SALES TALES: We need credit, that's for sure

John K. Teahen Jr. is the senior editor of Automotive News.
Looking for a quote to sum up the economy in general and the auto business in particular?

Try this: "The only thing certain about the next 15 to 18 months is uncertainty."

I'll give the credit to my boss, Keith Crain, speaking at a staff meeting last week.

No one knows what's in store, and anyone who professes otherwise is the worst kind of charlatan. As 2009 approaches, be wary of sales predictions for the new year.

One thing is certain: Solving the credit crisis — and doing it quickly — is paramount to the health of the auto industry.

Every phase of this business operates on somebody else's money.

Without credit, manufacturers can't buy steel and glass and rubber. Dealers can't order new cars and trucks, and customers can't buy them.

Has crossover clutter hurt sales of the Ford Flex, which went on sale in June?

Crossover clutter

The current car and light-truck sales figures don't satisfy anyone, but one segment of the industry is growing.

I'll let you decide whether that's a good thing.

The number of crossover nameplates on the market continues to rise. In September, 49 lines were vying for a place in the sun. Last January there were 43.

The market may gain, but I don't expect any of the 49 players to show much of an upturn.

Everybody wants to get into the act. For example, Ford division offers four crossovers — the Escape, Edge, Taurus X and the new Flex, which went on sale in June.

Ford wants 70,000 to 100,000 Flex sales in its first year, but that looks like pie in the sky.

In the Flex's first four months on the market, sales totaled only 7,552. Granted, they were four mighty tough months for the entire industry. But did crossover clutter hurt the Flex?

You can ask the same question about the Journey, which reached Dodge showrooms in February. Sales topped 7,500 in May but were below 5,000 in August and September. Another case of crossover clutter?

Do you suppose Chevrolet is asking those questions, too? Chevy's Traverse crossover went on sale in September.

Blending in

The Japanese automotive kingpins delight in telling us how "American" they are — U.S. plants, U.S. taxes, U.S. jobs, U.S. community involvement.

Toyota and Nissan took their Americanization a step further in September. Nissan North America's sales were down 36.8 percent from last year; Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s were off 32.3 percent.

That put them right in the ballpark with Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC. Ford's domestic-brand sales plunged 33.7 percent, and Chrysler's fell 32.8 percent.

Fleets to the fore

In the early months of this year, General Motors bragged about reducing its sales to daily rental fleets and increasing its retail deliveries. It was almost as though fleet transactions were something to be shunned.

Then came September.

GM bumped up its fleet sales. It didn't say how much, but it was enough to hold the unit loss for GM's domestic brands to 15.5 percent, about half the downturn suffered by most of its U.S. and Japanese rivals in September.

And GM's September market share was 29.1 percent, its highest since June 2005.

Love those fleets!

You can reach John K. Teahen Jr. at



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