U.S. Automakers Continue to Lose Ground

U.S. sales of vehicles followed a familiar path in March with General Motors Corp. (GM) and Ford Motor Co.(F) losing market share to nimble foreign rivals led by Toyota Motor Corp. (TM), analysts said.

Toyota and other Asian automakers have been relentlessly stealing U.S. sales from Ford and GM, which have been struggling with issues ranging from excess inventory to a shift in consumer taste away from larger sport utility vehicles.

GM's U.S. sales — retail and fleet — are expected to be down in March, GM sales analyst Paul Ballew told reporters this week. He also expected the overall industry to come in lower than last March.

With automakers preparing to report monthly vehicle sales figures on Monday, analysts expect U.S. sales of GM, which lost $10.6 billion last year, to be down between 2 percent and 6 percent.

"While fleet sales have been cushioning the blow of weak retail sales, particularly for Ford and Chrysler in February, the Big Three have been promising to de-emphasize this side of the business and headline numbers could suffer as a result," Bear Stearns analyst Peter Nesvold said this week.

Merrill Lynch analyst John Murphy said benefits from GM's new GMT900 series of sport utility vehicles, which the automaker is banking on to stem the sales slide, are still a ways off.

Murphy expects Ford sales to decline about 7 percent in March.

"Ford's light truck sales continue to plummet and now face the additional pressure of GM's new SUVs," he said. "Ford car sales, however, should be stable on the success of the new Fusion, Milan and Zephyr."

In sharp contrast, Japanese automaker Toyota's U.S. sales are expected to be up in the low-single digit percentage range, while Honda Motor Co Ltd sales could climb to a double digit pace in March on strong sales of the new Civic and Accord sedan, analysts said.

Nissan's sales are expected to decline slightly.


Overall, analysts expect March vehicle sales in the range of between 16.6 million and 17 million annually on a seasonally adjusted basis. That compares to a 16.8 annual rate a year ago and a 16.5 million rate last month.

GM and Ford saw their sales decline through the past year in the face of plunging demand for traditional truck-based SUVs, their one-time cash cows, as gasoline prices soared. The two largest U.S. automakers are struggling financially on their home ground and have announced plans to cut capacity and blue-collar jobs.

The combined monthly U.S. share for Detroit's traditional Big Three automakers fell to 56.6 percent in February from 57.9 percent a year earlier, according to AutoData. Asian brands, on the other hand, increased their share to 37 percent last month from 36.1 percent a year ago.

Both GM and Ford are banking on new products. All eyes will be on the performance of GM's new Tahoe and Yukon SUVs, part of its GMT 900 series, and Ford's line-up of mid-size cars — Fusion, Milan and Zephyr.

"Most GM dealers we spoke with were positive on the new Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade," Bear Stearns' Nesvold said. "Ford dealers generally confirmed that mix continues to shift toward cars from trucks."

March will also be the first full month of sales of the Dodge Caliber, DaimlerChrysler AG's (DCX) new compact car. Chrysler is expected to report a gain in sales, boosted by the popularity of its new models.