Even in the auto business, numbers sometimes do not tell the whole story.
The May sales report is an example. The numbers indicate that General Motors and Ford Motor Co. made major gains against Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. and American Honda Motor Co.
Not so. Recall that gasoline reached $3.60 a gallon in May 2008, and Americans suddenly fell in love with small cars. The Detroit 3 were short of them, and Toyota and Honda had plenty of them. The Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla/Matrix were the No. 1 and 2 sellers in May of last year, even outpacing the Ford F-150 pickup, the usual leader.
This year, small-car sales are a dying ember, and the Toyota-Honda supply of small vehicles is hardly a factor. In May, GM's domestic sales were down 28.7 percent, and Ford's were down 24.2 percent, while Toyota Motor Sales tanked 40.7 percent, and American Honda slid 41.5 percent.
It was GM's lightest year-to-year loss since September and Ford's lightest since July.
Total May sales were disappointing, but not as disappointing as in earlier months this year. The total of 926,130 new cars and light trucks sold in May was down 33.7 percent from last year, the lowest year-to-year decline of 2009, and the total was the best of the year.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that conditions are improving, only that they are a bit less horrible.
For five months, sales of 3,950,363 were off 36.5 percent from last year's 6,224,463.
The seasonally adjusted annual sales rate is a more encouraging barometer. In May, it was 9.9 million units, the highest of this year. But it indicates 2009 sales of about 10 million cars and light trucks. That would be a stunning dip from 13.2 million in 2008.