Instead of opening 2006 with a giant leap forward, new-car and light-truck sales barely trudged along in January
True, U.S. sales were up 7.5 percent over last year's anemic total, but the 2006 count of 1,143,014 was light years away from the 1.5 million that is considered a bellwether month in today's auto industry. And fleet sales were a major factor in the increase, especially for North American brands.
One encouraging note: The seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales came in at 17.3 million for January. Recall that last year's actual sales were just a whisper below 17 million (16,994,655).
January sales for the North American brands offered by General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler group exceeded the year-ago total, but market share continued to fall. How can that be? Easy. Their sales were up 4.6 percent; industry sales rose 7.5 percent. When you underperform the market, your market share dips.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. (Toyota-Lexus-Scion) snared 14.1 per-cent of the U.S. market in January and moved into third place in sales, displacing the Chrysler group.
American Honda Motor Co. reported January sales records for both its Honda and Acura divisions. It was the eighth consecutive monthly record for the Honda brand.
The January results raised several questions about the month and about what lies ahead in 2006 sales.
Well, at least a mini-comeback. Cars outsold trucks by 28,904 units in January, and the margin was extra car sales, not a collapse of truck deliveries. Car sales rose 16.1 percent over last year while truck sales were flat, down 0.25 percent.
It's too early to proclaim the end of the truck boom, but the numbers bear watching.
As they say about mama's chicken soup, "it couldn't hurt."
The price cut took effect Jan. 11, early enough to affect the month's deliveries. GM sales, excluding Saab, were up 5.8 percent for January.
GM's new huge SUVs were off to a fast start. Sales of the new Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe were up 36.8 percent over last year. Their sister vehicles, the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, didn't fare as well. That's because GM didn't start shipping Yukons until mid-to-late January.
Chrysler car sales were a January bright spot among North American brands, and fleet sales were a bright spot for the Chrysler line.
The Sebring was up 50.7 percent; the PT Cruiser was up 44.6 percent and the 300 was up 26 percent. Altogether, Chrysler brand cars were up 35.3 percent. Chrysler doesn't disclose gains in fleet transactions, although Chrysler group sales chief Gary Dilts did confirm that extra fleet volume boosted the Cruiser last month.
There were no special incentives or super-duper rebates during the month. The company said that for the Chrysler 300, retail sales rose as well as fleet sales.
It's still falling. In January, their combined share was 55.7 percent for North American brands, down from 57.2 percent in January 2005 and 56.9 percent for all of 2005.
Each of the three companies sold more new vehicles than in January last year.
GM sales of North American vehicles were up 5.8 percent; Ford sales rose 2.6 percent, and the Chrysler group was up 5.0 percent. But market share slipped for all three. GM, at 25.5 percent, lost 0.4 percentage point; Ford, at 16.7 percent, lost 0.7 point; Chrysler group, at 13.6 percent, lost 0.3 point.
Toyota seems to be something like the 800-pound gorilla. It sleeps wherever it pleases. A better question might be: Can Toyota Motor Sales catch Ford Motor Co.? In January, Toyota was 29,728 behind Ford's North American brands. In January last year, Toyota was 44,538 behind Ford.
As GM's and Ford Motor's shares shrink and others grow, we're starting to look at things differently. It's really a Big 6 -- that's GM's and Ford's North American brands, plus the Chrysler group, Toyota Motor Sales, Nissan North America and American Honda. That sextet sold 971,661 new vehicles last month, up 7.1 percent from 2005.
Their combined market share slipped to 85.0 percent in January. That's because the former Big 3 are losing share even faster than Toyota, Nissan and Honda can gain it.
To be sure, there remains a wide range from the top of the Big 6 to the bottom -- from GM's domestic brands' 25.5 percent last month to Nissan-Infiniti's 6.6 percent. But year after year, that gap is narrowing. So six is our new magic number.
You may e-mail John K. Teahen Jr. at [email protected]