You can almost hear the gloating in the offices of Ford (NYSE:F) as the executives look out over their crosstown rival General Motors (NYSE:GM): "Ha! We're not as much of a car wreck as you are!"

Ford, long considered one of the weakest automakers around, actually turned in a much better-than-expected performance than GM, which was perceived as further along the road to recovery. In the oft-changing contest for whose operations are least worst, Ford seems to have regained the lead.

It reported a third-quarter loss of $380 million, which seems like it merely needs an oil change compared with the massive $5 billion it lost last year. While the key North American market still suffered a big $1 billion miss this year, it's less than half of what the region lost last time around, and pointed to rising revenue domestically. Elsewhere, Ford was actually able to post profits in South America, Europe, and in the Asia-Pacific region.

In contrast, General Motors posted an astronomical $39 billion loss. While that huge figure overwhelmingly resulted from writedowns of tax assets, GM still posted a sizable $1.6 billion adjusted net loss. Ford, on the other hand, is actually showing an $88 million profit for the year, and its loss this quarter is a result of $350 million in special charges of its own.

As a whole, and without special items, Ford would have posted a loss of $24 million, or a penny a share -- far better than analyst expectations of a $0.46 per-share loss.

Although Ford was able to achieve this improvement by raising its prices, the competition continues to intensify, thanks to international peers Toyota (NYSE:TM), Honda (NYSE:HMC), and Nissan (NASDAQ:NSANY). Adding fuel to the fire, recently private Chrysler plans to offer a new round of rebates and incentives. Ford has held the line on such offers, but it may be forced to capitulate.

It's also gained some breathing room and flexibility in its negotiations with its unions, and while the rubber hasn't quite hit the pavement, Ford no longer seems to be spinning its tires, either. It can proudly say, "We only suck a little."

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