- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

DETROIT (AP) — Weakness in the housing market and flagging consumer confidence made September another tough month for the auto industry, although General Motors, Honda and Nissan bucked the trend with hot-selling new vehicles, according to U.S. sales figures released yesterday.

Ford Motor Co.’s U.S. sales plummeted 21 percent for the month, largely due to a 62 percent reduction in sales to rental car companies. Toyota Motor Corp. posted a 4 percent decline but still outpaced Ford for the month and for the January-September period, continuing its drive to replace Ford as the nation’s No. 2 automaker in sales after GM. Toyota had sold 28,654 more vehicles than Ford as of the end of September. Chrysler LLC also was down 5 percent for the month.

Overall U.S. sales were down 3 percent from last September, according to Autodata Corp.

GM said sales were flat compared with last September, despite a month of difficult labor negotiations and a two-day strike by the United Auto Workers union. GM produced 30,000 fewer vehicles because of the strike, but the walkout had no impact on sales and GM’s production schedule is unchanged, said GM’s top sales analyst, Paul Ballew.

Mr. Ballew said the Federal Reserve’s interest rate cut in the middle of September didn’t have an immediate impact on sales but helped calm the market and ensure that the tightening mortgage market won’t affect automotive credit.

“For us as an industry, we support and applaud the Fed’s move because we cannot have the spillover effects into other categories,” Mr. Ballew said.

Erich Merkle, vice president of auto industry forecasting for consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., said it will take months for the rate cut to trickle down to average consumers.

“These are pretty weak numbers and this is indicative of the overall weakness we’ve seen in the economy,” Mr. Merkle said.

GM’s car sales were down 4 percent while truck sales were up 4 percent on the strength of the Chevrolet Silverado and other new pickups. GM also got a boost from new crossovers like the Buick Enclave and the new Cadillac CTS sedan, which posted a 73 percent sales increase for the month.

Ford’s car sales dropped 39 percent compared with last September while its truck sales were down 5 percent. Sales of Ford’s F-150 pickup, long the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., fell 21 percent as newer pickups from GM and Toyota stole its thunder.

Ford’s retail sales — or sales excluding those to rental and other fleets — were down 15 percent. That was more bad news for the automaker, which hasn’t seen sales rise since October 2006, according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank.

Chrysler’s car sales shot up 18 percent with the introduction of the newly redesigned Sebring, but its truck sales were down 11 percent despite the heaviest incentive spending on pickups in the industry, according to the auto research site Edmunds.com.

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