DETROIT — Ford’s U.S. sales dropped 19 percent in January, allowing Toyota to pass it again as the nation’s No. 2 automaker. But Ford’s numbers were so bad that it was also passed by DaimlerChrysler, knocking the troubled automaker into fourth place for the month.
Times are tough for Ford Motor Co., which attributed its decline to a long-term strategy of returning to profitability by cutting low-profit rental car sales and reducing its reliance on incentives.
Analysts predict that Toyota Motor Corp. likely will knock Ford off its traditional No. 2 spot for the full year in 2007, but Ford, which lost $12.7 billion last year, says it is focused more on returning to profitability in North America.
“Where we are in sales races and sales rankings or where people forecast that we’re going to be is a distraction that we’re not going to be bothered with,” George Pipas, Ford’s U.S. sales analysis manager, said during a conference call with industry analysts and reporters. “We’ve got a job to do in North America, and that is all we are focused on.”
Ford said its sales to rental companies were down 65 percent last month from January of 2006. Excluding fleet sales, the total was down 5 percent, but showed growth in mid-sized cars and new crossover vehicles, Pipas said.
Ford wasn’t the only automaker with a down month in January. General Motors Corp. said Thursday its sales dropped 16.6 percent as it, too, worked to wean itself from rental car companies.
Toyota, on the other hand, continued to stomp on other manufacturers. Its sales were up 9.5 percent in January. DaimlerChrysler AG’s total was also up, by 3.2 percent. Nissan Motor Co. sales rose 8.9 percent, while Honda reported its total rose 2.5 percent in January.
Jesse Toprak, chief economist for the Edmunds.com auto Web site, said Ford could pass Toyota again for a few more months — but not for long.
“By summer, Toyota will be in the No. 2 position permanently,” he predicted.
Toyota sales surpassed Ford’s in two months last year. The Japanese automaker sold 175,850 vehicles last month, including 100,256 cars and 75,594 trucks.
GM’s car total dropped 22.5 percent for the month, while its light truck total was down 11.5 percent. In all, it sold 244,614 light vehicles for the month, remaining No. 1 in sales.
“I would conclude that January certainly was not a stellar month,” Paul Ballew, GM’s executive director of global market and industry analysis, said on a conference call.
He said the company did well in some segments when fleets were excluded, part of its strategy to reduce low-profit sales to rental companies during the first half of the year. GM’s rental sales, Ballew said, were down about 40 percent from January of last year as the company tries to build its brands and boost resale values.
“That’s consistent with our aggressive reduction plan that we began two years ago,” he said.
Excluding fleet sales, GM’s retail sales were down 8 percent for the month.
GM also lowered its first-quarter North American production forecast from guidance given last month by 40,000 vehicles, or 3.6 percent, to 1.1 million vehicles. GM said it reflected the effort to reduce rental fleet sales. In the first quarter of 2006, GM produced 1.3 million vehicles in the region.
Toyota’s car total was up 13.1 percent in January, while truck sales rose 5 percent. Toyota said sales, which include the Toyota and Lexus brands, were the best ever for January. Sales of its Camry mid-sized car rose 14.7 percent, while its hybrid Prius and RAV4 compact sport utility vehicle also made gains.
Ford’s car sales were down 32.5 percent from a year ago, and light truck sales were down 9.8 percent.
In the first full month of sales for its new crossovers, Ford reported it sold 5,586 Ford Edges and 1,699 Lincoln MKXs. But sales of Ford’s F-series pickup truck were down about 15 percent from a year ago.
Ford said it expects weakness in new home construction to hurt full-size pickup sales through the first half of the year. Its sales include Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, as well as Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo.
Ford’s fleet sales were expected to be lower because it no longer is selling the Taurus — once the nation’s top-selling car. But Pipas said fleet reductions also came in many current products.
DaimlerChrysler sold 173,377 vehicles in January. Chrysler Group’s sales, which include the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands, were up less than 1 percent while Mercedes-Benz sales rose 36.9 percent in January compared with the same month of 2006.
The gains came as Chrysler saw its best January in six years and Mercedes reported its best January sales ever, DaimlerChrysler said. Chrysler said its January sales were driven by solid retail sales, while fleet sales were down by a single digit. The company said it only gives specific fleet sales numbers on a quarterly basis.
General Motors shares rose 19 cents, or 0.58 percent, to $33.03 on the New York Stock Exchange, while Ford’s shares rose 16 cents, or 1.97 percent, to $8.29. DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. shares rose 63 cents, or 1.01 percent, to $63.12.
The Associated Press reports unadjusted figures, calculating the percentage change in the total number of vehicles sold in one month compared with the same month a year earlier. Some automakers report percentages adjusted for sales days, which last month was 25 and in January 2006 was 24.
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