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Auto sales: Weakness beyond Toyota

By Chris Isidore, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Toyota's troubles are likely to get the most attention when automakers report February sales Tuesday. But the Japanese automaker's pain isn't likely to translate into big gains for its rivals.

Sales tracker Edmunds.com forecasts U.S. market share for Toyota (TM) will fall to its lowest point in nearly five years, and that sales will tumble 10% from year-ago levels.

Most other automakers, including General Motors, Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) and Hyundai Motor, are expected to post sales increases from a year ago. Overall, the industry should enjoy a modest gain in sales. Chrysler Group is the only other major car company that is likely to report a drop in sales.

But a small gain isn't very good when you consider that last February was the worst month for the industry since 1981.

"It's like saying the Detroit Lions were better this year because they had two wins rather than none," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry analysis for TrueCar.

J.D. Power & Associates is forecasting that industrywide sales are going to be up 8% from a year ago, but as was the case in January, fleet sales to businesses such as rental car companies should provide most of the lift. Sales to consumers are expected to be little changed from a year ago.

Most of the forecasts are for a seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of about 10 million vehicles, which would make this the worst month since September for sales.

"Just when we were going to get going on a sales recovery, this pushes us back a little bit," said Toprak.

Experts agree that much of the gains at Toyota's rivals will be coming from sales to rental car companies rather than individual customers who might have considered buying a Toyota before the recall.

"Our view is that Toyota buyers are sitting back and waiting," said Jeff Schuster, director of global forecasting at Power.

It wasn't just recalls depressing auto sales, though. The snow storms that hit much of eastern United States likely depressed sales as well. Of greater concern to experts is that consumer confidence appears to be sliding backwards.

The Conference Board's survey of 5,000 consumers found them more worried about current economic conditions than at any point in the last 27 years, worse even than a year ago when economists feared a second Great Depression. Not surprisingly, consumers planning to buy a new car in the next six months also fell from the depressed levels of a year ago.

"We will have to wait until March to see if February is an aberration or a fundamental sign that the recovery in sales will be more subdued than hoped," said Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com.

Still, Schuster still thinks the industry is poised for better sales in the months ahead. J.D. Power just raised its full-year sales forecast to 11.7 million vehicles from its earlier estimate of 11.5 million.

"We're starting to see credit and leasing free up. The main economic numbers are looking better," he said. "Those are setting the foundations for a positive recovery." To top of page

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