Toyota said Tuesday its U.S. sales skidded by almost 9 percent last month as its recalls grew and its image suffered.

The February drop from a year earlier was smaller than some experts had expected, but all Toyota's major competitors, especially Ford, Tuesday reported gains, despite the snowstorms that buried dealerships in the East and Southeast.

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As a Ford and Toyota dealer, Leo Sternlicht has weathered the good and the bad. At his Riverhead Ford-Lincoln Mercury, February sales rose by 20 percent from the year-ago period.

Nationally, Ford Motor Co. reported a 43 percent increase in February from a year earlier and estimated it gained 3 percent of market share.

"One reason our Ford sales were not up as much [as nationally] is because they were not down as much," Sternlicht said Tuesday.

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At his Riverhead Toyota, sales were off last month by about 20 percent, he said. "Given all that's happened," he added, "it could have been much worse."

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Long Island figures weren't available, but Toyota said sales of Toyota and Scion cars and trucks fell by 24 percent in February from a year earlier in the region that includes New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Nationally, Toyota and Lexus sales fell a combined 8.7 percent. Sales of Toyota division vehicles alone - which account for most of the more than 8 million vehicles recalled by the automaker - fell 10.6 percent.

Some analysts expected Toyota sales to drop by as much as 25 percent in February. "They were able to weather this storm with far less damage than what was forecast," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry, trends and insights for the Web site TrueCar.com.

In a telephone news conference, Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division, blamed the decline on the recalls, winter storms and consumers delaying purchases when word leaked of the zero percent loans and cut-rate leases Toyota is offering this month on many models.

Nationally, industry sales for the year are expected to increase from 10.5 million last year to 11 million or 12 million - well short of pre-recession levels of more than 16 million sales.

General Motors' sales rose by almost 12 percent in February from a year ago, despite the phasedowns of its Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer brands.

Other increases by Toyota competitors: Honda, up 13 percent; Nissan, up by 29.5 percent; Hyundai, up 11 percent, Subaru, up 38 percent; and Chrysler Group, up by less than 1 percent.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Toyota's top U.S. executive warned in 2006 that the quality of the company's vehicles was slipping, documents examined by congressional investigators show. Sen. John Rockefeller (D- W.V.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, disclosed the documents Tuesday as the panel began a third congressional hearing over recalls related to unintended, and sometimes fatal, acceleration.