For the first time since Americans turned in their horses for horsepower sales of passenger cars took a back seat to trucks according to 2001 sales figures released Thursday.

Consumers snapped up about 300,000 more trucks — including sport utility vehicles — than passenger cars last year, accelerating the move toward sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks that began in earnest in the early 1990's.

``Trucks have been gaining for years. I can't see why that wouldn't continue,'' said David Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities Inc.

It's a trend that pleases the automakers since they make higher profits from trucks than on cars.

It's also a trend that has environmental groups upset.

``We burn 1.2 million more barrels of gasoline per day because SUVs and light trucks are less efficient than cars,'' said Jason Mark, Union of Concerned Scientists clean vehicles program director.

The organization is pushing for federal legislation to increase fuel economy standards.

During 2001 a total of 17.18 million vehicles were sold in the U.S., making it the second best year on record, behind the 17.4 million sold in 2000 and 16.96 in 1999.

The automakers and analysts credit aggressive incentive programs, especially the offer of interest-free financing as causing a sales surge in the last three months of the year.

However, the costs associated with those incentives may prove damaging to the automakers' bottom lines.

``Unquestionably profits will suffer from the incentives, but the zero percent financing move was brilliant'' said Efraim Levy, senior automotive analyst for Standard and Poor's. ``Regardless of the effect on profits, the move stimulated sales and may have prevented the economy from rolling over and dying in the wake of Sept. 11.''

The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler AG said its December sales were 6 percent higher than those during December 2000, and sales for the year were off less than 10 percent from 2000.

General Motors Corp. reported its vehicle sales in 2001 were down about 1 percent, but up 7 percent in December as compared with a year ago.

Ford Motor Co. said its sales dropped 6 percent in 2001 from a year earlier.

Sales during December for the nation's second biggest automaker were only three-tenths of a percent better than in December 2000, hurt by a 25 percent drop in passenger car sales.

Toyota Motor Corp. said 2001 was its best year ever with a 7.5 percent increase in sales over 2000.

American Honda Motor Co. also reported a strong year, capped off with the Accord reclaiming its title as best selling car in America.