One month after closing out the best year in history, U.S. auto sales in January rose 10.3 percent from a strong month a year earlier to set a blistering seasonally adjusted pace of just over 18 million units.
Light-vehicle sales rose to 1,208,786 as car sales increased 13.6 percent and trucks rose 7 percent.
'It wasn't supposed to be this good,' said Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., which had record January sales for Toyota and Lexus divisions. Rivals Honda Division and Infiniti also set January records. Nissan Division gained 22.5 percent.
'We're off to a brisk beginning, and we expect the industry to be off to a brisk beginning,' said Paul Ballew, general director of industry and market analysis for General Motors.
Ballew said auto sales show no signs of softening. 'The strength of the economy and improving affordability are an effective one-two punch,' he said.
In 1999, January sales were so strong that forecasters began tearing up conservative sales predictions as soon as the results were in. That is not happening this year.
Despite the fast takeoff, GM is sticking to its forecast of about 16 million for the year vs. the record 17 million sold in 1999. And John Casesa, auto industry analyst for Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York, said he's sticking with his 2000 forecast of 16.3 million despite his January seasonally adjusted annual rate estimate of 17.8 million.
'January is only one month,' said Casesa.
'Interest rates are going up, and that is going to start impacting demand sometime this year. It probably won't be until midyear, but the forecast is for the full year,' he said.
January sales would have been even higher if not for bad winter weather in the last 10 days of the month, Casesa said.
GM's light-vehicle sales were up 11.5 percent to 345,996. That included a 17.9 percent gain in light-truck sales. Part of that made up for a poor year-ago month for the Chevrolet S10 pickup. But there were big gains this year for the Chevy Blazer, Oldsmobile Bravada, GMC Yukon and other light trucks.
GM car sales were up 6 percent, including a 49 percent increase for Cadillac. Cadillac sales were boosted by the new 2000 Cadillac DeVille.
'We'd have to go back to January 1979 to find a month as strong (for GM) as we've seen (in January 2000),' Ballew said. GM's retail sales, as opposed to fleet sales, were up 20 percent in January, he said.
FORD TRUCKS DIP
Ford Motor Co. sales were up a more modest 4.4 percent. That included a loss in light-truck sales and market share for the month. Bright spots for Ford included Lincoln, Jaguar and Volvo.
'This strong showing offers encouragement as we set out to break the sales records we set in 1999,' said Hans-Olov Olsson, CEO of Volvo Cars of North America Inc. Volvo is shooting for 145,000 sales in the United States this year vs. a record 116,692 in 1999.
Other European brands continued to enjoy the success they had in 1999. Audi of America Inc. had its best January ever, and the Volkswagen brand reported its best January sales in 21 years. BMW of North America Inc. and its sister division, Land Rover North America Inc., set January records. So did Mercedes-Benz USA Inc.
Mercedes' parent DaimlerChrysler was one of the few downers for the month, with sales off 4.8 percent from last year's record. Jamie Jameson, vice president of sales and marketing operations for the Chrysler group, said that does not indicate how the rest of the year will go.
'To look at sales on a month-to-month basis can be dangerous,' he said. 'You need to look at what happened the year before, and the last three or four months back. We see the industry staying strong.'
Casesa at Merrill Lynch said it will take more strong months to get him to raise his 2000 forecast: 'A few more months like this - interest-rate-related slowdown, or no interest-rate slowdown, we're going to be too low.'
Staff Reporters Joe Miller and Michael Woodyard contributed to this report