Decline in Fleet Sales Contributes to 27-Year Low

With commercial and government fleet sales dropping off the cliff in January, U.S. auto sales for the month fell below those in China for the first time, according to industry estimates reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Rental companies such as Hertz and Dollar Thrifty nearly froze acquisitions, and shuttered factories were unable to meet any orders they would have placed.

Calculations from General Motors Corp. were a grim indication of just how far the U.S. market has fallen. Chinese consumers bought about 790,000 vehicles in the month, compared with just under 680,000 sold to customers in the U.S. A year earlier, U.S. sales totaled 1 million cars and light trucks.

Last year, overall sales declined 18 percent from 2007, and most industry forecasts call for a 20 percent decline in 2009.

In January, GM sales declined 49 percent, to 129,277 vehicles sold. Toyota Motor Corp. was off 32 percent from January 2007. Toyota Motor Corp. surpassed GM in worldwide sales for the first time last year.

Ford Motor Co., No. 3 in the U.S., saw a 40 percent decline in January, with 93,060 cars and light trucks sold. Honda Motor Co. sold 63,175 vehicles, a 27 percent slide, but surpassed Chrysler, which sold 62,157 vehicles, a 55 percent decline. For all of 2008, Chrysler sold about 25,000 more vehicles than Honda.

Only Subaru, up 8 percent, and Hyundai, up 14 percent, showed sales increases for the month.

Emily Kolinski Morris, Ford’s chief economist, said a sales rebound would depend upon improving consumer confidence and a second-half recovery based on a government-funded stimulus package.

Commercial and government fleets sales fell steeply in January. Ford’s fleet sales were down 65 percent, to 2,000 vehicles, in January compared with a year earlier, and GM’s were down 80 percent. Only 1,000 cars sold by GM went to rental fleets. Chrysler’s rental fleet sales decreased 91 percent.

Ford’s F-Series pickups were down 39 percent in January. Just two GM models, the Saturn Astra and the Pontiac Vibe, both relatively small-volume vehicles, showed year-over-year increases.

All three U.S. automakers say more flexibility in financing will be essential for an industry rebound, noting that dealers were still being forced to turn away would-be buyers because they don't qualify for loans.

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