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U.S. auto sales dive 37 percent: lowest since 1981

by Bill Cawthon on

Manufacturers sold 656,976 cars and light trucks in January, the lowest total since December 1981 and 387,678 fewer than January 2008. The seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 9.57 million units is a figure not seen since June 1982. Last January’s SAAR was 15.37 million, 5.8 million sales more.

Hampered by consumer doubts about its survival and a lack of capital to fund deals, Chrysler led the plunge, coming in 54.8 percent short of its sales a year ago. The deficit was enough to drop Chrysler to fifth among the Big Six, behind General Motors, Toyota, Ford and Honda and 8,273 sales ahead of Nissan North America.

The Dodge Ram remained the only Chrysler vehicle to make it into the Top Twenty in sales, coming in at No. 9, and the full-size pickup lost its accustomed third place in the truck segment to the Honda CR-V.

The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan dropped to third and fourth in the minivan segment as the Toyota Sienna scored a surprise victory with a sold win over the second-place Honda Odyssey. No minivans made it to the Top Twenty in January.

The Jeep Wrangler was the best-selling traditonal, truck-based SUV.

The Dodge Journey continues to be a bright spot for Chrysler, outselling the Ford Flex by 25 percent in January.

A slowdown in rental sales put a big damper on Chrysler’s numbers and it did the same for GM. Both companies said January fleet sales were down 80 percent while Ford cited a 65 percent decline.

With low gas prices, it’s no surprise that Americans rapidly went back to their preferred consumption patterns, something the federal government might want to consider as it examines its mandates for the auto industry. Truck sales captured the majority of the business and sales of small, fuel-efficient cars got hammered.

While Chrysler took the biggest hit, there was plenty of pain to go around. General Motors’ sales were down 48.9 percent and Ford finished the month 40.3 percent shy of its 2008 numbers. Sales of domestic brand cars and trucks accounted for 42.5 percent of the market in January 2009, a big tumble for their 51.1 percent share last January. Sales of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors domestic brands, combined, were just 30,377 units more than GM sold by itself in January 2008.

Toyota took a big hit last month; sales were off 31.7 percent. Honda had another losing month with a 27.9 percent shortfall and Nissan came 29.7 shy of matching its year-ago mark. Mitsubishi sales fell 34.5 percent and Mazda came up with a 27.3 percent deficit. Suzuki sales declined by 48.7 percent and Isuzu wound down the hours with a total of 165 sales.

Subaru and the Korean automakers bucked the trend by posting improved sales. Subaru was 8 percent ahead at the end of the month with strong sales of the Forester and Hyundai and Kia improved 14.3 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.

The Europeans were bandaging their wounds, too. Volvo got whacked with a 63.8 percent drop, much worse than Saab’s 46.1 percent miss or Mercedes’ 42.9 percent tumble. BMW took a 15.5 percent hit and its Mini brand got knocked back with a 15.4 sales decline. Volkswagen saw an 11.6 percent fall in sales of its name-brand car and a 26.4 percent trip in sales of its upscale Audi brand. Porsche took it on the chin as a 55.2 percent plunge in sales of its car overwhelmed a small, 6.1 percent drop in Cayenne sales and left the marque in the red by 36.1 percent.

As you can see from the Top Twenty, there weren’t many changes at the top. The F-Series is still No. 1 and the Camry is still the best-selling car. The Chevy Malibu starts the year as best-selling American car. Lexus remained the best-selling luxury brand.

February should prove interesting. Both Chrysler Financial and GMAC have received major infusions of cash, making it easier for dealers to get sales financed, which should help some. Both Chrysler and GM are due to present their viability plans on February 17, by which time, Chrysler may have its alliance with Fiat SpA and GM may have an idea of how many brands it really intends to keep.

January’s Top Twenty
Ford F-Series
Chevrolet Silverado
Toyota Camry
Toyota Corolla/Matrix
Honda Accord
Honda Civic
Nissan Altima
Honda CR-V
Dodge Ram Pickup
Chevrolet Malibu
Hyundai Sonata
Ford Escape
Ford Fusion
Toyota Prius
Toyota RAV4
GMC Sierra
Ford Focus
Toyota Tacoma
Toyota Tundra
Honda Pilot

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.

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