US auto sales fall 34% in April

NEW YORK: Bad news at Chrysler and General Motors took a bite out of US auto sales that fell 34 percent in April as consumers shied away from dealerships amid growing economic uncertainty.

The news of Chrysler's bankruptcy on Thursday came too late in the month to have a major impact on sales.

But school closings as a result of swine flu and the media's focus on the ongoing problems in the automotive industry had "a little bit of a CNN effect" on overall industry sales, said Ford analyst George Pipas.

"There are indications in the economy several leading indicators, that suggest that we are near or at bottom in auto sales, and also the economy's contraction is beginning to subside," Pipas said.

Ford sales fell 32 percent to 134,401 in April and were down 40 percent for the year to date at 458,772.

But Ford -- which unlike GM and Chrysler has not needed government aid to survive a collapse in auto sales -- celebrated the fact that it has managed to increase its share of the US market for six out of the past seven months.

Ford managed to overtake Toyota to win second place in April with 15.8 percent of the US market, up from 15.1 percent in April of 2008, according to Autodata.

"Our view is that, not withstanding the travails that relate to GM and Chrysler the economy is poised to start expanding and that we could well see a modest recovery in the second half of the year," Pipas said in a conference call.

Chrysler saw sales drop 48 percent in April to 43,138 as its market share fell to 9.4 percent form 11.8 percent a year ago but said showroom traffic actually increased after the bankruptcy announcement Thursday.

The troubled automaker attributed the sharp drop in April sales to a planned reduction in low-margin sales to fleet customers and the broad economic downturn and said it hoped to keep sales stable despite the bankruptcy filing.

"Chrysler retail sales and share were well above expectations, which shows the real strength of our dealers and products in the marketplace in spite of a month filled with troubling headlines," said Jim Press, Chrysler vice chairman and president.

"This gives us reason for optimism as we begin working on our new alliance and restructuring plans."

Chrysler, which has shuttered plants as it restructures under court protection, said it had a 114 day supply of inventory of 336,913 units. It hopes to emerge from bankruptcy protection within 30 to 60 days.

General Motors -- which last week announced plans to idle 13 plants over the coming months and has until June 1 to present a revised viability plan to the Treasury Department -- reported a 34-percent drop in April US auto sales to 173,007 vehicles.

"We continue to suffer with the brands that are for sale or being wound down," said Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president for North American sales and marketing.

"We also had to fight off erroneous rumors that we were selling off the Buick brand."

Despite these challenges, LaNeve said he was "encouraged" by the fact that industry sales appear to have stabilized and GM managed to increase its share to 20.9 percent from 20.5 percent in April 2008.

Toyota Motor reported a 42-percent drop in April US sales to 126,540 vehicles as its share fell to 15.4 percent from 17.4 percent a year earlier.

Sales for the year to date were down 38 percent at 486,212 vehicles.

Honda's sales fell less sharply than other major automakers, down 25 percent to 101,029 with its share up to 12.3 percent from 10.8 percent in April 2008, according to Autodata.

Hyundai also managed to increase its share of the US market to 4.1 percent from 3.1 percent a year ago as April sales fell just 14 percent to 33,952 vehicles.

Nissan's share fell to 5.8 percent from 6.1 percent in April 2008 as sales fell 38 percent to 47,190 vehicles, according to Autodata.