Auto Sales Downshift in August

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U.S. auto sales shifted into lower gear as automakers reported slumping sales of new cars and trucks for August on Tuesday, another indication that consumers are growing more pessimistic as the U.S. economy weakens.

However, the results still topped bleak forecasts of a drop to the weakest levels so far this year. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. easily beat predictions of a drop of from 10 to 20 percent. On the flip side, DaimlerChrysler AG's saw its sales fall a sharp 24 percent from record levels last year when it hiked consumer incentives to sell off its aging minivans.

``August was better than we expected, and I think it's a month we can build on,'' said Ford sales analyst George Pipas.

Ford sales, excluding its Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover units, fell 8.4 percent in August. Ford's truck sales fell just 2.1 percent, while car sales tumbled 18.4 percent. Ford posted record August sales of its F-Series pickup trucks, and its Explorer sport utility vehicle recorded its second-best sales month this year.

GM's sales dropped 7.9 percent, not including its Saab brand. The automaker's car sales slid 20.2 percent, while truck sales gained 6.7 percent on the strength of its large sport utility vehicles, including the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL.

Pipas said he expected industry-wide sales of light vehicles for August to drop to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.4 million in August, far below the 17.1 million pace in the first half of the year when sales also beat forecasts. But the August rate is above the 16.3 million pace in July and the 16.1 million that many analysts had forecast for the month.

``In a way, the sales rate that we have seen these last two months is what we expected to see in the first quarter of 2001,'' Pipas said. ``Maybe we are getting what we expected, just six months later. On that basis, we might see economic growth and industry sales accelerate sometime next year.''

As has been the case all year, foreign automakers generally posted stronger results, taking market share from the U.S. companies.

Volkswagen AG, the seventh largest seller of cars in the United States, recorded its best month since August 1973, the heyday of the original Beetle, as sales jumped 13 percent. Sales for its luxury unit, Audi, rose 1.8 percent.

Ford's Jaguar and Volvo brands reported stronger sales as did GM's Saab and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. unit Subaru. Honda Motor Co. said its sales slipped 0.4 percent from record results in August last year.

The vehicle sales results, which account for about 22 percent of all U.S. retail sales, come out as the U.S. economy hovers precariously between growth and recession. The economy grew by only 0.2 percent in the second quarter, the weakest pace in eight years.

Recent indicators show that U.S. consumers are growing more wary, despite lower U.S. interest rates and the tax rebate checks sent to millions of Americans last month.

A University of Michigan consumer confidence index released last week showed that sentiment fell more than expected in August. A second measure, the Conference Board's barometer of consumer confidence, also fell sharply.

On the bright side, the National Association of Purchasing Managers index, a key measure of the U.S. manufacturing sector, on Tuesday posted its strongest gain in five years in August.