Decent Zip for September Auto Sales

GM and Ford saw rising results, while Chrysler sputtered again. The big surprise: GM's showing in passenger cars

More good news on the economic front: U.S. auto sales ran at a healthy 16.7 million-unit annual clip in September, according to the latest industry stats. Although below the supercharged 19 million-unit August pace, the September numbers are nevertheless strong. The month's 1.3 million-vehicle sales were 2% ahead of September, 2002, levels. Detroit's Big Three, which all suffered sales declines through the summer, had mixed success after Labor Day. General Motors (GM ) and Ford (F ) gained, while Chrysler (DCX ) declined.

GM sales rose 13% last month, although the increase comes against a weak September, 2002. Its SUV sales were especially strong, although its Hummer unit declined 12%. Robust truck sales weren't surprising, but GM also racked up a 10% gain in passenger cars, led by Chevrolet and Pontiac. Strong sales of Chevy Impala and Monte Carlo midsize cars and Pontiac Grand Am and Grand Prix sporty cars is an encouraging sign that Detroit's auto giant is regaining some traction in segments where the Japanese have held sway.

Sales increased 6% at Ford, where pickup trucks and SUVs remain the stars. Ford says the advertising launch of its new 2004 F-150 pickup lured a lot of shoppers to its showrooms. Sales of F-series pickups rose 31%, to 81,782 trucks -- a mix of the new models and the previous version. But Ford says many customers who came to gawk at the new truck stayed to buy other models.


  Sales of the Ranger compact pickup jumped 15%, while the Escape and Expedition SUVs gained 29% and 52%, respectively. However Ford, unlike GM, is still losing headway in passenger cars. Ford saw car sales drop 12%, with the Mustang and Focus posting declines. Japanese affiliate Mazda took a beating in September. The racy new RX8 wasn't enough to keep Mazda's aging lineup from a 19% sales decline.

DaimlerChrysler's picture continues to grow gloomier (see BW European Cover Story, 9/19/03, "DaimlerChrysler: Stalled"). Chrysler sales slumped 15%, dragged down by weakness across its entire lineup. Jeep Grand Cherokee sales were up 9%, but every other Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep model was flat or down for the month, except for the newly arrived Chrysler Crossfire and Pacifica, for which no year-over-year comparison can be made.

Chrysler sold 578 of its sporty Crossfire roadsters. And the daily sales rate for the Pacifica, a minivan-SUV blend that got off to a poor start in March, increased 15% from August to September.


  Toyota Motor (TM ) sales rose 11%, to more than 500,000 for the first time in a single quarter. American Honda (HMC ) saw a 1% increase, thanks to strong truck sales. But ailing Mitsubishi continued its year-long slump with a 30% sales decline in September. Porsche (VLKAY ) sales zoomed 96%, thanks to the introduction of its first SUV, the Cayenne.

As the year enters the final quarter, Detroit is rolling out another round of incentives. GM increased cash rebates to as much as $4,500 on some models, and it extended 0% financing to cover most of its vehicles. Chrysler raised rebates on the outgoing 2003 models to a range of $2,000 to $5,000, with 2004 models carrying cash-back offers of $1,500 to $4,000. Ford said it would be announcing its new incentives soon, too.

Motown, it seems, is taking no chances on losing its September momentum as 2003 nears the finish line.

By Kathleen Kerwin in Detroit

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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