Weighed down by steep declines in South America and Asia, worldwide light-vehicle sales fell last year, according to preliminary figures compiled by Automotive International.
According to the tally, which represents an estimated 91 percent of the total world market, light-vehicle sales slipped 0.7 percent in 1998 to about 41.8 million units. Sales data from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, China and Africa were not available. Here's a look at how selected markets did in 1998:
Light trucks carried the market to the second-highest sales ever in 1998. More than 15.6 million vehicles were sold in 1998, with nearly half of those being pickups or sport-utilities.
Ford led the way, with more than 2.3 million light trucks sold.
European imports did especially well last year, climbing 18.7 percent. Volkswagen of America Inc. paced European imports with a 55.1 percent sales increase over 1997.
The Toyota Camry was the best-selling automobile for the second year in a row, with 429,575 units sold. Nissan Motor Corp., however, ran into major trouble in 1998, as its sales declined 14.7 percent.
The robust 1998 sales were hampered by midyear strikes at General Motors. Without the GM strikes, U.S. sales would have surpassed the record set in 1986.
Sales in Western Europe remained buoyant during 1998, with all major markets doing as well, if not better, than expected.
At home, German makers continued to dominate their segments in a market now recovering strongly after the downturn of 1996 and 1997. Volkswagen Group remained the biggest seller across Western Europe.
The French market boomed, nearly hitting the 2 million mark for the first time since 1992, led largely by the resurgence of domestic makers Renault SA and PSA Peugeot Citroen. Between them, these two accounted for almost 60 percent of the French market.
Similarly, in Italy, Fiat Auto remained the dominant force, although its future as a stand-alone manufacturer remains uncertain. Some sort of alliance has been expected for some time as the company strives to bring manufacturing costs down in line with other large automakers.
Government incentives for consumers to get rid of their old vehicles and buy new buoyed the Italian market. While Fiat sales held strong, Italy proved a surprise sales success for foreign imports, with Daewoo, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Renault, Skoda, Toyota and Volkswagen all increasing sales.
Spain reached record sales, and the fifth-largest car-producing nation now has one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. It still must sort out its tax structure, which allows imports, particularly used vehicles, to be sold more cheaply than locally built ones.
In the United Kingdom, Ford dominated sales as the market grew to 2.2 million, although pricing remains a hot issue. Pressure is being exerted by consumers to cut the prices of new vehicles, which are significantly higher than elsewhere in Europe.
Automakers argue this is because of the United King-dom's unique company-car market, which distorts prices. Heavy discounts given to fleet buyers have to be recouped in the private sector.
The Scandinavian market continued to grow. But as local buyers downsize, Ger-man manufacturers have been eating into the traditional market domination of Volvo and Saab.
Central, Eastern Europe
The economic crisis that swept through the Far East started to catch up with Central and Eastern Europe last year, with the Russian market hit hardest.
The currency crisis that hit the country in August threw many new production plans into uncertainty. General Motors, Ford, Renault and Fiat have committed to Russian plants, and while these plans will go ahead, the speed at which they do and the initial output are likely to be scaled down.
There also were signs for concern in the booming markets of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Czech market in particular, which has been overheating through years of overspending, was falling by the end of 1998.
Analysts expect Hungary, which passed the 100,000 new-car sales mark in 1998 for the first time, and Slovakia to come under economic pressure by the middle of this year. In other areas in the region, ethnic and political tensions will have an adverse effect on the auto industry.
Growth in the region is expected to slow to single digits over the next three years, down from the double-digit growth of the past 10 years. It remains to be seen what effect Renault's plans for Dacia have on the industry - and sales - in Romania, while the future of Zastava in the former Yugoslavia is also in doubt. Some other projects are also in danger.
Daewoo, for example, is still struggling with economic problems in the domestic South Korean market while faced with new plants in Poland, Romania and Ukraine. Poland remained strong in terms of vehicle sales and is now the seventh-largest market in Europe overall.
Still seen as a relatively immediate growth market, the South American roller-coaster took a massive downturn in the second half of 1998 when the strong trade links with Asia became destabilized.
Brazil took drastic action by hiking the local purchase tax, which in turn caused interest rates to double from 20 percent to 40 percent - hardly a measure designed to stimulate the new-car market.
The move was designed to protect Brazil's currency, but the result was a significant slowdown in the new-car market. Prices of new vehicles went up by as much as 10 percent, while some manufacturers were forced to lay off workers as demand dropped.
The purchase tax was cut to previous levels toward the end of the year, and interest rates dropped, but the Brazilian government was forced to devalue the currency at the beginning of this year.
None of this has affected automaker plans to increase production in Brazil. They appear to have become used to the wild fluctuations in this market and are aware of its huge short-term potential.
General Motors, Ford and Renault are among those investing $25 billion in the region.
With tariffs of up to 49 percent on imports, local assembly is seen as the only economically viable way of tapping this market. Hyundai, however, has shelved plans to build the H100 and the Kia Towner and Topic commercial vehicles.
Whatever happens in Brazil has an effect in the markets of its Mercosur partners, particularly Argentina, which also experienced a gradual slowdown during the year. The current sales year will depend largely on Brazil's performance following its currency devaluation.