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Toyota's February sales slump

DETROIT — Toyota's pain is its rivals' gain.

All major automakers but Toyota reported higher U.S. sales in February, and most took customers from their powerful Japanese competitor, which has been struggling with a series of massive safety recalls.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its U.S. sales fell 9 percent last month, while Ford, GM, Nissan, Honda and Hyundai all reported double-digit growth compared with February 2009, in the depths of the recession.

The gains may have been even higher without the blizzards that paralyzed the East Coast.

Other winners included Kia Motors Corp. and Subaru. Even struggling Chrysler Group saw improvement. Toyota, by contrast, suspended sales of eight popular models in late January; it spent last week answering questions from Congress about its safety record.

"We feel we're getting our fair share of the Toyota business," said Susan Docherty, vice president for marketing at GM, whose sales rose nearly 12 percent.

February was the first full month since Toyota's Jan. 26 decision to halt sales of some of its vehicles in the U.S. because of safety concerns. Those vehicles went on sale again as dealers repaired them, but Toyota's image suffered from the recall of millions of vehicles and congressional hearings on its safety record.

On Tuesday, Toyota unveiled a host of new deals to lure back buyers and reassure existing customers. Existing Toyota owners who buy another vehicle from the company will receive two years of free maintenance, Toyota said. The automaker will also offer zero-percent financing and low-priced leases to customers who buy or lease several of the recalled vehicles, including Corollas, Camrys and Avalons.

The offers will last through April 5, Toyota said. They also will be part of an ad blitz featuring real customers who recently bought Toyota vehicles.

"This will be our most far reaching program we've ever conducted at Toyota," said Bob Carter, a Toyota group vice president, during a conference call with reporters.

Ford Motor Co. posted a 43 percent jump in February U.S. auto sales and outsold General Motors Co. for the first time in nearly a dozen years as it grabbed customers from struggling Toyota. Ford sold 334 more cars than GM in the U.S. for the first time since August 1998, when GM was in the midst of a strike.

Chrysler, for example, said its February sales rose half a percent, its first year-over-year monthly increase since December of 2007. The company credited strong fleet sales, but it would not release a number. Car sales rose 38 percent, but truck sales dived 28 percent.

Hyundai Motor Co. said its sales rose 11 percent, driven by sales of the new Tucson small SUV, which more than doubled. The company's redesigned Sonata midsize car saw sales rise 58 percent.

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