GM, Ford Lose More Ground to Toyota

General Motors Corp. (GM) and Ford Motor Co. (F) lost more ground to Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) in February, according to U.S. sales figures posted on Wednesday.

However, U.S. sales for Toyota, which has been on track to unseat GM as the world's largest automaker, rose only 2.4 percent in February -- short of the 10 percent gain analysts were expecting.

GM's overall U.S. sales, including car and truck sales, dropped 2.5 percent in February and Ford's U.S. sales, excluding its import brands, were off 3 percent. But sales for their cross-town rival Chrysler, a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX), were up 3 percent.

Toyota's U.S. sales gain was only about a quarter of the average increase it has posted over the past half year as it surged ahead and took market share from its ailing U.S. rivals. February's sales came ahead of the launch of three new models this month.

GM's car sales were down 13 percent, but its truck sales, considered key for its bid to regain profitability, rose 5 percent, including sharp sales gains for the new Chevrolet Tahoe, the first of a revamped line of full-size sport utility vehicles.

The sales results came on the same day that Fitch Ratings cut its ratings on GM deeper into junk, citing lack of progress by the automaker in lowering its operating costs.

Ford, which is aiming to stop the erosion in its U.S. market share, fell further behind with consumers.

Showroom sales dropped 11 percent while sales to car rental companies and other fleet buyers gained 11 percent, Ford sales analyst George Pipas said a conference call.

Analysts were concerned about a similar surge in fleet sales in January, since such sales are typically less profitable than sales through dealer networks.

GM said its own retail sales rose 1 percent, roughly in line with the overall market's growth over the first two months of the year. GM's less-profitable fleet sales, which it has vowed to cut back, indeed dropped 11 percent in February.

Analysts see the strength of sales in GM's new large SUV line as key to its immediate turnaround prospects, since those vehicles are far more profitable than passenger cars.

GM said its Tahoe sales doubled from January to 6,391 units in February and it sold almost 3,000 of the new GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade combined. Those SUVs are built on the same GMT-900 platform as the Tahoe.

"It's still early, but we're exceeding all of the important targets for our new full-size SUVs, particularly the Tahoe, which is the first to arrive in dealerships," GM Vice President Mark LaNeve said.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. posted the strongest U.S. sales increase among the major automakers, driven by sharp gains for its new Civic model. Honda's overall sales rose 8.7 percent, with the Civic accounting for almost one-in-four vehicles sold.

The mixed sales results came in a month when U.S. automakers managed to throttle back on their spending on sales incentives.

A survey released by said the average incentive on a vehicle sold in February was $2,285, down 6 percent from January.

Edmunds estimated the industry had spent $2.9 billion on incentives in February, with GM and Ford accounting for more than 70 percent of the total.

The burden of sales incentives, including easier financing and cash-back offers, has emerged as a concern for industry analysts since it is an indication of the willingness of car makers to cut into earnings to move unsold inventory.

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