the same incentives.
For the '97 model year, the fourth-generation Camry leapfrogged Taurus in value and sales. The car has more room and as many features as its predecessor, but costs $700 less - the most hyped price cut among several in the industry last year.
By the end of August, the Camry led by 23,000 sales.
By contrast, when Ford redesigned the Taurus for '96 it aimed at higher-income, younger buyers and introduced a car with more standard features and a higher base price by $2,200.
Critics called the car a failure - particularly in its objective to beat the Camry.
The Taurus's futuristic, ovoid styling has come in for particular criticism. But Ford stands behind the design.
"Taurus sales have not exactly fallen off the charts," says Ford spokesman Jim Cain. "Some people like it."
Schnorbus agrees, "The new Taurus is selling reasonably well."
Mr. Cain also defends fleet sales, noting that Ford has moved away from selling so many cars to daily rental companies. The rest of the fleet business is very competitive, he says. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Still, Honda points out that it has sold more Accords annually to consumers - not fleet buyers - than any other car since 1990 - and without big incentives.
"You won't see us putting big incentives on our cars like our competitors do, especially at the end of the model year," says Honda's Ms. Garber.
For 1998, Honda stretches the Accord from compact to mid-size, with more features and a lower price. Honda claims the Accord is larger inside than either the Camry or the Taurus.
Prices on top-of-the-line six-cylinder models are almost $2,000 less than the '97 model, and base models carry more features with about the same price.
In addition to different models for the US and Japan, Honda has developed a separate, rakish two-door coupe that doesn't look like the Accord sedan.
As with the Camry, the wagon has dropped out of the Accord lineup.
The four-cylinder Accords meet California's strict low emission vehicle (LEV) standard, and one meets the even tougher ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) standard.
In pollution-conscious California, with its bias for Japanese cars, that may be enough to push the Accord back on top.
10 TOP-SELLING, US VEHICLES*
1. Ford F-Series pickup
2. Chevrolet C/K pickup
3. Toyota Camry
4. Ford Explorer
5. Ford Taurus
6. Honda Accord
7. Dodge Ram
8. Honda Civic
9. Chevrolet Cavalier
10. Dodge Caravan
*Made in US; 1997 model year through Aug. 31.