updated 11/3/2004 4:50:07 PM ET 2004-11-03T21:50:07

The nation’s two-largest automakers both said demand for new vehicles fell 5 percent last month from a year ago, almost assuring heftier consumer incentives to come, even as Japanese rivals Toyota, Honda and Nissan rode a slew of new products to double-digit gains.

No. 1 General Motors Corp. said Wednesday truck sales were off 4.6 percent and car sales down 5.5 percent in October. Sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brand trucks were up 3 percent at No. 2 Ford Motor Co., but that demand was not nearly enough to offset a 22 percent decline in car sales — an all-too familiar trend for Ford this year.

October marked the eighth time this year Ford’s monthly sales have been below year-ago results.

The smallest of Detroit’s Big Three, DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, said overall sales rose 2 percent in October — the 12th time in 13 months Chrysler has had a year-over-year increase.

Despite continued strong sales of its Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C — America’s “in” sedan at the moment — the Chrysler Group was outsold by Toyota Motor Corp.’s American division in October. Toyota, including Lexus and Scion, reported 170,815 U.S. sales versus 170,169 for the Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler brands.

Toyota, whose overall sales were up 13 percent, trails the Chrysler Group by about 125,000 U.S. sales for the first 10 months of the year.

“The effects of pre-election consumer uncertainty and higher gas prices didn’t hurt sales as much as anticipated,” said Jim Press, chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. “Once the election dust settles, the fourth quarter will be stronger than expected.”

Many analysts’ predictions for October were right on the mark. They expected sales to cool in October after climbing to the second-highest level of 2004 in September, but they said Detroit carmakers, not foreign brands, would account for most of the decline.

Autumn fall
“GM’s October sales were not as strong as we had expected, but not entirely surprising given our exceptionally strong sales in September,” said John Smith, GM’s group vice president for North American sales, service and marketing, citing GM’s 20 percent year-over-year sales jump in September.

Smith said the automaker expects stronger car sales in particular in the coming months as more shipments of new models such as the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Cobalt enter the market.

Honda Motor Co. said its sales rose 10.2 percent in October in part because of strong demand for two new vehicles — the Odyssey minivan and Acura RL luxury sedan. Sales of Honda’s gas-electric hybrid vehicles, the Insight and Civic, rose 43 percent from the year-ago period.

Year-to-date hybrid vehicle sales are up 72 percent, Honda said.

Combined sales for Nissan Motor Co. and its luxury Infiniti division were up 27.3 percent in October from a year ago, the best October ever for Nissan North America. Truck sales climbed 46 percent on strong demand for the new Nissan Pathfinder and Titan full-size pickup, the Japanese automaker’s first entry in that category.

“Sales of the Titan continue to increase even in a very competitive segment,” said Jed Connelly, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Nissan’s North American division.

Despite the year-over-year drop in business, Ford officials said they were bullish on prospects for the remainder of 2004 and beyond, given the recent rollout of several new cars and trucks, some of which are just beginning to reach showrooms in significant numbers.

They include the Ford Five Hundred flagship sedan, Freestyle crossover vehicle, Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicle and Mustang sports car.

Ford said last week that October sales of the Five Hundred and Freestyle — their first full month on the market — had exceeded company expectations. The Dearborn-based automaker said it has taken 50,000 orders for the Five-Hundred and 30,000 orders for the Freestyle.

“We’re very encouraged by the early dealer and consumer response to our new products,” said Jim O’Connor, Ford’s group vice president for North American marketing, sales and service. “We have our sights set on stronger retail sales in the months ahead.”

Korean automakers Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. posted double-digit sales gains for October — Hyundai up 15 percent and Kia, aided by aggressive marketing and new vehicles, up 51 percent.

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