GM, Ford Report Softer Jan. Auto Sales

General Motors Corp. (GM) Tuesday posted a marginal gain in January U.S. vehicle sales, while Ford Motor Co. (F) reported a moderate drop, and both U.S. automakers said they would trim production further.

Both GM and Ford, which lost U.S. market share last year, have entered 2005 with high inventories of unsold cars and trucks, and had already announced plans in December to cut production before shaving the outlook further Tuesday.

"Not a great month. A little softer than we expected," Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of of global market and industry analysis, told analysts and reporters on a conference call.

GM, the world's largest automaker, said sales rose 1.1 percent to 274,939 vehicles, excluding its Saab brand and some medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Sales rose only after adjusting for two fewer selling days in January, a standard practice for most automakers. GM sold 294,745 vehicles in January 2004.

Ford posted a 5.4 percent fall in U.S. sales for January, its eighth straight month of weaker results, as stronger sales of its new cars failed to offset falling SUV and minivan sales.

Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, said sales dropped to 185,492 vehicles in January, down from 212,449 vehicles in January last year. The results exclude heavy-trucks and its foreign brands, such as Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover and are also adjusted.

GM cut its expected first-quarter production in North America by another 25,000 vehicles, or 2 percent, to a total of 1.225 million cars and trucks. Ford trimmed its first-quarter North American production by 10,000, or about 1 percent, to 920,000 vehicles.

Wall Street closely monitors production because automakers count earnings from vehicles when they are produced and shipped to dealerships rather than when they are sold off dealer lots.

Sales across the industry are expected to drop sharply from December, when heavy incentives pushed sales to the highest level since the record month of October 2001. Snowstorms that blanketed much of the country in late January also hurt sales last month, industry officials said.

Last week, GM's Ballew said in an interview that he expected industry sales to be up slightly from the seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.3 million in January last year. However, Tuesday he said he expects industry sales to be flat at about 16.3 million. Wall Street analysts were more skeptical, and estimates ranged from an annual rate of 15.4 million to about 16.2 million.

The Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) reported a 9 percent gain in sales to 148,111 units, boosted by strong results of its new cars.

Japan's Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (search) reported a 15 percent gain in its U.S. sales in January to 76,584 vehicles.

"Business continued to be good and solid into January, but our sales were definitely affected by the winter storms in the Northeast and Southeast," Jed Connelly, Nissan's head of North American sales and marketing, said in a statement.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (search) reported a 2.1 percent drop in sales, while Toyota Motor Corp. (search) posted a 6.2 percent gain, with results adjusted for the two fewer selling days.

Some analysts had expected the Japanese automakers to report modest sales gains, after racking up strong results late last year as they gained market share at the expense of GM and Ford.

Incentive activity was muted in January after December, when the industry launched its traditional year-end offers. But George Pipas, Ford's head of sales analysis, said that higher incentives could appear soon.

"I think it would be fair to assume that you might see some higher levels of incentives in February and March as we progress through this model year," he said on a conference call.