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Imports Fuel 7.8% Rise in December Car Sales

January 07, 1986|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Despite a slight decline for domestic makes, total U.S. car sales rose 7.8% in December, thanks to sharply higher sales by imports, the industry reported Monday.

It was much the same for all of 1985: With total sales up 6.4%, the domestics reported a slight 3.2% sales gain while imports, led by the Japanese, surged by 16.9% to claim a larger share of the total market.

For December, the domestics' 0.6% sales decline was more than offset by a 31.3% gain for the imports, bringing total December sales to 818,205, compared to last year's 759,243. Imports grabbed 31.9% of the market in December, their second-highest share for any month in 1985.

For the full year, the industry sold more than 11 million passenger cars--more than one-fourth of them built overseas. Sales for Japanese and European makers--excluding the cars produced in their own U.S. plants--were a record 2.8 million units last year, up 16.9% from the previous year.

Imports took 25.7% of all car sales during the year, up sharply from 23.4% in 1984. Even though domestic sales were up only slightly to 8.2 million, however, 1985 was still the domestic industry's best sales year since 1979.

The easing of quotas on the Japanese auto makers played a big role in allowing the imports to make bigger inroads in the car market last year. But even among the domestics, sales of U.S.-built cars carrying imported nameplates gained ground on the more traditional U.S.-based producers as the Japanese continued to expand their production here.

Honda's U.S. operation, for instance, established itself as the fourth-largest U.S. auto maker during the year. With sales of its U.S.-built Accords reaching 145,976 in 1985, Honda's U.S. arm outsold both American Motors and Volkswagen of America and took 1.3% of the total U.S. car market. Industry analysts now expect the imports to make even deeper inroads in 1986. Most analysts predict that, despite a drop in total car sales to about 10.5 million units this year, import sales will break the 3-million mark for the first time. U.S. plants of the Japanese auto makers will account for an even greater portion of domestic sales, perhaps holding sales of domestically owned car makers below the 7-million mark.

"The sales by the traditional domestics will be way off in 1986, but the domestic sales numbers will be inflated by the U.S. plants of the Japanese," said Vern Lacy, auto industry analyst with Chase Econometrics in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Both General Motors and Ford reported sales gains for the year but still lost ground to the imports. GM sold 4.6 million cars during the year, up 0.4%, but its share of the total car market fell from 44.2% in 1984 to 41.7% last year. Ford sold an estimated 2.1 million cars in 1985, up 4.6% from 1984's 1.9 million, but its market share also fell in the face of the onslaught of imports from 19.1% in 1984 to 18.8% last year.

Chrysler was the only member of Detroit's Big Three to increase its market share last year. With sales of 1.1 million units, up 15.5% from the previous year's 986,998, Chrysler's market share rose from 9.5% to 10.3%.

By contrast, all of the major Japanese importers increased their market shares during the year, even if their sales of U.S.-built cars are excluded.

In December, sales for both GM and Ford were off, while Chrysler again reported the only gain by a Big Three auto maker. Ford, which didn't report final sales figures Monday, sold 144,813 cars during the month, down 3.5% from 1984's 150,110, according to industry estimates. GM said its December sales fell to 310,662, off 1.1% from the 314,186 level posted in the 1984 month. Chrysler, however, said its sales rose to 74,020, up 1.2% from 1984's 73,233.

Japanese makes reported big gains in December. Mazda, with its sales up 89.2% to 25,468 units for the month, reported the largest percentage gain, but Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Subaru all reported double-digit percentage increases as well.

In the final 10 days of December, however, the domestic auto makers staged a minor rally after announcing a new round of sales incentives to lure customers back to their dealers' showrooms. Total domestic sales rose to 231,057 for the final 10 days of the year, up 28.4% from the 179,993 level posted during the same period in 1984. (The imports don't report 10-day sales.)

GM, which sparked the latest round of incentives by announcing last Dec. 26 that it would offer 7.9% discount financing on about 40% of its car lines, reported that its 10-day sales jumped to 120,540 units, up 29.2% from the previous year's 93,271. Ford, which matched GM's offer, had an estimated gain of 23.7%, with its sales rising to 67,000 units from 54,174 in 1984. Chrysler posted sales of 31,148, up 27% from 1984's level of 24,530. Auto Sales

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