Well, Fools, looking back at the quarter's auto-manufacturer earnings -- and depending upon what make vehicle you jump into -- you'll either run into a relatively strong quarter, find red ink up to your floorboard, or encounter a much smaller-than-expected loss. The difference depends on whether you find yourself behind the wheel of Toyota (NYSE:TM), General Motors (NYSE:GM), or Ford (NYSE:F).

Toyota
As you might suspect, the best of the three companies' results was turned in by Toyota, which rode strong sales in its fuel-efficient cars in much of the world to September-ended quarter earnings of $4 billion. That was up 11% from a year ago. And while the company's results could have been even stronger, they nevertheless were conveyed in black ink.

Toyota's earnings benefited from a steady appetite for its gas-electric hybrid Prius, along with its Camry and Corolla models, resulting in stronger results in North America (where vehicle sales grew by 2.3% in the first six months of this fiscal year), Europe, and Asia. Beyond that, the company also added $1.32 billion to its final numbers from currency conversions tied to the relative weakness of the yen.

The positive performance may apparently also presage future strength. Management now expects to sell about 8.93 million vehicles in this (March 2008) fiscal year, a slight increase from the former 8.89 million-car estimate.

U.S. autos, driving excitement?
Not exactly. General Motors managed to add insult to injury by tacking a $38.6 billion non-cash charge related to accumulated deferred tax credits in the U.S., Canada, and Germany onto an overall loss of $1.6 billion. That made for a $39 billion, or $68.85 per-share, hickey. Those rather inflated figures compared to a net loss of $147 million, or $0.26 a share in the same quarter a year ago. Revenues did reach a third-quarter record $43.1 billion, an achievement shared by the record 2.39 million cars sold worldwide.

General Motors' CEO Rick Wagoner admitted that the tax-related accounting charge is difficult to explain, but emphasized that it doesn't have a big effect on the company's business, as it doesn't affect the company's cash position. Also included in this numerical smorgasbord was a $757 million mortgage-related loss from the company's remaining 49% position in GMAC.

Oh, and remember Ford? As my Foolish colleague Rich Duprey told you earlier, Ford came in with a net less, but still managed to thump analysts' expectations. If you toss out one-time items, the company's loss in the most recent quarter was just a penny a share.

Tapping the brakes
The companies discussed above are, of course, not the only measures of industry strength available to us. Indeed, Daimler AG (NYSE:DAI), now free of its Chrysler albatross, recently reported solid results. Meanwhile, shares of Michigan-based automotive systems and components manufacturer Visteon (NYSE:VC) took a pounding after the company announced a reduced quarterly loss at the end of last month.

But as to the three companies under primary consideration here, you'll perhaps be surprised to learn that all three have watched their shares drop over the past year. I suppose this is reflective in part of a broad general concern about consumers' willingness to tie into big purchases amid a weakening economy. However, from an investment perspective, and on the basis of broad global strength of sales and the use of that time-tested black ink, my current investment preference still goes to Toyota.

To take a spin with related Foolishness:

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your comments or questions. The Fool has a disclosure policy.