Import auto sales top Big Three

Overseas car makers capture majority of U.S. sales for first time despite weak overall demand.

By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sales plunged worse than expected at U.S. automakers in July, allowing import brands to overtake their domestic rivals for the first time, even as weak demand for autos spread to Asian and European manufacturers.

Combined, the U.S. automakers - General Motors, Ford Motor and the Chrysler Group unit that is being sold by DaimlerChrysler - reported a 19 percent decline in sales in July versus a year earlier, compared to single-digit declines or even modest gains reported by most overseas automakers in the period.

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The sales left the domestic brands with only 48.1 percent of U.S. sales, down 4 percentage points from a year earlier and off of the previous low, set in June of this year, of 50.2 percent.

As a group Asian brands posted a 5.6 percent drop in U.S. sales but that was enough to capture 44.6 percent of U.S. sales, according to sales tracker Autodata. The European brands sales were off only 2.4 percent, good enough for 7.3 percent of the market.

Overall sales were weaker than expected for both domestics and imports, as total sales fell 12.3 percent.

Experts and some automakers pointed to concerns about the housing markets and gasoline prices as weighing on American consumers who might have been considering a auto purchases.

"No one was immune to this weakness in the marketplace," said Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for sales tracker Edmunds.com.

Toprak said that while the victory by the import brands was not a surprise, it was a significant benchmark.

"I think there's a psychological impact to being beaten on your own home turf," he said.

But George Pipas, director of sales analysis for Ford, said that this benchmark was not as significant as the one crossed in 2006, when the Big Three lost the majority of cars bought by American consumers, as opposed to total industry sales that include fleet sales to businesses such as rental car companies.

Ford and the other U.S. automakers have deliberately cut back on the less profitable fleet sales during the last year. Those sales are not only sold for a lower price than retail sales, but they soon flood the used-car market with low-mileage cars that push down their new car prices.

"At retail it (imports having more than half of sales) was true for all of last year, and that's really the measure the growth of brands," said Pipas. "This trend has been 30 years in the making."

GM spokesman John McDonald said that GM is pleased that its sales improved from much weaker than expected results in June of this year, on both the retail and overall basis.

"We're more interested in our retail performance, and how we're doing, not how the overall industry is doing," he said. "Certainly we can do better and we anticipate doing better."

Toprak said it was better for the U.S. automakers to cut out unprofitable models that had little customer demand, as they have done in the last year, than to blindly fight for market share while running up large losses.

"Giving cars away will hurt you worse in the long run," said Toprak. "Give credit to domestics that they realized that, and they're not blindly going after market share. That's a bigger negative impact on their brand image."

In an increasingly global auto industry, the distinction between domestic and import brands is somewhat less useful than it once was.

Auto parts and components can be sourced around the globe and among those automakers counted as import brands are those currently under joint ownership with Ford, Chrysler as well as Saab, a unit of GM. The major Asian automakers also make a significant percentage of their vehicles for the U.S. market at North American plants.

But DaimlerChrysler is selling off Chrysler to U.S. investors, and Ford is looking at selling its luxury European brands such as Volvo, Land Rover and Jaguar as a way to try to raise cash for a turnaround. The distinction between the traditional Big Three and their import rivals is in some ways more relevant than it was only a year ago, when those U.S. automakers had closer ties to import brands.

General Motors (Charts, Fortune 500) saw sales of cars and light trucks fall 22.3 percent from a year earlier to 315,870 vehicles. That was worse than the 18 percent decline forecast by sales tracker Edmunds.com.

Part of the reason for the drop was having one fewer sales day, which, when taken into account, limited the daily sales rate decline to 19 percent. But every one of GM's brands lost ground. Car models dropped 26.8 percent, while sales of light trucks, such as SUVs and pickups, fell 19.7 percent.

Ford Motor (Charts, Fortune 500) saw its overall sales plunge 19 percent to 195,245 overall, with its U.S. brands - Ford, Lincoln and Mercury - posting sales 20 percent lower than a year earlier. Edmunds had forecast only a 10.5 percent drop in U.S. sales.

The declines at Ford were broad-based, as almost every model of car and truck offered by the company saw sales lower than a year earlier, and even some key new vehicles, such as the Ford Edge and companion Lincoln MKX, saw sales decline from June.

"We know we have a lot of work to do, and July is a sobering reminder of the economic and competitive challenges we face," Mark Fields, president of Ford's operations in the Americas, said in a statement.

DaimlerChrysler (Charts), the German automaker that is in the process of selling the Chrysler Group to U.S. private equity group Cerberus Capital Management, reported that its overall U.S. sales fell 9.1 percent from a year earlier to 156,314 vehicles. Edmunds had forecast a 7.3 percent increase.

Chrysler Group sales led that decline, falling 8.4 percent to 137,728. Mercedes Benz, the luxury European brand that will remain with the holding company after the sale, saw its sales fall 14 percent to 18,586.

Chrysler Group's sales put it behind Honda Motor (Charts), even though Honda also saw its sales decline, which puts Chrysler at risk of being the No. 5 U.S. automaker once the sale of the unit by DaimlerChrysler is complete. Before 2006, Chrysler or DaimlerChrysler had long held the position as the nation's No. 3 automaker, but Toyota Motor (Charts) passed it in terms of U.S. sales last year.

Toyota Motor (Charts) also posted a bigger than expected decline in sales, as it saw them drop 7.3 percent to 224,058 vehicles. That was bigger than the 3.7 percent decline forecast by Edmunds, but it was enough to move Toyota ahead of Ford Motor for the No. 2 spot in U.S. sales for July.

"The industry stumbled this month, on continued housing weakness," Jim Lentz, an executive vice president for the Japanese automaker's U.S. sales unit said in a statement. "Though Toyota didn't match last July's record-setting sales, heightened demand for hybrids and crossovers is reassuring."

Record gasoline prices have hurt sales of the U.S. brands over the last year, as Americans turned to more fuel efficient models from the SUV's and pickup trucks where the U.S. automakers still hold a clear lead.

In July importers also took a page from the Big Three's playbook and offered increased incentives, such as cash-back offers and special financing and lease terms, which created more sales pressure for U.S. brands.

Edmunds.com estimates that the domestic automakers offered an average of $3,268 on each vehicle sold in June as they tried to clear out the supply of 2007 models to prepare for the new model year. That was up $113 from June. European brands overtook the U.S. automakers, as they upped incentives by $350 to $3,292 per vehicle.

The Asian automakers still offer more modest sales incentives, but their offers got unusually aggressive by their standards. Toyota's incentives reached $1,492 on average, up $92 from June and up 48 percent from year-earlier levels. By comparison, GM and Ford trimmed their incentives from year-earlier levels, according to Edmunds' figures. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.