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By Mac Gordon

This year opened on a welcome note for Ford, boosting its car and truck sales 4.2 percent after an extended downturn, while GM and Chrysler Group lost ground in January by 2.1 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, reflecting a ‘payback’ for the lofty rate achieved in December. But the foreign brands scored the biggest surprise, edging past the 40-percent market share threshold for the first time in history — despite the brisk pace of incentives for domestic makes carried over into the new year.

The so-called ‘imports’ racked up 40.8 percent of the January total of nearly 1.1 million vehicle sales. That happened even though Toyota suffered a rare decline from a year ago, tumbling 5.7 percent to 119,329 units, or an 11-percent share. On the upside were Honda, rising 6 percent to a January record of 90,003 sales, followed by Nissan, up 1.2 percent to 55,209.

Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are embroiled in an auto show-stealing new-product spree, and together they now account for an unprecedented 25 percent of the U.S. market — one vehicle out of every four sold. All three, moreover, are adding capacity in North America, and no industry watcher would be surprised to see the Japanese Big Three draw closer to the one-out-of-three mark as their new and expanded plants go on line in places like Alabama (Honda), Mississippi (Nissan) and Texas (Toyota). With one-quarter of the U.S. market, the Japanese Big Three outgunned Ford’s 22.2 percent last month and nearly caught GM’s 26.8 percent. They outsold GM in cars, 159,307 to 144,475 and outsold DaimlerChrysler in light trucks, 106,804 to 96,728.

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