- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2010

DETROIT | Toyota’s auto sales fell 16 percent in January, a month when it recalled millions of vehicles and halted sales of several models. Most other automakers reported higher sales and looked for opportunities to snatch sales from the troubled Japanese automaker.

January is typically a weak month for U.S. auto sales, but automakers expected sales to improve over last January, when they dipped to a 26-year low because of the weak economy.

General Motors Co. said its January sales rose 14 percent with higher fleet and crossover vehicle sales. Crossovers are similar to sport utility vehicles in size but sit on a car frame instead of a truck one. Rival Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, also saw sales rise 25 percent on higher fleet sales, while Nissan Motor Co.’s rose 16 percent with higher demand for sedans such as the Versa, Sentra and Maxima. Hyundai Motor Co.’s sales rose 24 percent as sales of the newly redesigned Tucson SUV doubled.

Chrysler fell 8 percent on declining sales of Ram trucks and Jeeps, while Honda Motor Co. sales slipped 5 percent on weaker SUV and crossover demand. Korean automaker Kia said its January U.S. sales were essentially flat.

Susan Docherty, GM vice president of sales, said it’s too early to tell whether the largest U.S. automaker gained sales because of Toyota Motor Corp.’s problems. But she said dealers reported increased traffic from Toyota customers.

Toyota said it would suspend sales of the Camry sedan, its top-selling vehicle, and seven other cars and trucks on Jan. 26 after a recall over sticky accelerator pedals that could cause sudden acceleration. Toyota has said dealers will get the parts to fix the problem by the end of this week.

“There is no doubt that the stop sale which was put in place last week impacted our sales,” said Bob Carter, Toyota’s group vice president and general manager.

Mr. Carter said it’s difficult to quantify the size of the sales drop because of the accelerator problem, but that the January results were 23 percent below Toyota’s internal targets, or about 20,000 sales.

The eight models for which the sales were suspended amounted to about 60 percent of Toyota dealers’ inventory, he said.

The car-buying site Edmunds.com predicted Toyota’s U.S. market share would drop to 14.7 percent in January, its lowest level since March 2006. The recall affects 2.3 million cars and trucks in the U.S.

GM last week offered zero percent financing and other incentives to Toyota drivers. Miss Docherty said that’s an example of how quickly the new, leaner GM can react to dealers and customers. Ford also offered incentives to Toyota drivers who trade in vehicles.

“This was an opportunity to help customers who are truly concerned about their personal safety,” she said during a conference call with reporters.

George Pipas, Ford’s top sales analyst, said he did not see evidence that Ford was taking buyers from Toyota.

Mr. Pipas said much of his company’s sales increase came from a jump in sales to rental car companies, governments and other large fleet buyers.

Ford said fleet sales jumped more than 150 percent over January of last year, an indication that the credit crunch was lifting and businesses could spend on fleets again.

Mike DiGiovanni, GM’s top sales analyst, said that despite mixed economic news, there are enough signs of recovery for the company to raise its estimates for total U.S. sales.

Last month GM predicted 11 million to 12 million sales for 2010, but raised the low end of the range on Tuesday to 11.5 million.

“We are slightly more optimistic,” he said.

GM also held its market share at 21 percent, which he said solidified its lead over Ford and Toyota.

Ken Czubay, Ford’s vice president of sales, said Toyota’s actions may have hurt sales for the industry as a whole toward the end of last month. “There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” he said. “I don’t think the month enjoyed its normal pickup on the last weekend.”

Sales never really recovered last year, totaling 10.4 million cars and light trucks, the lowest since 1982.

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