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Auto sales: seven cars in fast lane despite slow economy

Auto sales fell sharply in August, compared with numbers that were juiced a year ago by the federal “cash for clunkers” incentive program. Even so, industry sales have at least moved in a positive direction.

Auto sales in the United States fell sharply in August, compared with numbers that were juiced a year ago by the federal “cash for clunkers” incentive program. But when you compare sales so far this year with the first eight months of 2009, industry sales have at least moved in a positive direction.

Here are the top-gaining models for each of the seven biggest car sellers.

7. Nissan Maxima

Sales up 10,648 this year

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Nissan’s overall sales are up 14 percent this year, and it’s been getting media attention for its soon-available Leaf electric car. But for now the Maxima sedan is the model that’s been maximizing Nissan’s performance. Sales so far this year total 43,000, up more than 10,000 from the first eight months of last year. The company’s Armada, Rogue, Frontier and Xterra are also doing well.

6. Honda Accord

Sales up 10,961 this year

Honda offers the Fit, but it hasn’t been offering up many consumer hits lately — at least measured by big year-over-year sales gains. The Accord is an exception — a perennial market leader that’s also seen sales rise by nearly 11,000 this year.

5. Toyota 4Runner

Sales up 17,139 this year

Not so long ago, the big news about Toyota had to do with catching GM as the world’s biggest carmaker. The company is a laggard in 2010 though, with flat sales despite improvement in the U.S economy. The rugged 4Runner, blending pickup and sport-utility features, is defying the company’s poor performance. Aided by relatively subdued gasoline prices, the 4Runner has sold roughly 30,000 units this year, more than double the pace for the same period in 2009.

4. Chrysler’s Dodge Charger

Sales up 19,788 this year

Chrysler is looking like a “comeback of the year” contender, with overall sales up 10 percent so far this year, compared with 2009. The Dodge Charger is leading the way, with sales of 58,000 this year, up nearly 20,000 from last year’s pace. And the company has other strong sellers as well. As the smallest of America’s Big Three, a company that needed both a government bailout and a European partner (Fiat), Chrysler can rejoice in the good news.

3. General Motors’ GMC Terrain

Sales up 34,617 this year

The Terrain has made it to the mountain top in just a year’s time, with sales going from essentially zero a year ago to nearly 35,000 so far this year. Other light trucks from GM are also benefiting from relatively tame gasoline prices and pent-up demand after the deep recession. Chevy’s Equinox and Silverado are other examples, while the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac SRX round out GM’s list of strong sales gainers. The problem: GM also has many less-stellar performers, so overall the company’s sales are up just 5 percent this year.

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2. Hyundai Sonata

Sales up 42,807 this year

The Sonata sedan is the sales-gain leader for Hyundai, the fast-rising South Korean carmaker. Overall, the Sonata has sold an impressive 128,000 units so far this year. And Hyundai’s total sales are up 17 percent, second only to Ford among the top seven carmakers in the US marketplace.

1. Ford F-Series

Sales up 76,897 this year

The F-Series, an array of powerful pickups, always ranks near the top of the U.S. car sales charts. Its gains this year have been a big part of Ford’s overall revival story. The company’s sales are up 18 percent, compared to 2009’s pace. Add in some momentum for the Fusion and Taurus sedans, and Ford’s share of the U.S. market isn’t far behind that of longtime rival GM.