Economists have said the nation's economy should be cooling off, but if the auto industry is any indication, economists are all wet.
Sales of cars and light trucks in January grew 7.3 percent over last year, continuing the strength that made 1998 sales the second highest in history. The January total was 1,094,505.
Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG enjoyed buoyant sales, but General Motors could not keep pace.
GM reported total sales (including Saab) were off 0.1 percent (395 units) from last year.
Ford and its Jaguar subsidiary reported an increase of 4.6 percent over January 1998. DaimlerChrysler (Mercedes-Benz and the former Chrysler Corp.) was up 13.5 percent.
'We're off to a real rip-roaring start, as far as I can see,' said George Magliano, an automotive industry analyst with the WEFA Group in New York.
Based on January sales, WEFA's seasonally adjusted total for 1999 is 15.7 million.
Sales will likely slow in the second half of the year, and actual 1999 sales should be about 15.2 million, Magliano said.
STARTUP BLUES AT GM
GM's dip was largely the result of troubles in getting its new national sales management organization into operation, said Mike DiGiovanni, the company's chief forecaster.
'We really are having some problems with the new field organization. That, along with some kinks in the computer ordering system, caused us to not have vehicles in the right places at the right times,' DiGiovanni said.
Low gasoline prices helped spark further increases in sales of light trucks. Sales were up 10.8 percent over last year, and light trucks accounted for 49.7 percent of January sales.
DaimlerChrysler's popular sport-utility, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, notched a gain of 24.4 percent, leading to a 14.0 percent boost in DaimlerChrysler's overall light-truck sales.
Ford, paced by strong demand for its F-series pickups and the Windstar minivan, reported a light-truck sales gain of 17.7 percent.
RANGER UP 28.5%
Sales of the Ranger were up 28.5 percent. George Pipas, a Ford sales analyst, said customers were flocking to the new four-door, which accounts for one in every three Ranger sales.
At the same time, GM saw demand for its Chevrolet S10 pickup sink 32.4 percent.
While some buyers may have defected to the Ranger, part of the reason for the drop was the cancellation of an employee discount sales plan for the small pickup.
Through the end of 1998, GM employees could buy S10s for $69 per month. That program was discontinued at the end of the year, said Chevrolet spokesman Dan Hubbert.
Sales of GM's full-sized pickups were mixed, with Chevrolet reporting a gain of 0.9 percent for the Silverado and GMC reporting a decline of 13.8 percent for the Sierra.
Overall, GM reported January's light-truck sales were off 7.5 percent from last year.
CARS RISE FOR MONTH
Industrywide, January car sales were up 4.1 percent over last year. Ford's car sales dropped 12.9 percent, partly because of cutbacks in fleet sales.
In January, Ford trimmed its deliveries to the daily rental companies by 48 percent, Pipas said.
'Our focus is on improving the profitability of our business, not on sales at any price,' he said. 'Daily rental is the least profitable segment in the industry.'
Ford will continue to cut its deliveries to the rental companies, Pipas said.
Cadillac suffered a hangover from its December sales binge. High rebates (up to $6,000 a car) expired at the end of the year, and Cadillac's January sales dropped 39.1 percent from the year-ago month.
Paced by the New Beetle and strong demand for the Passat, Volkswagen Division sales rose 45.2 percent in January. Coupled with a 27.4 percent advance for Audi, Vokswagen of America was up 41.7 percent.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. rang up an advance of 22.3 percent - 20.1 percent for Toyota Division and 41.2 percent for Lexus Division.