Ford, GM Sales Surge in January, While Toyota Tumbles

Ford Motor (F) and General Motors, the two largest U.S. auto makers, reported higher sales in January, as consumers steered cleared of the showrooms of the companies' nearest Japanese competitor, Toyota Motor (TM), which is mired in massive recalls involving millions of vehicles.

Ford reported sales surged 24.6% in January on much improved fleet sales -- up 154% -- as rental and commercial operators restocked their inventories. While showroom traffic was down 5% overall, Ford reported sales of its passengers cars including its Mustang, Taurus and Fusion models showed considerable gains, with Taurus sales shooting up 121%. In total, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford said it sold 116,406 vehicles, up from 93,506 a year ago.Still, a Ford executive expressed disappointment that more regular customers didn't show up at dealerships, USA Today reported. "We just can't seem to get traction in the consumer's mind," said Ken Czubay, vice president of U.S. marketing. He called retail sales just "OK."

Crosstown rival GM reported total sales rose 14% for the month, selling 145,098 vehicles in total for the month. As with Ford, GM sales benefited from a surge in interest among fleet buyers, which accounted for 29% of sales last month. Detroit-based GM said its four remaining "core" brands -- Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac -- comprised 98% of the company's retail sales in January, compared to 85% a year earlier.

Trouble at Toyota

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor reported sales fell 16% as the auto giant struggled with a faltering image for quality and a decision to halt sales and production of eight of its car lines, including popular Camry and Corolla sedans, due to problems with "sticky" accelerators. Compared to December sales, Toyota fared even worse, falling nearly 47%.

Last month, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles due to problems with unintended acceleration. On Monday, the company announced it was shipping parts to fix the problem to dealers this week. Many dealers will stay open extended hours, some around the clock, to repair the cars, the company said. The "simple" repair involves installing a steel reinforcement bar to prevent friction between accelerator parts. The federal government OK'd the plan last week.

The taint of recall slowed sales of models not included in the recall, such as Toyota's Sierra minivan and its Tacoma compact pickup, which also tumbled. Among other Toyota brands, its upscale Lexus brand recorded higher sales, but those of its entry-level Scion make, which appeals to younger buyers, fell.

A survey by Kelley Blue Book of people planning to purchase a car found that 21% of those who were considering Toyota before the recall no longer are looking at the brand, reported. Nevertheless, 43% of those who have soured on the brand said they'll reconsider once they see how the solution to the recall plays out.

Mixed Results Elsewhere

Sales at the only other U.S. car maker, Chrysler Group, also fell, dropping some 8% year over year. Still the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based company noted sales of the Chrysler Sebring mid-sized sedan rose 85%, likely due to increased demand among fleet buyers.

For the month, Chrysler's four brands -- Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram Truck -- sold 57,143, down from 62,157 a year earlier. Sales of the Jeep Grand Cherokee rose 6% to 3,311. A new version of the mid-sized SUV debuts in spring. CEO Sergio Marchionne said Chrysler must sell 1.1 million vehicles in the U.S. this year and 1.65 million worldwide to break even, the Detroit Press reported.

The sales story at Hyundai Motor's U.S. unit was starkly different with sales of Hyundai models rising 24.4% to 30,503 from 24,512 units a year ago, the Korean automaker. Sales of the company's Accent and Elantra models surged 61% and 133%, respectively it said, while sales of Sonata mid-size sedan fell 38%. The company recently extended its Hyundai Assurance program, begun last year that allows newly purchased or leased cars to be returned should consumers lose their income. The program has been well received but hasn't resulted in a flood of returned vehicles. Fewer than 100 cars have been returned under the program, NPR reported.

Among other car makers, Mercedes-Benz USA said sales jumped 45.3% last month, driven by a resurgent economy. The German auto maker's sales rose to 15,158 vehicles in January, up from 10,433 a year ago. Sales of the top-selling C-class sales rose 32.8% to 4,028 vehicles. Volkswagen reported a similar increase, with its U.S. division reporting sales increased to 18,019 units, 41.4% above year-ago levels. The VW Jetta accounted for 8,893 of those sales, while TDI diesel models accounted for 2,247 units, Volkswagen said.

Meanwhile, Subaru reported U.S. sales rose more than a quarter from a year ago. But Honda Motor (HMC) got off to a slow start, saying sales in January slipped 5% overall and 4% at its namesake Honda division. For the month, Honda sold 60,347 vehicles, with sales of its largest passenger car, the Accord, rising 25% to 20,759 units. But Honda's fuel-stingy Fit compact car saw sales drop-off 50%, possibly due to easing gasoline prices, Columbus Business First reported. At Honda's upscale Acura division, sales fell 9% to 7,132 vehicles.

Rival Japanese car-maker Nissan said its first-month-of-the-year sales rose 16.1% compared to a year ago, with its larger Maxima and Altima passenger car models recording 51.% and 31.8% increases, respectively. Sales of the Frontier compact pickup rose 22%.

Overall, Nissan said, U.S. sales rose 16.1% to 62,572 vehicles from 53,884 a year ago. Nissan division's sales increased 19.4% to 55,861 while those of the Infiniti line fell 5.7% to 6,711 vehicles. With January's strong pickup in sales, "We expect to see significant market share gains," spokesman Brian Carolin said in a statement.
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