A Japanese automaker in the Big Three? The concept would cause many Detroiters to hyperventilate. But then again, is it more odd than a German company in the No.3 spot?

The question arises as Toyota sales approach those of the Chrysler Group in the U.S. Toyota came closest in September, when less than 2% of market share separated them. Chrysler, largely through 0% financing incentives, widened the gap in October, but many believe Toyota has the momentum and product lineup in 2002 that Chrysler lacks, making it but a matter of time.

Asked about the possibility of being passed by Toyota, Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler Group president, tells WAW: “First of all, I don't think it will happen. Secondly, we certainly would not do anything stupid if it were to happen.”

The concept of replacing Chrysler in a “new” Big Three doesn't sit any better with Toyota President Fujio Cho. “Simply put, I'm annoyed by that view,” Mr. Cho says, responding to the suggestion that the switch-up could prompt a patriotic backlash against foreign automakers.

The Big Three, says Mr. Cho, should be an idea rather than an actual standing, and always will mean General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group. “The Big Three represents the three survivors of a good, long competition.”

Toyota, he says, has not been gunning for the No.3 spot. “Of course, we will make every effort in sales, marketing and production, and if this puts us in the top three, don't blame us.”

James E. Press, chief operating officer at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., says he isn't worried about a consumer backlash. “We're not trying to be an opportunist or take advantage of their (Chrysler's) situation.”

After all, Mr. Press points out, DaimlerChrysler overthrew Toyota after 20 years as the No.1 selling internationally owned auto company in the U.S. “We lost that title to DaimlerChrysler some years ago.” Beating Chrysler now would return Toyota to the status of the top-selling internationally — not domestically — owned company in the U.S.