Automakers end a tough '07 with lower sales

Most automakers post year-over-year decline in December - the weakest for full-year sales since 1998; U.S.-based automakers continue to lose ground to imports.

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By Chris Isidore, senior writer

Ford Motor reported a 9 percent drop in sales, as its best-selling F-Series pickup truck saw sales down more than 10 percent.
Ford Motor reported a 9 percent drop in sales, as its best-selling F-Series pickup truck saw sales down more than 10 percent.
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NEW YORK ( -- Automakers posted lower sales in December, closing out a difficult year that likely brought the worst performances of the decade in the face of higher gasoline prices and declining home values.

Industrywide sales were off nearly 3 percent in the month from the year-earlier period, although they rebounded nearly 18 percent from the very weak November sales level, according to preliminary figures from sales tracker Autodata. Still even with the rebound, the full-year sales ended down 2.5 percent - at their weakest level since 1998.

As far as other trends, the traditional Big Three automakers lost ground to their overseas-based rivals, as domestic brands barely edged out import brands with 50.6 percent for the month, and 51.1 percent for the full year.

The No. 1 U.S. automaker, General Motors (GM, Fortune 500), saw its sales of cars and light trucks, such as pickups and SUVs, fall 4.4 percent in December to 319,837 vehicles. That left its full-year sales down 6 percent to 3.8 million.

Sales of GM's light trucks were nearly flat from a year earlier, helped by the sales of fuel-efficient "crossover vehicles." The automaker's traditional car models dropped 10 percent, despite a nearly 7 percent rise in sales of its newly introduced Malibu sedan, which has been met by critical acclaim and strong demand.

But GM may have lost out to rival Toyota Motor (TM) in its bid to have its Chevrolet brand become the top-selling name. Ford Motor's core Ford brand had been the best-selling nameplate in 2006.

Chevy's full-year sales came in at 2.27 million, down 6 percent from a year earlier, while Toyota Motor's Toyota brand had sales of 2.29 million. There was some debate as to which brand should be given bragging rights as top seller, however. Included in the Toyota total were sales of about 130,000 Scion-branded cars. Toyota Motor reports the sales from that newly introduced brand as part of the Toyota total; if it did not do so, it would have continued to trail the Chevy sales.

But when considering retail sales to individual consumers - rather than total sales that include fleet sales to businesses such as car rental companies - Toyota would have a clear lead over Chevy, even without Scion.

While GM and Ford Motor have cut back on the less-profitable fleet sales, they still sell far more to the car rental companies and other big buyers than do their Japanese competitors.

Overall, Toyota Motor posted a 1.7 percent drop in December sales but still showed a 2.7 percent gain for the full year. That put it firmly in No. 2 among rankings of the different corporations selling autos here, displacing Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) from its long-held position in the market.

At Ford Motor, sales fell more than 9 percent in December, although they rebounded from an extremely weak November showing.

Ford sold 212,094 vehicles last month. Sales of both car and light truck models declined, though sales were a bit better than the forecast of 209,000 forecast by sales tracker

It was also better than Ford's nearly 12 percent decline to 2.6 million in full-year sales. And the company said it expects the economic environment to remain challenging in 2008, with industrywide sales falling once again.

Much of Ford's drop in December and for the full-year came from weak sales of the F-Series pickup, still the nation's best-selling vehicle - even though its sales were dragged down by weakness in the housing and home building sectors, as well as by newer offerings in the segment from rivals.

Privately held Chrysler LLC, which sells the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands, bucked industry trends by posting a 2 percent sales gain in December to 143,428 vehicles. The primary reason was a jump in sales of newly redesigned Caravan and Town & Country minivans, which were up 42 percent from year-earlier levels.

But Chrysler, which was purchased in August from the former DaimlerChrysler by Cerberus Capital Management, saw full-year sales fall 3 percent. A 6 percent decline in sales of light truck models was balanced by a 6 percent gain in sales of cars, which represent a minority of Chrysler overall sales.

Japanese automaker Honda Motor (HMC) posted the narrowest of sales gains in the month, with an increase of 14 vehicles over year-ago sales to 131,792. But it was enough to give the automaker a 2.5 percent gain for the year to 1.6 million, good enough for the No. 5 spot behind Chrysler LLC, which had yet to report sales.

Japanese automaker Nissan (NSANY) joined most of the other major automakers in reporting lower U.S. sales for the period, as December sales were off 2.4 percent. But that brought its U.S. sales to 1.1 million, up 4.5 percent from a year earlier. To top of page

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