DETROIT -- U.S. auto sales slowed to a sluggish pace in February as Iraq war fears, a shaky economy and widespread joblessness slammed the brakes on consumer sentiment.
Only a handful of automakers had reported monthly results by midday Monday. But by the end of the day, industry analysts said the tallies were expected to show February light-vehicle sales fell to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of less than 16 million, down from 16.5 million in February 2002.
Ford Motor Co. said its U.S. vehicle sales fell a razor-thin 0.1 percent in February compared with a weak performance a year ago.
The results include Ford's foreign brands Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, as well as some heavy trucks. Excluding those foreign brands and trucks, Ford's sales rose 0.4 percent.
Ford's rivals, General Motors and the Chrysler group, were expected to post more significant declines in their monthly sales, as aggressive consumer incentives failed to offset negatives including rising energy prices, the chilling effect on consumers of harsh winter weather and a 20-day increase in the U.S. government's terror threat warning level.
In raising the color-coded warning level, U.S. officials cited an increased likelihood that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, blamed by Washington for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, might strike again against Americans on U.S. soil or abroad.
Ford, which offered customers an array of cash rebates, interest-free loans and other discounts to keep its sales rolling in February, said they totaled 268,196 vehicles compared with 268,404 a year earlier, including the foreign brands and some heavy trucks.
Signaling more near-term weakness in an industry that accounts for about one-fifth of U.S. retail sales, analysts said GM was expected to cut its second-quarter North American production forecast on Monday.
Production is key to automakers' earnings because they book profits when vehicles are shipped from factories to dealers rather than when they are sold on dealer lots.
Analysts say they see more slowing in U.S. vehicle sales, particularly in the remaining weeks ahead of the peak spring selling season and the expected start of a U.S.-led war in Iraq.
And that outlook was reinforced by two benchmark gauges of U.S. consumer sentiment last week, which showed it hovering at nearly 10-year lows.