A troubling observation about Toyota's sales

Lindsay Chappell is the U.S. mid-South bureau chief of Automotive News.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In a parallel universe where there was no disruptive Toyota safety recall going on, a different scrutiny would have fallen onto Toyota's January sales results. Reporters and analysts would instead be sifting through Toyota's numbers right now looking for signs that our woozy economy is healing.

Here's a troubling observation: It's still sick.

The industry's January 2010 sales are compared to January 2009. In case we've all forgotten already, the January 2009 sales tally was an absolute funeral. Credit had evaporated. Consumers were hiding under their beds. How could January 2010 not look like an improvement?

But just when we should have been able to make a meaningful “one year later” comparison, Toyota's business crashed on Jan. 26 as it halted sales of its primary models. The recall killed any meaningful comparison.

Except for this: Toyota Division Vice President Bob Carter acknowledged to reporters this week that he had lost 20,000 January sales due to recall. His final tally was 83,279 sales. Do the math. Given every one of those missing 20,000 sales, Toyota would have reached 103,279 units.

There is not much comfort in that. That's just barely 700 units better than the 102,565 sales Toyota posted in January 2009, when consumers were staying home in the fetal position. Granted, January 2009 had two extra selling days, but still. The numbers would have been essentially flat. And that after 12 months of nurturing banks, rekindling factories, stabilizing gas prices and remaking product lines to suit new demands for frugality.

We have been cheering ourselves this winter with the notion that the car business is a lot better off than it was last year. It could be a long winter.