DETROIT -- Higher fleet volume drove January U.S. light-vehicle sales to a modest 6 percent gain over a deeply depressed market a year earlier.
The industry managed to move 698,990 units last month despite putting an average of $326 less on the hood and Toyota partially suspending sales at month end.
But within the industry's 6 percent sliver of growth, lots happened in January.
• Sales crashed 16 percent at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., enough to push it out of the No. 2 spot.
• Ford Motor Co. rode the fleet sales bandwagon to a 25 percent gain -- and moved past Toyota by selling 17,481 more vehicles.
• Last year's bankruptcy twins got separated: Sales jumped 14 percent at General Motors Co. but sagged 8 percent at Chrysler Group.
• Nissan opened its incentive purse enough to boost volume 16 percent and muscle past Chrysler for the No. 5 position.
• January's seasonally adjusted annual sales rate was 10.5 million -- below December's SAAR of 11.9 million, when automakers used year-end incentives to help boost volume 15 percent.
Hobbled by suspended sales of eight recalled models in the last six days of the month, Toyota lost more volume than any auto group in January. Sales fell 19 percent for the Toyota brand, which had all the recalled models. The Lexus luxury brand, which wasn't targeted in the Jan. 21 recall, gained 5 percent last month.
One key to January sales was a return to more normal levels of fleet sales. Enough commercial, government and daily rental fleet buyers returned to the market to boost GM fleet sales 32 percent, said analyst Himanshu Patel of JPMorgan in New York.
Ford's fleet sales jumped 154 percent from the depressed levels of January 2009 to account for 37 percent of the automaker's January volume. That was enough to overcome a 5 percent decline in retail sales, said George Pipas, Ford's chief sales analyst.
Higher fleet volume is an early indicator of future retail sales, said Ken Czubay, Ford's sales boss.
“We're heartened to see that fleets are coming back and they're buying Fords,” he said. “We hope this is a sign of economic recovery.”
GM boosted sales despite having almost no inventory at its discontinued brands. The numbers are even brighter for GM if brands being sold or killed are discounted.
Survivors are stronger
The four surviving brands -- Buick, GMC, Cadillac and Chevrolet -- were up 31 percent. Discontinued brands -- Saab, Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer -- lost 90 percent of volume to a mere 1,727 units. By Edmunds.com's count, GM cut its average incentive per vehicle by $35 since last January, to $3,103.
But the other 2009 bankruptcy survivor, Chrysler, continues to lose sales. A year ago, its January sales fell more than half to 62,157 vehicles. This year, sales fell 8 percent to 57,143.
Not only was Chrysler passed by Nissan at No. 5, upstart South Korean automaker Hyundai-Kia is gaining ground, with 52,626 sales last month.
But Chrysler did slash $1,230 off its average incentives in January and, at $3,061 per vehicle, has become the least generous of the Detroit 3.
Nissan, on the other hand, was the only major manufacturer to boost incentive spending in January -- up $302, to $2,455, Edmunds.com says. That may account for some of its 16 percent sales increase.
Subaru, the only brand with U.S. sales gains in each of the past two years, began 2010 with a 28 percent sales jump.
How much Toyota's recall woes will affect its sales is hard to determine. GM, Ford, Chrysler Group and Hyundai all launched incentives last week aimed at luring Toyota customers. But the effect in January is muted because the events came so late in the month.