- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

DETROIT | Detroit’s Big Three is becoming Ford and the other two.

While its rivals stay afloat with billions in government aid, Ford Motor Co. grabbed a bigger slice of the American car market in April with record sales of its fuel-efficient Fusion. Those results pushed it past Toyota Motor Corp. to retake its post as the nation’s No. 2 car seller.

Even though Ford’s monthly sales tumbled 32 percent from a year earlier, it captured 16 percent of the total market. Most of those gains came at the expense of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, which unlike Ford are dependent on federal help.

Overall, U.S. auto sales reported Friday were dismal, but showed a slight improvement over March.

“It seems we’re bouncing on the bottom of the bathtub, but it’s somewhat stabilized,” Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press said in a conference call with reporters. “Maybe we’ve figured out where the bottom is.”

Chrysler, which filed for a government-engineered bankruptcy Thursday, reported the sharpest decline among major automakers, falling 48 percent.

GM, the largest American automaker, posted its smallest decline in four months at 34 percent.

Ford sold a record number of Fusions - 18,321 - with the unveiling of its 2010 gas and hybrid versions of the car.

“Fusion appears to have broken the hold on the midsize sedan segment,” said Ken Czubay, Ford’s vice president of sales and marketing. Ford began selling the Fusion with its 2005 model.

Toyota, which had overtaken Ford as No. 2 in U.S. sales, fell behind its rival in monthly sales for the first time in months. Ford got a lift from its line of midsize cars that burn less gasoline.

Ford sold 133,979 light vehicles in April, compared with 195,665 for the same month of 2008. But sales rose from March to April, with Ford selling 2,878 more cars.

“Based on dealer commentary, we believe this was at least partially due to customers shifting to Ford based on concerns about a potential bankruptcy filing at General Motors and Chrysler,” said Brett Hoselton, auto analyst for KeyBanc Capital Markets.

April marked the sixth time in seven months that Ford gained retail market share.

Mr. Press dismissed the notion that fears about the company going into bankruptcy kept consumers away from dealerships.

“Maybe some people have some worries about the longevity of the company,” he said. “Well, heck, now the president of the United States, the U.S. government, is not only going to back our warranties, they’re going to be an investor in forming our new company.”

Meanwhile, Toyota reported a 42 percent drop in April sales. Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, was weighed down by declining sales across the board and a 62 percent slide in sales of its Prius hybrid.

Ford’s midsize Fusion model is a viable competitor against Toyota’s popular Camry, with the 2010 models getting praise for quality, safety and fuel economy. More than 40 percent of the 2010 Fusions sold are hybrids that get 41 miles per gallon.

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