The Australian automotive industry has posted its second highest annual sales total on record.

Preliminary figures released on Thursday by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) show that 962,521 cars, trucks and buses were sold in Australia in 2006.

This figure is expected to rise by approximately 200 when the December sales results of a heavy commercial vehicle distributor are included.

The result is 2.6% down on the record of 988,269 set in 2005.

FCAI chief executive Peter Sturrock said that the result was excellent given the combined effects of interest rates and fuel prices.

“The rise and fall of fuel prices during 2006 was as unpredictable as it was dramatic and interest rate speculation created further uncertainty among consumers, so in those circumstances sales were encouragingly strong,” he said.

Toyota was the best-selling brand in 2006 for the fourth year in a row with a 22.2% share of the total market.

It was followed by GM’s Holden (15.2%), Ford (11.9%) and Mazda (6.6%) – their finishing positions unchanged from 2005.

Mitsubishi (5.6%), Nissan (5.5%) and Hyundai (4.8%) dropped one spot each – all three leap-frogged by Honda (5.6%) in an extremely tight sales tussle.

Volkswagen moved into the top 10 by taking the spot previously held by Kia.

The 2006 results show some significant changes in the sales mix between vehicle segments.

Light car sales rose by 20,196 or 21.1% while small car sales remained much the same, up 1,345 or 0.6%.

“Light cars became more popular last year, not just because they were more fuel-efficient, but because they were roomier, more practical and better specified for the money than ever before,” said Sturrock.

The large car segment and the medium SUV segment both suffered significant slowdowns – falling by 30,775 and 10,632 sales respectively.

In contrast to the apparent move to smaller vehicles was the strength of the luxury SUV segment, which grew 1,739 or 10.5%.

“Australians have not fallen out of love with large cars and in common with almost every other market in the world it is likely that we will continue to buy the most space, power and performance that we can afford.”

Sturrock pointed to the success of the 4X4 pick-up/cab chassis segment which grew by 4,911 vehicles or 7.8%.

“We think many of these four-wheel drive ‘utes’ are being bought as much for private use as a tool-of-trade,” he said.

The buoyancy of the segment was in contrast to the light truck market as a whole, which declined slightly by 6,087 vehicles or 3.6%.

The FCAI is forecasting a steady outlook for 2007 with motor vehicle sales of 970,000.

“Notwithstanding recent rises, interest rates remain relatively low by historical standards and most new motor vehicles offer consumers compelling value for money, so we believe the market will continue to travel at its current high speed,” he said.