New no. 1. Ford sales top GM, Toyota

Toyota Motor reported a 9% drop in U.S. sales in February from a year ago as the Japanese automaker continued to suffer from recall problems.

Meanwhile, rival Ford Motor vaulted ahead of Toyota and GM to claim the market lead in the U.S.

Sales were down for almost all of Toyota’s models. One notable exception was a 10% rise in sales of the Prius hybrid, which was recalled due to a problem with its brakes.

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Still, it did not appear that Toyota’s rivals were able to take complete advantage of Toyota’s troubles.

While Ford reported a 43% increase in U.S. sales in February, much of the gain was due to a 74% jump in fleet sales to businesses such as rental car companies. Sales to consumers rose a more modest 28% from last February, which was the worst month for the industry in nearly two decades.

But including sales at the Volvo unit Ford is in the process of selling, its sales total topped GM’s for the first time since August 1998, when a strike briefly shut many GM plants.

Ford (F, Fortune 500) also jumped ahead of Toyota in February to become the market leader in the U.S. The company finished 2009 in third place in terms of U.S. sales behind GM and Toyota.

In a further display of confidence, Ford also announced a significant boost to North American vehicle production for the second quarter.

GM doesn’t gain as much from Toyota problems

GM reported its sales rose only 12% from a year ago, about half the gain forecast by Edmunds.com. GM’s sales were also down slightly from January.

GM reported that sales at the four brands it is retaining – Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac, were up 32% from February 2009. But there was an 86% drop in sales at the four brands it is in the process of closing or selling — Saab, Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer.

GM blamed some of the weakness on the snow that hit much of the eastern United States during the month. The company said bad weather may have cut overall sales by 5% or more. GM pointed out that Chevrolet sales were down 17% in the Northeast, but up by double digits in every other region.

“It took a bit of time for dealers to get the snow off the cars and get the customers back in the showrooms,” said Susan Docherty, GM’s vice president of sales, service and marketing, on a conference call.

GM didn’t give any estimates about the impact Toyota’s problems might have had on GM’s sales. “All I’ll say is we got what we thought was our fair share of Toyota sales,” said Michael DiGiovanni, GM’s head of sales analysis, on the call.

He added that many potential Toyota buyers probably stayed on the sidelines rather than buy from another manufacturer, however.

Some analysts think Ford and Korea’s Hyundai gained the most from Toyota’s problems. Sales for the overall industry are expected to be up about 10% to 14% from a year ago.

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