January was like old times for the auto industry in the United States: The General was back in command.
General Motors was the only one of the six largest automakers to report a year-to-year sales increase last month. GM's deliveries of domestic cars and light trucks rose 2.8 percent from January 2007. About 25 percent of GM's total sales were to fleets.
Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC sold fewer domestic models than a year ago. Each of the Japanese giants also suffered a setback: Year-to-year sales dipped for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., American Honda Motor Co. Inc. and Nissan North America Inc.
Aside from GM, the entire industry had a pretty awful January. Last month's sales of 1,059,367 vehicles were the lowest for January since 1998 and down 2.9 percent from last year.
The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate was 15.8 million units. That rate usually means little after just one month. But it is important this time because it is above the 14.8 million annual sales level that Automotive News estimates would indicate an industry recession.
Five of GM's seven domestic brands posted higher sales in January than in the year-ago month. GMC was up 15.0 percent, and Saturn rose 12.1 percent. Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet also were in the black. Hummer and Pontiac lost ground.
Chevy starts strong
Losses were moderate for Toyota Motor Sales and American Honda, off 2.3 percent each. Sales of Ford Motor's domestic brands dipped 3.5 percent, while Chrysler's were off 12.1 percent, and Nissan North America sales slipped 7.3 percent.
If Toyota brand is to outsell Chevrolet this year, it will have to do so in February through December. January belonged to Chevrolet as it outpaced Toyota by 5,028 vehicles. Chevy almost doubled its year-ago lead: In January 2007, it topped Toyota by 2,657 units.
For all of 2007, Chevrolet beat Toyota brand by 88,885 sales, down considerably from its edge in earlier years. There is speculation that Toyota will grab the No. 1 position this year -- but not yet. Last month, Toyota sold about 10,000 more cars than Chevrolet, but Chevrolet sold about 15,000 more trucks than Toyota.
Ford remained a distant third among brands. Its domestic sales in January trailed Chevrolet by 18,270 units and Toyota by 13,242 units.
The Ford brand continues to lag badly in car sales. Its January sales total of 35,939 cars was only 27.6 percent of its total sales. By comparison, cars accounted for 43.7 percent of Chevrolet's sales and 52.6 percent of Toyota brand's sales.
Chrysler cars up
Chrysler LLC's January car sales rose by 13.9 percent, sparked by the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger and Caliber. But the company's truck sales plunged 22.3 percent. Blame the Dodge and Chrysler minivans and the deceased Chrysler Pacifica crossover.
Korean automakers likely will not remember January fondly.
Hyundai brand sales took a 22.6 percent hit, as both cars and trucks suffered. Kia sales were down 5.2 percent. Its Rondo did well; the Sedona did poorly.
Conversely, Daimler AG probably thought January was just great. Its sales jumped 21.7 percent. The arrival of the tiny Smart ForTwo accounted for much of the gain. And Mercedes sales rose 7.1 percent. Smart sales were estimated.
Last month wasn't so great for Volkswagen Group of America. The Audi and Bentley luxury brands notched small gains. But Volkswagen division sales dropped by 13.2 percent, pulling down the overall VW Group total by 8.8 percent.
Not only did the mid-sized Toyota Camry sedan remain the nation's best-selling car last month, it increased its advantage to several miles: Camry, 31,601; Honda Accord, 23,957. With 21,635 sales in January, the Nissan Altima was right on the Accord's heels.
The Ford F series remained America's best-selling pickup and best-selling nameplate. It outpaced the second-place Chevrolet Silverado by 5,003 units.
The Detroit 3 barely managed to hold half the U.S. market in January. Their share was 50.4 percent; they sold 9,159 more cars and light trucks than the import-badged brands. GM had 23.5 percent of the pie, up 1.3 points from last year.