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Auto sales up - but not for Toyota

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- U.S. auto sales rose 6% in January, although results were generally disappointing. Sales were hurt by weak demand from consumers and the well-publicized problems at Toyota Motor.

Toyota said Tuesday that January sales fell 16% from a year earlier, worse than a forecast of a 12% year-over-year decline from sales tracker Edmunds.com.

Toyota had to suspend the sales of its most popular models for much of the last week of January due to a problem with sticking a gas pedal that caused unexpected acceleration.

But Toyota's problems didn't appear to provide much of a lift for other automakers.

The halt in sales created more confusion in the market than demand for other automakers' products, according to Ken Czubay a Ford Motor vice president.

"There was not a significant movement yet. People weren't going to overreact to the uncertainty," Czubay said.

Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500), General Motors, Nissan and Korean automaker Hyundai Motor all reported improved January sales compared to a year ago. But Honda Motor (HMC) and Chrysler both said January sales fell from the same period last year.

But most of the companies reporting increases suffered from declining sales to consumers, a sign of continued headwinds facing the industry.

Ford's retail sales fell 5%, which company officials termed disappointing. GM's retail sales fell 10%, although that was primarily due to the winding down of the Pontiac and Saturn brands, which GM is closing, and the Saab and Hummer brands that GM is in the process of selling.

Retail sales at GM's four remaining brands -- Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac -- edged up 3%.

But GM and Ford reported big jumps in fleet sales to government and businesses, particularly rental car companies. Ford estimated that there was a 50% jump in industrywide fleet sales compared to a year ago, when the economic crisis led to a plunge in purchases by rental car companies.

Ford's fleet sales soared 154% from those depressed levels. GM's fleet sales more than tripled.

Overall, GM reported a 14% rise in sales compared to a year ago, better than the 9% rise forecast by Edmunds.com. But its sales tumbled 30% from December.

Ford reported that its overall sales rose 24% from January 2009, although they fell 37% short of December's total. The gain was weaker than the forecast of a 33% rise by Edmunds.com though.

Still, Ford's sales were good enough to lift its market share and vault it back into the No. 2 position in terms of U.S. sales, passing Toyota Motor (TM).

Ford also has been on a run of critical success, with its Fusion sedan winning several "Car of the Year" awards in recent months. Sales of the Fusion rose by 49%, pacing similar growth across all of its car models. But sales gains of Ford light trucks and crossovers were far more modest.

Nissan's overall sales rose 16% from a year ago, a bit better than expectations of a 14% increase. Hyundai Motor, which includes both the Hyundai and Kia brands, posted a combined 13% rise, far better than the 1% drop forecast by Edmunds.com.

But Honda disappointed with a 5% drop in sales rather than the expected 3% gain. Sales at Chrysler Group fell 8%, rather than the 6% increase that was expected.

Paul Ballew, a consumer economist at financial services company Nationwide, said automakers will continue to face significant trouble because Americans are still not ready to spend big. He doesn't expect a strong recovery in auto sales until the middle of the decade.

"Consumers are hesitant for legitimate reasons," he said. "We're expecting the recovery to be very modest and gradual." To top of page

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