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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Ford, which said Tuesday it earned $2.1 billion in first-quarter net profit, is on pace to move ahead of Toyota and climb back into the No. 2 spot for yearly U.S. auto sales for the first time since 2006, according to Edmunds.com.

Ford has finished third in full-year U.S. auto sales in each of the last three years, but currently ranks No. 2 in the U.S. market behind General Motors through March, according to data provided by Edmunds.com.

Analysts with the site said the automaker has cut costs, while at the same time Ford is enjoying its highest market share in four years.

"Ford has demonstrated that the key to a turnaround is product, product, product — while pushing costs down," explained Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com. "The company's market share for 2010 is over 17 percent for the first time since 2006, and Fords are selling at a higher relative price and with lower incentives." 

In fact, the average sticker price on Ford vehicles jumped $952 year-over-year. Meanwhile, transaction prices moved ahead even further, increasing $1,294.

Ford reduced incentive expenditures from $3,338 spent per vehicle sold in the first quarter of 2009 down to $3,221 per vehicle sold in the most recent period.

Krebs added: "Ford's biggest worry now is how to lessen its current debt. But Alan Mulally deserves credit for keeping the automaker on a consistent, steady course — and Bill Ford deserves a round of applause for hiring Mulally!" 

Edmunds.com Projects Industry's April Sales, Incentive Levels  

In other news from Edmunds.com, the company offered its forecast for the U.S. new-vehicle market.

New-vehicle sales this month are expected to be significantly ahead of year-ago figures, but with incentives not as widely available as they were the month before, the market will likely show more than a 7-percent decline compared to March, according to Edmunds.com.

Specifically, Edmunds.com is projecting that April's new-vehicle sales will total 988,100 vehicles, marking a 20.9-percent rise from April 2009.  However, this represents a 7.1-percent dip from March, when widespread incentives provided a lift to the market.

Essentially, when incentive levels dropped in April, so did vehicle sales.

"In March, incentives really helped boost car sales — especially since Toyota's high-profile recalls led consumers to expect huge bargains," shared Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis for Edmunds.com. "In April incentives averaged nearly $200 less per vehicle industry-wide and sales fell along with incentives."

And although the economy has started to heal, shoppers are still cautious about spending, meaning that "bargain hunting" is the name of the game in the car market, according to Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive officer of Edmunds.com.

"The economy is showing signs of recovery, but consumers are still wary, so today car-shopping is largely about bargain-hunting," Anwyl stated.

"Traditionally, summer discounts are worth waiting for but inventory may be spottier than usual this year," he continued. "The next round of incentives may provide the best opportunity to pick up a great deal on a 2010 model."

With April's projected sales, the seasonally adjusted annualized rate for the month is forecasted at 11.2 million units. In March, the SAAR was 11.8 million.

This indicates that the auto rebound isn't likely to be easy path, according to Krebs.

"April's dip shows the auto industry's recovery will be a slow and bumpy one," Krebs pointed out in an AutoObserver.com report. "Ultimately, though, car sales are significantly better than the 9.2 million SAAR of a year ago."

Continuing on, General Motors will likely command the most market share for April (18.1 percent), followed by Toyota (17 percent) and Ford (16 percent).

Breaking April sales projections of the largest seven manufacturers down further, all are expected to show year-over-year gains, but only Hyundai and Honda are projected to show growth from March.

Nissan, which will likely post April sales of 71,400 vehicles, is predicted to have the heaviest year-over-year growth at 51.3 percent, though its sales are expected to slide 25.2 percent from March. Edmunds.com projects its market share at 7.2 percent.

Hyundai's April sales are forecasted at 80,400 units, a 35.1-percent improvement from the same period of 2009 and a 3.8-percent uptick from the prior month. Its resulting market share would be 8.1 percent. 

Honda is expected to show April sales of 110,200 vehicles, an improvement of 9.1 percent from the year-ago period and a 1.8-percent gain over March. The automaker's resulting market share would be 11.2 percent

Edmunds.com expects that Toyota will have sales of 167,800 units during the month, marking a 32.6-percent year-over-year upswing and a 10.2-percent dip from March.

Ford will like move 166,500 vehicles by month's end, which would be 25.9 percent stronger than April 2009 and an 8.3-percent softening from last month.

GM is projected to hit April sales of 179,200 vehicles, which would mark a 4.1-percent year-over-year improvement and a 4.7-percent dip compared to March.

Finally, Chrysler's April sales are expected to reach 90,800 vehicles, an upswing of 18.9 percent versus the year-ago period and a 1.7-percent month-over-month softening. Edmunds.com predicts Chrysler will command 9.2 percent market share.