- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

DETROIT (AP) — Sales of new cars fell more than expected in January at the nation’s two largest automakers, with market leader General Motors Corp. posting a 1.8 percent decline and rival Ford Motor Co. reporting a 9.8 percent drop.

While the big U.S. automakers were struggling to explain their declines, Toyota Motor Corp. reported a 15.8 percent boost in U.S. sales, and Daimler-Chrysler posted sales that were 9.4 percent higher.

GM said yesterday that it was disappointed with the results but maintained its outlook for the year. Ford, the nation’s second-biggest automaker, said it remained optimistic a lineup of new cars would change its fortunes.

Analysts expected January sales results to be tempered by frigid weather in parts of the country, despite brisk business at the beginning of the month.

Both GM and Ford saw the biggest declines in their car sales, with GM’s car sales down 16.8 percent and car sales for the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands falling 20.1 percent. Chrysler’s car sales also fell, declining 23.2 percent.

GM’s truck sales were up 12.8 percent. Ford’s truck sales fell 4.7 percent, despite the continuing success of its F-150 pickup. Chrysler sold 21.5 percent more trucks than in the previous January.

“January sales results were below expectations,” said John Smith, GM’s vice president for North American sales, service and marketing. “While we had good results in some divisions … a new industry record in sport utility sales and strong truck sales overall, car sales and sales in certain regions were disappointing.”

Jim O’Connor, Ford’s vice president for North American marketing, sales and service, expressed confidence that the company’s car models would yield results by the end of 2004.

“We’re committed to pursuing a product and market strategy that will result in stronger retail sales performance,” Mr. O’Connor said in a statement. “Today we are benefiting from the all-new F-150 and a strong lineup of sport utility vehicles. By year end, we expect to see stronger retail performance in passenger cars.”

Ford’s F-series trucks posted record January sales of 61,979, up 9.6 percent.

“The most painful declines from the standpoint of our overall performance are the midsize cars — the Ford Taurus and the Mercury Sable,” Ford sales analyst George Pipas said in a conference call with investors. “Painful in the sense that mid-size cars still represent about 20 percent of total new vehicle sales in the United States.”

Taurus sales fell 26.6 percent, and Sable sales were down 47.1 percent.

But Mr. Pipas said “help is on the way” in the form of two new mid-size sedans, the Ford Five Hundred and the Mercury Montego.

Also going on sale this year, which Ford has dubbed “the year of the car,” are a redesigned Focus, a new Mustang and the crossover Freestyle wagon.

The car introductions mark a shift for Ford, which like other U.S. automakers has put most of its emphasis on pickups and SUVs in recent years, losing ground in the car market to Japanese companies.

Paul Ballew, GM’s executive director for market and industry analysis, said he was not overly concerned about the January dip, calling it the “least representative” month, coming after the usual year-end acceleration in sales.

Chrysler attributed its success to an improving economy and new products like the Dodge Durango.

Toyota, meanwhile, saw truck sales jump 27.4 percent and car sales rise 6.4 percent.

In afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Ford shares were down 23 cents to close at $13.72 while GM shares lost 84 cents to settle at $47.86. DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. shares were off $1.17 to close at $46.39.

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