Automakers falter

Largest manufacturers report more than 36 percent sales drop for March

April 02, 2009|By Ken Bensinger | Ken Bensinger,Tribune Newspapers

Each of the largest automakers reported today U.S. sales declines in excess of 36 percent for March, as the slumping economy continued to keep buyers out of dealerships, deepening the industry's woes.

General Motors Corp. said its monthly sales declined 45 percent compared with March 2008; last month, it sold 156,380 cars and light trucks. Chrysler's sales of 100,001 vehicles marked a 39 percent drop, the same decline as at Toyota, which delivered 132,802 autos.

Ford Motor Co.'s sales were down 41 percent, with 125,107 vehicles moving in March, while Honda Motor Co. said its numbers were down 36 percent, to 88,379. Rounding out the six largest manufacturers selling in the U.S., Nissan Motor Co. reported a 38 percent sales downtick, to 66,634.

Not a single manufacturer reported a sales increase for the month, although Kia Motors Corp., Hyundai Motor Co. and Subaru all held their declines to single digits.

The results come only two days after President Barack Obama announced that the viability plans GM and Chrysler submitted in February were unacceptable. GM has 60 days, and Chrysler 30, to prove to the government that they can get on track financially. If not, they face being cut off from further federal aid and possibly having to file for bankruptcy. Combined, the two automakers have borrowed $17.4 billion from taxpayers.

And while other automakers aren't in the same bind as GM, the tough economy has been slamming sales for anyone participating in the market. The tide of bad news about the auto industry seems to have kept buyers of all stripes on the sidelines.

"The market is very challenging," said Jim Farley, vice president of marketing and communications for Ford, which has not requested federal aid.

For the industry as a whole, U.S. sales declined 37 percent in March, according to Autodata Corp., with 857,735 vehicles delivered, down from 1.36 million a year earlier. The annualized sales rate for the month, a key industry indicator, was 9.86 million units, up slightly from February.

And while the numbers were weak, marking another month of sagging sales, some in the industry took heart in aspects of the reports.

"I think we're seeing the first signs of a brightening in outlook for the industry," said Mike DiGiovanni, chief sales analyst at GM.

He said that Obama's statements Monday, though tough, may have actually "reassured consumers in general" and convinced them that the market will eventually improve.

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