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Published: Wednesday, 1/6/2010

U.S. auto sales skid to worst in 30 years

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The numbers quickly show how bleak 2009 was for U.S. auto sales - every big automaker except one had a drop of nearly 20 percent or more from 2008. The figures were the worst in 30 years for the industry as a whole.

Sales picked up in December, however, from the same month a year earlier, giving some hope that an industry turnaround was under way.

Sales of the three Toledo-built vehicles also sank last year, although the Jeep Wrangler had a nearly break-even showing, buoying hopes of local officials and employees.

For the year, Chrysler Group LLC led the backward march with sales that dropped 36 percent to 931,402, its first time below the 1 million-vehicle mark since 1962.

All domestic and Japanese automakers, except Subaru, experienced sharp declines as well.

General Motors Co. sales fell 30 percent to 2.07 million vehicles, the fewest since 1952, and Ford Motor Co. was down 15 percent to 1.68 million.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its annual sales fell 20 percent to 1.77 million units; Nissan Motor Co. sales decreased 19 percent to 770,103 units, and Honda Motor Co. declined 19 percent to 1.15 million units.

Subaru reported a 15 percent sales gain, with 216,652 units sold. South Korean automaker Hyundai, fueled by sales of its low-cost Kia brand, said its sales rose 8.3 percent to 435,064 units.

"We're glad to see '09 leave, and I'm not so sure that 2010 is going to start off a whole lot better," said Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, whose membership includes Chrysler's Toledo Jeep Assembly complex workers. The complex builds Jeep Wrangler and Liberty and Dodge Nitro models.

For the year, sales of Chrysler's Jeep brand products fell 31 percent. But sales of the Toledo-made Wrangler hit 82,044, down just 3 percent from the year before. Jeep Liberty sales sank 35 percent to 43,503, and Dodge Nitro sales fell 52 percent to 17,443.

Despite its decline in sales last year, Honda overtook Chrysler, moving into fourth place in U.S. sales and becoming the second Japanese automaker to pull ahead of a U.S. firm, two years after Toyota displaced Ford as second in U.S. sales. Honda also may have built more cars and trucks at North American plants than Chrysler for the first time.

The industry was rocked by the national recession and by the brief bankruptcies and reorganizations of GM and Chrysler, which survived with billions of dollars in federal aid.

U.S. auto sales saw their deepest decline since World War II. Full-year sales of 10.4 million vehicles were down 21 percent from 2008.

Despite full-year sales disappointment, December auto sales nationally showed signs of a recovery. Overall sales were up 15 percent last month from the same month the year before.

Ford reported a 33 percent increase in December, thanks to strong demand for midsize cars like the Ford Fusion, whose sales rose 83 percent, and the Ford Escape crossover, whose sales rose 75 percent. Toyota sales were up 32 percent in December, Honda's up 24.5 percent, and Nissan up 18 percent.

However, in December Chrysler sales were down 4 percent and GM's were off nearly 6 percent.

Analyst Joseph Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J., said Ford has been gaining momentum all year long while Chrysler and GM, conversely, "are still suffering a little bit from the stigma of bankruptcy."

While the December sales numbers look good, Mr. Phillippi cautioned that they may not be as good as they seem.

"You don't really know to some extent what the numbers that are getting reported really include," he said.

"You're coming off a holiday weekend, and I'm always a little skeptical as to how many final weekend sales numbers ended up in the December tally."

However, Mr. Baumhower, the UAW Local 12 president, said he remains optimistic about Chrysler's chances.

The automaker's new majority stakeholder, Fiat SpA, has announced its intention to export hundreds of thousands of Chrysler vehicles.

"The only products they would export are the Dodge Ram pickup and the Jeep Wrangler," Mr. Baumhower said.

"So if we get say, 50,000 of that production, that would be great."

If the planned Wrangler with a diesel engine is produced by late this year, that and other vehicles could boost Toledo Jeep-made products so much that more workers will be employed, he said.

Information from Blade news services was used in this report.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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