SUV, pickup, minivan sales carry the day at Ford, Chrysler Buyers flocking to popular vehicles as car sales slide

Auto industry

January 07, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DETROIT -- Two big U.S. automakers saw their sales of sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans reach records last month, even as their car sales skidded.

Ford Motor Co. said yesterday that its truck sales rose 2.1 percent to 183,342 in December, a record for the month, compared with the same period a year ago. Ford's overall sales fell 3.6 percent to 299,984 last month, pulled down by weak car sales. Ford sold 116,642 cars, down 11.4 percent from the same period a year ago.

Sales of Ford's Explorer and Expedition sport-utility vehicles, along with its Ranger pickup truck, were especially strong. "I continue to be a bull" on sales of sport-utility vehicles, said Alexander Trotman, Ford's chairman and chief executive.

Ford's announcement Monday that it would substantially reduce the smog-causing gases emitted by the vehicles was "like chicken soup -- it can't hurt" future sales, Trotman said.

Chrysler Corp. said yesterday that its sales of sport-utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks rose 8.2 percent last month to 137,567, also setting a record for December. Its car sales dropped 12.2 percent to 52,624 in December compared with the same period a year ago. Over all, Chrysler sales rose 1.7 percent last month to 190,191.

Chrysler's sales were helped by its newest sport-utility vehicle -- the Dodge Durango. Sales reached 10,716 last month for the Durango, which has three rows of seats but is a foot shorter than a Ford Expedition and 2 feet shorter than a Chevrolet Suburban, making it easier for some people to drive and park.

"We seem to have tapped into a segment no one was in before," said Thomas Stallkamp, Chrysler's president.

Chrysler's car sales, however, have been held back for several months because many dealers have run out of 1997 model Chrysler LHS, Concorde and Dodge Intrepid sedans. The redesigned replacement models have slowly begun arriving in dealerships, and car sales are expected to improve in the next few months as more become available.

The December results pushed Chrysler's total sales for the year to 2,303,788, down 5.7 percent from its record sales last year. "It was a reasonably good year," said Robert Lutz, Chrysler's vice chairman. He said he would be satisfied "if we never had a worse year than 1997."

Ford's sales were stronger in December than most analysts expected, but still the automaker had flat sales for the year. Sales in 1997 reached 3,857,955, down 0.4 percent compared with 1996. All percentage calculations are based on a daily selling rate, because there were 26 selling days last month but 25 in December 1996, and there were 307 selling days in 1997 while there were 308 in 1996.

Chrysler shares closed down 37.5 cents yesterday, at $34.6875, while Ford shares fell 81.25 cents, to $47.6875. General Motors slumped $1.1875, to $59.375.

General Motors Corp., along with Toyota and Honda, is expected to announce sales results today.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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