Toyota Motor Corp. (search) had the auto industry's most efficient North American manufacturing operations in 2004, according to a benchmark annual survey released on Thursday.

It is the first time Toyota has topped perennial leader Nissan in the closely watched Harbour Report, prepared by Harbour Consulting (search) of Troy, Michigan.

Productivity at Toyota's vehicle-assembly, engine and stamping plants rose 5.5 percent last year. It took the company just 27.9 hours to produce the average car or truck rolling off its assembly lines.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (search) took second place. Overall productivity in its North American plants slipped 4.8 percent in 2004 amid new product launches, to an average of 29.43 hours per vehicle.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (search) placed third at 32.02 hours, eking out a slight improvement over 2003.

Ron Harbour, Harbour Consulting's president, told a news conference that Toyota's productivity edge gave it a cost advantage of $350 to $500 per vehicle over U.S. manufacturers.

"They've built a religion," Harbour said, referring to Toyota's global manufacturing process, known as the Toyota Production System, and its continuous quest for improvement.

"They may have the most cash in the industry, they may be the most profitable, but they have convinced themselves that they're paupers ... They are every day looking for how they can squeeze another dime out," he said.

Among the Detroit automakers, General Motors Corp. (GM) maintained a lead over its cross-town rivals, but productivity at its plants was up just 2.5 percent in 2004 to an average of 34.33 labor hours per vehicle.

DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) hrysler division and Ford Motor Co. (F) both slashed the time it takes to produce a vehicle by 4.2 percent, to an average of 35.85 and 36.98 hours, respectively.

Chrysler scored the biggest productivity gains of any automaker over a three-year period.

While Harbour said Detroit's automakers were "very competitive from a manufacturing standpoint," he noted that they face a litany of revenue and product problems, and massive costs for pension and health care that equate to about $1,600 per vehicle.

Also, many people won't even consider buying a vehicle from the traditional Big Three U.S. automakers unless its trunk comes loaded with big cash rebates and other discounts.

"They've got to convince people to buy their product and accept full price on it," Harbour said.

GM, which has led Detroit's incentives war ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, posted an average loss of $2,311 on every vehicle it sold in North America in the first quarter of 2005, according to the Harbour Report.

Ford had per vehicle profit of $620 during the same period, while Chrysler booked a profit of $186 per vehicle, the report said.

At the Japanese Big Three, profit per vehicle in North America was well above $1,000 in the first quarter, with Nissan leading the way at $1,603 and Toyota next at $1,488.

"The company that can make money on all models, all sizes, is going to win," Ron Harbour said.