Domestics See Faint Glimmer Of Hope In December Sales

December was a fitting end to a year for the auto business for which every synonym for "God awful" has been used more often than a retread. And no automaker is rolling out of 2008 without flats. Still, Ford and GM might take solace from the fact that some of the imports last month saw sales volume drop more than theirs, and both actually saw market share improve on strong performance of vehicles like Chevy Malibu and Ford Focus.

Ford says its U.S. market share now stands at 15%--up nearly a point versus a year ago--and this is the first time since 2001 that its Q4 share was higher than the previous year. General Motors' 2008 sales were off 20%--but like Ford, its December market share is up to 24% from 20% in November.

The third domestic, Chrysler, blames its 53% drop last month at least partly on a deliberate 63% drawdown on fleet sales last month (31% for the year).

While Ford saw sales fall 32% last month, and GM reportedly posted a 31% drop in sales last month, Honda's December sales were off 34.7% and Toyota's were off 36.7% for the month. Nissan saw sales drop 30.7%, and Kia experienced a 38% decline.



The soggy December left few automakers with positive overall 2008 sales. Toyota's full-year sales were off 15.7%; Chrysler's were off 30%; Ford's and GM's were off 20%.

Honda division's full-year sales were down 6.7%, while its Acura division suffered a 20% full-year decline after seeing December sales dive over 39%.

Even the luxury brands are limping, with Montvale, N.J.-based Mercedes-Benz USA posting an 11.2% drop in annual sales, Lexus a 21.2% drop for the year and 32.4% in December. The BMW Group posted a 35.9% drop in December sales and a 9.7% drop for the year.

Online auto shopping and research firm said 2008 highlights reflected the tug of gasoline prices on consumer behavior: hybrid vehicle market share increased from 2.1% in January to 3.2% in April--and then, as gas prices slid to 2.2% in November.

The firm says compact car market share went from 15.3% early in the year to 21.3% in June and back down to 16.1% in November. Large pickup trucks and SUVs did likewise. Market share for the former was 12.3% at the beginning of the year, dropped to 9.3% in May and leaped to 13.8% in November.

Jesse Toprak, head of industry analysis at Edmunds, said incentives averaging $2,900 last month were at record levels. "It reflects the desperation of automakers," he says, adding that Toyota spent $2,000 on incentives, twice as much as it spent last December. Also noteworthy: in December 2008, model-year vehicles made up 40% of all vehicles sold, versus a year ago when 2007 vehicles were only 19% of the mix.

He says GM actually had the best performance of all major automakers in December, with 25% market share improvement over the last several months and Chevy faring the best of all GM brands--down only 20%, but up 45% versus November.

"Honda's small vehicles had excellent performance in the first three quarters," says Toprak, noting that vehicles like Fit and Civic helped the company avert larger loses.

Toprak says Ford's bright side was a 16% improvement from November. "Chrysler had worse performance than we expected, Ford was even with our expectations, and GM was better," he says.

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