Ford, GM and Toyota Gear Up for Battle

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The world's largest carmakers ended 2010 on a high note, with two of the top three reporting their best monthly sales for the year in December, which portends strong fourth-quarter earnings and an even better 2011 for what has been a deeply troubled industry.

Over the past two years, the travails of Toyota ( T), General Motors ( GM) and Ford ( F) have included big layoffs and factory closings, bankruptcy and a government bailout in the case of GM, and massive recalls at Toyota, a brand once known for reliability.

The companies now face a new round of challenges in the form of rising fuel and raw-materials costs, which hurt profit margins.

Further complicating matters, domestic sales of passenger vehicles rose 1% last month, while sales of gas-guzzlers, pickup trucks and SUVs jumped 21%, despite the nation's rising fuel prices and an avowed interest in "greener," smaller, more economical cars.

International sales have proved a particular boon for U.S. automakers. GM sold more vehicles in China last year than it did in the U.S., a first in the company's 102-year history, while Ford's sales in China soared 40%.

Zacks Investment Research analysts say rising sales in December are indicative of a rebound in consumer confidence, since people are more inclined to make big-ticket purchases when they see rising employment, as it makes them feel more secure. As a result, Zacks projects industry-wide sales will rise 11.2% to 12.9 million vehicles in 2011.

Toyota, based in Japan, maintained its title of world's largest automaker in 2010, despite a 5.5% decline in December sales, with 8.42 million vehicles sold. That barely beat GM's 8.39 million in sales. GM racked up a 12% global sales gain on the year.

GM and Ford are expected to report solid fourth-quarter results as their December sales were their best monthly results for all of 2010.

Shares of automakers are up 4.3% this year, as tracked by Morningstar. The broader S&P 500 Index is up 3% this year.

What follows is a summary of earnings expectations for the three biggest auto makers, led by Ford, which will be the first to report on Friday, along with cars that may help profits the most this year.

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