Ford's fleet sales were down 65%, to 2,000 vehicles, in January compared with a year earlier, the company said, and GM's were down 80%. Only 1,000 cars sold by GM went to rental fleets, the company said, and Chrysler said its rental fleet sales decreased 91%.
Toyota relies less heavily on fleet sales, which make up only about 10% of its volume even in normal times. Still, its sales were down significantly as interest even in its fuel-saving small cars dried up.
Sales of the tiny Yaris, for example, fell 42% from a year earlier, while the mid-size Camry, Toyota's most popular vehicle, was down 34%. Honda's Fit, a rival to the Yaris, showed a modest 6% sales gain.
Ford's F-Series pickups, the most popular vehicles in the U.S. last year, were down 39% in January, and just two GM models, the Saturn Astra and the Pontiac Vibe, showed year-over-year increases.
A small source of relief for the U.S. automakers has come from their in-house lending arms, which traditionally finance much of their sales. That avenue had withered in the second half of last year as they abandoned leasing and raised credit requirements.
But in the wake of the federal government's loans to the automakers, including $1.5 billion to Chrysler Financial and $6 billion to GMAC, such lending opened up.
Last month Chrysler began offering no-interest financing deals, along with cash incentives and rebates, and GMAC, which had stopped lending to consumers with a credit score below 700, dropped that limit to 620.
Still, all three U.S. automakers emphasized that more financing flexibility would be essential for a rebound, noting that dealers were still being forced to turn away would-be buyers because they don't qualify for loans.
"Credit is what's choking us to death," said Michael DiGiovanni, chief sales analyst at GM. "Our industry is based on credit more than just about any other."
Times staff writer Don Lee in Shanghai contributed to this report.