Imports about to overtake Big Three
Domestic models from GM, Ford and Chrysler took barely half the U.S. market in January, and their share is getting smaller.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and ... imported cars?
That old Chevrolet jingle, which was written to position the General Motors (Charts) brand as the all-American make of car and truck, could be due for an update, according to the latest sales figures in the auto industry.
That's because imported auto brands reached a record high of 49.4 percent of U.S. sales in January, according to the latest industry figures.
Experts in the field say imports should cross the 50 percent mark in the world's most important auto market sometime this year, perhaps as soon as March.
"There's going to be at least several months this year when, we think, the import brands will top 50 percent," said Jesse Toprak, senior analyst with automotive Web site Edmunds.com.
Toprak and David Lucas, vice president of auto sales tracker Autodata, pointed to a redesigned Honda Accord sedan due out later this year and the roll-out of the new Toyota Tundra, the company's first real entry in the full-size pickup truck market, as among the factors that will further lift the import brand sales.
"I think we're going to see it soon," said Lucas, regarding imported brands topping 50 percent of U.S. sales. "If not this year, then it will happen next year. It's just a matter of time."
While fuel prices have retreated in recent months, another rise towards $3 gas as the summer driving season approaches could give another lift to those brands' U.S. market share.
The imports include some brands owned by the traditional Big Three, such as GM's Saab, and Ford (Charts)'s Volvo, Land Rover and Jaguar. DaimlerChrysler (Charts), which owns Chrysler, also includes European-based Mercedes-Benz.
So far this year, the traditional Big Three have mainained their edge as the biggest sellers of cars in the U.S.by relying on fleet sales, especially to rental car companies and other corporate buyers.
While the Detroit automakers have been trying to scale back on those less profitable sales, they're still relying on them to a far greater extent than are their import competitors.
If you look only at retail sales to consumers, the Big Three are close to losing that important battle for U.S. car buyers' hearts and wallets, according to industry experts, even if you include their import brands.
Those three corporations had just over 50 percent of U.S. retail market share in the fourth quarter of 2006, according to recent figures from J.D. Power & Associates, and could easily slip below that level in 2007, even with the inclusion of Saab, Volvo and Mercedes.
Excluding those import brands, the Big Three's retail sales fell below 50 percent for the first time way back in the first half of 2006.
"There's no question the import brands have gained strength steadily for a long time," said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for the Power Information Network, an affiliate of J.D. Power.
He said the shift appears to be picking up speed, though.
"The Toyota brand gained 1.8 percentage points of share in one year in 2006, which is almost unheard of in this industry," he said, referring to retail sales.
Of course, the distinction between imports and homegrown brands is getting more and more cloudy, according to experts, with vehicle parts being produced globally and even the Big Three making many of their cars in Canada, Mexico and South Korea,
Similarly, Asian-based automakers, as a group, sold nearly 4 million vehicles in the United States in 2006 that were came off North American assembly lines, more than either Ford or DaimlerChrysler sold here, and almost as many as GM.
The Detroit automakers say they're not focused on whether the American car buyer is turning to Detroit or overseas brands for a majority of their car and truck purchases.
Instead they're trying to cut costs and return to profitability. Part of that requires cutting production and dropping money-losing products. That means reduced market share.
"The 50 percent is not a benchmark. It's an interesting statistical point," said GM spokesman John McDonald. "It's like global sales leadership, it's nice, and we've had it for 76 years. But if you're not making money, it's not really relevant. We can't be chasing market share for the point of chasing market share. We can't afford to lose money."
George Pipas, director of sales analysis for Ford, agreed with McDonald's point. He said that much of the 19 percent drop in Ford sales in January, compared to the same month last year, was due to a 40 percent-plus drop in fleet sales, a deliberate decision by the automaker.
"Our retail business also fell 5 percent," he said. "That wasn't planned. We're trying to get as much retail as we can. Hopefully in 2007 we can achieve stability in that end of the business."
But he said the growth of import brands has been taking place for decades as new brands enter the U.S. market and debut vehicles in new market segments.