U.S. auto sales plunge

Sales sharply lower across industry as automakers, experts say credit squeeze, customer worries led to sharp drops in sales.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sales at the nation's top automakers fell sharply in September, as tighter credit for buyers and dealers combined with high fuel prices resulted in industrywide U.S. sales falling below the 1 million mark for the first time in more than 15 years.

The sales declines were broad based, with Japanese automakers reporting the same kind of double-digit declines that hit U.S. brands earlier this year when the record gasoline prices sent buyers scurrying from SUVs and pickups to more fuel efficient car models. Overall Asian brands saw a 31% drop in sales, more than the 24% drop among traditional domestic brands.

This time it was the credit crisis, not just gas prices, that cut into sales. Many buyers were unable to get the credit they needed to buy a car and a growing number of dealers saw their own credit cut off, causing widespread failures.

Add to that general nervousness about the economy and the industry was poised to sell fewer than a million cars in the United States for the first time since 1993. And auto executives say they don't think they've seen the bottom yet.

Overall industry sales toppled 27% to 964,873 vehicles, according to sales tracker Autodata, a level not seen since February, 1993. It was the biggest year-over-year drop in sales since January 1991, as the nation prepared for the start of the first Gulf War and experienced a gasoline price shock.

George Pipas, Ford's director of sales analysis, said the company estimates that industrywide sales to consumers were down slightly more, a 30% compared to last year, although a more narrow decline in fleet sales to business clients such as car rental companies limited the overall percentage drop.

Industrywide sales of light trucks, such as pickups, SUVs and vans, edged ahead of cars for 50.3% of industrywide sales. It marked the first time since March of this year that trucks outsold cars. But demand for both types of vehicles plunged from year-earlier levels with truck sales off 31% and car models down 22%.

Pipas said that sales, as well as traffic in showrooms, were down even more sharply the last 10 days of the month as the economic crisis got more and more attention.

"There are customers who are adopting a wait and see attitude," he said. "When the Dow falls 777 points [as it did this past Monday], I can assure you there weren't many people closing on a car or an HD TV or a home for that matter."

Market research firm CNW Research, which has tracked dealership traffic for 22 years, confirmed Pipas' view. The firm's reading on traffic in showrooms for the end of September was the worst it has ever reported, down 50% compared to a year earlier.

"Manufacturer incentives aren't pulling in the crowds. Dealer 'blow out sales' aren't working. And without showroom traffic, it's tough to sell anything," said Art Spinella, president of CNW.

Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power & Associates, said that even though the problems facing automakers in September were well known, the final numbers were "shocking."

Libby said it's now clear that credit market problems have become the greatest headwind for auto sales as buyers would need to pony up more cash if they really want a car.

"Who's going to put down $25,000 or $30,000 in cash right now? That explains a lot of this," he said.

GM, down 16%...but beats forecasts

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) reported that sales of cars and light trucks dropped 16% from a year ago. That was better than the forecast of a 24% decline from sales tracker Edmunds.com but it was still clearly a sign of weaken demand.

Still GM executives said they were pleased with the results.

"September marked the second consecutive month where GM performed extremely well in tough market conditions," said Mark LaNeve, the GM vice president in charge of North American sales.

Sales of GM's cars fell 10% while sales of light trucks - such as pickups, SUVs and vans - declined 19%.

More pain at Toyota

Toyota Motor (TM) reported that its sales toppled 32% from a year earlier. The forecast was for an overall drop of only 18%. It was the sharpest percentage drop in U.S. sales for the Japanese automaker in 21 years.

Sales of cars dropped 28% and light truck sales plunged 38%.

After years of steady gains that made it No. 2 in terms of U.S. sales, Toyota has now had year-over-year declines in U.S. sales in all but one month since last December.

Ford, Chrysler sales down by a third

The news was just as bad at Ford (F, Fortune 500) and Chrysler LLC.

Ford reported that U.S. sales tumbled 35% from a year earlier. The forecast had been for only a 25% drop.

"Consumers and businesses are in a very fragile place," said Jim Farley, Ford group vice president. "An already weak economy compounded by very tight credit conditions has created an atmosphere of caution."

Privately-held Chrysler LLC, which includes the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands, posted a 33% decline, as light truck sales tumbled 34% and car sales dropped 29%.

Sales of virtually every model of car and truck at the two U.S. automakers fell by more than 10%. Among the exceptions where the Chrysler and Dodge minivans and Ford's Crown Victoria and the Lincoln Town Car. The latter two were helped by fleet sales.

Sharp drops at Honda, Nissan

Honda Motor (HMC) posted a 24% drop in U.S. sales, far worse than the 6% drop forecast by Edmunds. It was the worst drop in Honda's sales since 1981, and a sign that good fuel economy is no longer enough to buck broad industry declines.

Earlier this year, Honda was able to steal market share by touting its more fuel-efficient cars as gas prices kept rising. Sales actually rose from January through July

But September marked the third straight month of sales declines for Honda. Overall sales for the year are now lower than a year ago.

Nissan (NSANY) posted a 37% drop in sales, far worse than the forecast of a 12% decline. To top of page

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