General Motors' chief sales analyst made a big splash last week when he said the U.S. auto market is such a mess that — for the first time ever — China is leading the United States in sales.
"We are estimating that China is going to come in at a 10.7 million seasonally adjusted annual rate in January, about 790,000 units," Mike DiGiovanni told reporters during a sales briefing. "The U.S. industry we estimate at about 668,000 units, or about 9.8 million" at a seasonally adjusted annual rate.
But things aren't quite that grim. DiGiovanni has an apples-and-oranges problem.
Seasoned China watchers noted that the China total, unlike the U.S. figure, includes commercial vehicles, not just cars and light trucks.
Although the 790,000 estimate for China in January sounds plausible — hard numbers aren't yet available — commercial vehicles generally account for about one-third of China's total. So, on a light-vehicle basis, the United States remains ahead — even though the actual U.S. total for January was just 656,881.
Asked to clarify DiGiovanni's numbers, GM spokesman John McDonald said: "Everyone figures these numbers differently."
So the "lags-behind-China" headlines remain on news Web sites across the nation — not such a bad thing for automakers, perhaps, as the Obama administration and Congress prepare to deliberate on whether the U.S. industry needs help.