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October 2009: U.S. auto sales stabilize -- is the worst over?

by Nick Aziz

U.S. car sales were pretty weak throughout 2008, but it wasn't until October of that year that bottom truly fell out (along with the rest of the economy). With figures for October 2009 now available, it appears sales are remaining stable, with some small increases and some small decreases -- almost all of them within a narrow and stable band.

The good news is Ford and General Motors both reported healthy sales increases. GM's sales totaled 177,603 vehicles, up 4 percent from last October, representing the company's first year-over-year gain since January 2008. The numbers are even better when one looks at GM's four remaining core brands. The four brands accounted for about 95 percent of GM's retail sales, an increase of 10 percentage points compared to the prior year.

As for Ford, U.S. sales totaled 132,483, up 3 percent versus a year ago. Ford says its total market share was more than 15 percent -- higher than a year ago and higher than its share in the first nine months of 2009. The Ford brand, which accounts for the majority of the company's sales, was up 3.6 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, Mercury reported a mere 1.1 percent decline, while Lincoln sales fell 9 percent. Ford's Volvo division saw a substantial increase of 19.4 percent. Mazda, which is partially owned by Ford, sold 15,068 vehicles, a decrease of 8.4 percent versus October of 2008.

Unfortunately, it it's not all good news for the Detroit Three. Chrysler sales plummeted 30 percent compared to October 2008 -- the worst performance of any major automaker. The company sold 65,803 units and finished the month with 159,428 units in inventory, representing a 68-day supply. The company's Jeep brand declined the most, falling 37 percent. The Chrysler brand followed with a decline of 36 percent, and the Ram brand reported an equally disappointing 32 percent slide. Dodge performed the best, reporting a drop of 22 percent.

Moving on to Japan's big three automakers, Toyota reported October sales of 152,165 vehicles, a decrease of 3.5 percent from last October. The Toyota Division posted October sales of 132,663 units, a decrease of 5.8 percent from the same period last year. The Lexus Division reported October sales of 19,502 units, an increase of 15.5 percent over the year-ago month.

Honda's sales declined 4.0 percent compared to October 2008. The Honda brand fell 3.6 percent, while the Acura division declined 7.0 percent. Overall sales totaled 85,502 units -- 75,756 for Honda and 10,108 for Acura.

Combined Nissan and Infiniti sales of 60,115 units were 5.6 percent higher than October 2008 sales of 59,945 units. Nissan brand posted sales of 53,664 units in October, a 7.7 percent increase. Infiniti sales were 6,451 units, down 9.3 percent.

Subaru sold 18,169 cars, resulting in a 41-percent gain year-over-year. Mitsubishi's sales were less impressive, down 37 percent year-over-year. Suzuki fared even worse, reporting a decline of 50 percent to just 1,745 units.

It might have been a relatively flat month for most Americans and Japanese carmakers, but it was a great one for the Koreans. Hyundai reported October sales of 31,005 units, a 49 percent increase compared with October 2008. Hyundai leads all automotive brands in absolute market share growth, up 1.2 percentage points (from 3.1 percent to 4.3 percent) for the first ten months of this year.

Kia's October sales were equally impressive. The company reported 22,490 units sold, a 45.3-percent increase over the same month last year.

It was also a good month for Volkswagen, which reported a 7.2 percent increase over October 2008 with 17,037 unit sales. Meanwhile, Audi reported a 1.1 percent decline, resulting in its third-best October ever, with 7,358 sales.

Daimler sales climbed to 18,854 units, an increase of 9.4 percent compared to October 2008. Mercedes-Benz vehicles accounted for 18,193 of those sales, a 21.3 percent increase. Dragging the total down was the Smart brand, which recorded a 70.4 percent decline to just 661 sales.

The BMW Group's month was less impressive than its German rivals. Overall sales totaled 20,619, a decrease of 19.1 percent. Sales of BMW brand vehicles decreased 18.6 percent in October to 16,443 units, while MINI reported sales of 4,176 automobiles, a decrease of 20.8 percent.