DETROIT (AP) — The auto industry yesterday reported its
second-straight month of sluggish sales with a meager 5 percent
increase over last February’s bleak results in the run-up to the
war in Iraq. The three U.S. automakers — General Motors
Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group
— saw combined sales rise just 2 percent.

Asian brands performed better, with Nissan Motor Co. reporting a
46.1 percent increase over last year and Toyota Motor Corp.
claiming a 17.7 percent increase. Honda Motor Co. reported that
sales rose 7.1 percent.

The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate for February was 16.4
million units, compared with 15.6 million in February 2003.

The sales rate indicates what sales for the full year would be
if they remained at the same pace for all 12 months. Full-year
sales for 2003 were 16.7 million.The sluggish beginning to 2004
could be the result of intensive sales at the end of the year, said
David Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities Inc.

“We may still be feeling a hangover from the sales blowout
in December,” he said. Despite the lackluster results, many
auto executives were optimistic.

“The end of last year, plus all the positive economic
data, seemed to suggest a pretty strong 2004,” Chrysler Group
chief executive Dieter Zetsche said at the Geneva International
Motor Show. “I still believe that, but the first two months
don’t show too much of it.”

However, Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota’s
U.S. operations, warned that if fuel prices continue to climb, it
could adversely impact the market.

GM, the world’s biggest automaker, said it sold 6 percent
more vehicles, including a 9.4 percent increase in car sales and a
3.4 percent rise in truck sales.

Paul Ballew, GM’s executive director for market and industry
analysis, said the results were in line with the company’s
expectations. Ford , meanwhile, saw sales fall 3.2 percent. Car
sales dropped 15.2 percent, while truck sales were up 3.3 percent,
buoyed by the continued success of F-series pickups.

The nation’s No. 2 automaker attributed the February sales
decrease to declining sales to fleet customers, which it said
reflects its decision to move away from the daily rental
market.

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