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The Garage: Focus on Autos | MARKETPLACE

Industry swims against the tides of March

March 31, 2007|Martin Zimmerman

Late-winter storms took some of the starch out of auto sales in March.

Analysts expect automakers to report new-vehicle sales of 1.48 million units when they release March sales figures Tuesday. That would be a 3% drop from March 2006, which turned out to be the best sales month of the year.

The late blast of winter weather that canceled flights, ruined spring break vacations and kept buyers off car lots was one reason for the decline, said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst for auto website Edmunds.com.

Ford Motor Co. is expected to show the biggest decline, registering an 18.7% decrease in sales from March 2006, Santa Monica-based Edmunds estimates.

That would put Ford in a dead heat for the No. 2 spot among automakers with Toyota Motor Corp., which increased its March year-over-year sales by 8.8%, Edmunds projects.

Sales for the month are expected to be down 1.3% at industry leader General Motors Corp., off 6.2% at DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group, up 1.1% at Nissan Motor Co. and up 8.8% at Honda Motor Co.

Despite the March decline, Toprak still expects industrywide sales of about 16.5 million vehicles this year, which would be in line with last year's results.

The drop at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford was particularly surprising because the automaker had been aggressively cutting sticker prices to move cars, said Ronald Tadross, an analyst with Banc of America Securities.

Ford has put the brakes on low-margin sales to rental car and corporate fleets, accounting for some of its recent declines. But Tadross figures that Ford's sales to retail customers fell 11% year over year in March.

Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally was in Southern California this week in part to rally Blue Oval dealers, who have watched as their brand's U.S. market share dropped to 15.7% in February -- down from 18.7% a year earlier.

Fulfilling a promise he had made to dealers, Mulally spent time on the showroom floor at Galpin Ford in North Hills, the country's highest-volume Ford dealership.

-- Martin Zimmerman

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