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Big Three automakers surprise with sales gains

Asian companies grabbed more of the nation’s auto market in January, dampening the good news for U.S. rivals who enjoyed their first monthly sales increases since employee discount deals ended last summer.
A "sale" balloon advertises a special price on a pickup truck at a Ford dealership in Tacoma, Wash. Ford's overall vehicle sales jumped in January, though pickup and SUV sales continue to decline.Elaine Thompson / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Asian companies grabbed more of the nation’s auto market in January, dampening the good news for U.S. rivals who enjoyed their first monthly sales increases since employee discount deals ended last summer.

Asian automakers’ sales jumped 11.4 percent for the month, while the traditional Big Three — General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group — saw their sales rise 4.6 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

The results were surprisingly strong for January, which is usually a slow month for the industry. Automakers said warm weather and heavy fleet sales pushed up the numbers. The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate was 17.6 million vehicles, indicating what sales would be for the full year if they remained at the same pace for all 12 months. Last year’s annual sales totaled 17 million vehicles.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its January sales were up 14 percent, largely due to increases in the sales of the Prius hybrid as well as gains in the automaker’s youth-oriented Scion brand. Toyota also bucked a trend toward lower truck and sport utility vehicle sales, reporting a 13 percent increase for those vehicles.

“January’s bright job market outlook and the uptick in consumer confidence bode well for the industry, as do signs the economy has bounced back from the Gulf Coast hurricanes,” said Jim Press, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

Honda Motor Co. said its sales were up 20.7 percent in January, its eighth consecutive record-breaking month. Honda reported strong sales of the 2006 Honda Civic as well as the Honda Pilot small SUV. The company said its truck and SUV sales were up 15 percent, while car sales rose nearly 25 percent.

South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. also saw a 16 percent increase in January. Hyundai’s truck and SUV sales dropped 19 percent, but car sales were up 32 percent.

General Motors reported a 5.8 percent increase for the month due to strong car sales. Truck sales were flat for the year, although GM said it saw a 23 percent rise in full-size SUV sales as its redesigned 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe hit the market.

GM is counting on its new lineup of SUVs to boost sales this year. The company also recently lowered prices on most of its vehicles and is trying to stress value instead of relying so heavily on costly, confusing incentives.

“It’s early, but we’re optimistic these great new products will be successful,” Mark LaNeve, GM’s North American vice president of sales, said in a statement.

Ford’s U.S. sales rose 2.7 percent in January on the strength of its new lineup of mid-size sedans.

“I think it’s going to be another solid car year, for both Ford and the industry,” said Ford’s U.S. sales analysis manager George Pipas.

Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brand car sales rose 23 percent from last January. The No. 2 U.S. automaker said its trio of new sedans that went on sale last fall — the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr — saw sales jump 25 percent in January from the previous month. Ford’s truck sales fell 7 percent, dragged down by a 30 percent decline in sales of the supersized Ford Excursion sport utility vehicle.

DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group said sales of its Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep brands were up 4.9 percent. Sales of the Chrysler 300 sedan continued at a strong pace, up 26 percent over last January despite a lack of incentives, Chrysler’s senior vice president of sales Gary Dilts said. Chrysler’s car sales were up 20 percent but truck sales were flat.

Chrysler Group got back into the incentive game Wednesday, announcing a zero-percent interest deal for February. Chrysler said the promotion covers minivans, the Chrysler Pacifica crossover, Dodge Ram light and heavy-duty pickups, the Dodge Dakota pickup and several sport utility vehicles, including the Dodge Durango, Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Commander.

A sharp increase in fleet sales to rental car companies, corporations and the government was one reason for gains at Ford, GM and Chrysler. Fleet sales made up 39 percent of Ford’s overall sales in January, compared to 28 percent of sales in all of 2005, Pipas said. Dilts wouldn’t break out Chrysler’s fleet sales, but he said nonfleet sales were down for the month.

Dilts said automakers often try to boost slow January sales with fleet. Ford, GM and Chrysler sold 55,000 more vehicles to fleets in January compared to last year, in part because of rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast, Pipas said. He said fleet sales will fall as the year goes on and predicted they will be flat or up slightly for all of 2006.

“January’s definitely the exception, not the rule,” Pipas said. Carmakers generally shy away from fleet sales because they’re less profitable and they hurt vehicles’ residual values.

The results were a bright spot for GM and Ford, which recently announced plans to lay off 60,000 workers over the next few years to get their North American operations profitable again. DaimlerChrysler also has announced plans to lay off 6,000 administrative staff, mostly in Germany.

Not all automakers had a strong January. Nissan Motor Co. said its overall sales were flat in January, with a small increase in car sales offset by a 4 percent decrease in truck and SUV sales.

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 figures that are adjusted for the number of sales days in a month.