Ford, GM post US sales gains as Toyota slips

CHICAGO: Ford and General Motors posted sharp US sales gains Monday as Toyota's sales stumbled amid a mass safety recall that led the Japanese automaker to suspend the sale of eight of its most popular models last week.

Total industry sales grew six percent to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 10.78 million vehicles from last January's depressed level of 9.62 million, according to Autodata.

But in a sign of continued weakness in the market, they were below December's more robust seasonally adjusted rate of 11.25 million units.

Toyota said its sales came in 23 percent lower than internal targets made before the recall was announced on January 21 and sales and production of the eight affected models were suspended on January 26.

"There is no doubt that the stop sale which was put in place last week impacted our sales," said Bob Carter, general manager for the Toyota division.

Toyota's market share fell 3.8 points to 14.1 percent of the US market in January after sales fell 15.8 percent to 98,796 vehicles, according to Autodata.

That was the first time Toyota's US sales have fallen below 100,000 vehicles a month since January 1999.

But Carter said it's not yet clear whether the stigma from the recall of millions of vehicles due to faulty accelerator pedals has turned consumers off Toyota products.

"I don't want to relate that to demand because I'm being pragmatic: 60 percent of our dealer inventory for the last 10 days of the month was really not available for sale," Carter said in a conference call.

Sales of vehicles not affected by the recall were "very close and in some cases actually exceeded" internal targets, Carter said.

And Toyota dealers are reporting that incentives offered by competitors in the wake of the recall to lure Toyota customers had "minimal to no effect on our business."

"We are fortunate to have a very strong brand," Carter said.

"Most of our consumers are confident in the brand. And many are delaying their purchase to see the outcome" of the fix Toyota has already begun to implement, he added.

Ford - which managed to take the number two spot in the US back from Toyota in January as its market share grew 2.4 points to 17.3 percent - said its 24 percent sales gain was due more to strong products than Toyota's problems.

While Ford joined other automakers in offering Toyota customers incentives to trade-in their vehicles it has not yet seen a material impact on 'conquest' sales.

"My view looking over this five day wheel base is that there was not a significant movement because people were not going to overreact to that uncertainty," Ken Czubay, Ford vice president for US marketing, sales and service said in a conference call.

Czubay said he was disappointed in Ford's retail sales in January and noted that a large portion of January's growth to 112,406 vehicles was due to a sharp increase in sales to government, commercial and retail fleets.

But he forecast better months ahead, telling reporters that "the elements of our product vision are really starting to gain momentum and we look forward to a very robust year with new products throughout 2010."

General Motors reported a 14.6 percent increase in overall January US sales to 146,825 vehicles, largely with the help of fleet sales amid an overall weak industry performance.

While GM's market share grew 1.5 points to 20.9 percent, executives there also said they did not think the Toyota recall had a significant impact.

"With one week we don't think there was a heck of a lot of diversion," said Mike DiGiovanni, executive director, global market and industry analysis.

Chrysler meanwhile saw its sales fall 8.1 percent to 57,143 units while its market share slipped to 8.2 percent from 8.4 percent in December and 9.5 percent in January 2009.

Honda's sales fell 5 percent to 67,479 vehicles while its market share fell 1.1 points to 9.7 percent.

Nissan's sales climbed 16.1 percent to 62,572 while its share grew 1.2 points to 9.0 percent of the US market.

Hyundai's sales jumped 24.4 percent to 20,503 vehicles in January as its share grew 0.7 points to 4.4 percent.