DETROIT - U.S. auto sales slowed in January from the breakneck pace set a month earlier, but aggressive consumer incentives and hot products helped some automakers eke out impressive gains nonetheless.
With many leading companies reporting their results by early Monday afternoon, industry analysts said January's seasonally adjusted annual sales rate looked set to come in at about 16.2 million units.
That result, amid Iraq war fears and mounting concerns about joblessness and the U.S. economy, would be well off December's 18.3 million rate.
But it would still be above the 15.8 million rate set in January 2002 and would mean that spending on autos -- which account for about one-fifth of U.S. retail sales -- held up relatively well in January in the face of stiff head winds.
Those adverse conditions included a widely feared payback for December, when Detroit's Big 3 automakers boosted sales with a blizzard of incentives that averaged a record high of about $3,000 per vehicle.
"Many people thought that December's strong sales, combined with concerns over geopolitical events, might have kept auto buyers on the couch, in front of fireplaces. But that appears not to have been the case," said George Pipas, Ford's chief of market analysis and sales.
The University of Michigan's benchmark survey of consumer confidence showed last Friday that expectations for the year ahead had slumped to the lowest levels in a decade even though respondents' assessment of current conditions had improved slightly.
But data from the U.S. Commerce Department has shown that consumers, while wary about the future, are still spending when the price is right.
General Motors said its January U.S. sales fell 2 percent over the same month a year ago to 293,086 new cars and light trucks.
January sales at the Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG, meanwhile, were off a steep 12 percent at 129,222 vehicles. The German-American automaker said it was raising some incentives to spur better results going forward.
Bucking the trend at its cross-town rivals, Ford Motor Co., the No. 2 automaker, said its January sales rose a stronger-than-expected 4.1 percent.
Ford, which lured customers with an array of cash rebates, interest-free loans and other discounts, said January sales totaled 242,555 vehicles, including its foreign brands, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and some heavy trucks.
HONDA BUOYED BY TRUCKS
Among Asian automakers, Toyota Motor Corp. said its January sales slipped 5.7 from a strong performance a year ago.
But Honda Motor Co. Ltd. said its January sales rose 6 percent to a total of 90,003 vehicles, a new record for the month. Honda said its results were driven by a surge in its light trucks sales, and strong demand for the Acura MDX luxury SUV, along with its new Element and Pilot SUVs.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. said its U.S. sales, including its luxury Infiniti division, were up a tepid 1.2 percent, meanwhile.
Volkswagen, Europe's leading carmaker, said its U.S. sales fell 16.6 percent to 17,811 vehicles in January, including its upscale Audi brand.
Apart from weak market conditions, VW blamed the fall on its decision not to match deep discounts from other automakers.
Jarlath Costello, Ford's chief U.S. economist, said sizable increases in spending and income in December helped bolster January sales. But he cautioned that the economy is growing at a slow pace and said this was likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley's global chief economist, went even further in a research note issued on Monday, saying the U.S. economy slowed to a "stall speed" in the fourth quarter, long before the detrimental effect of a likely U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Said Roach: "To the extent that a further shock is in the offing, I fear it will be exceedingly difficult for the United States to avoid a recessionary relapse. The risk is it may already be too late."