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Toyota beats Ford; Chrysler Rebounds

Toyota Motor sold more vehicles in the U.S. last month than Ford Motor, marking the second time ever that the No. 2 domestic automaker was beaten out by its Japanese rival.

Ford Motor reported Friday that its U.S. auto sales dropped 9.7% in November compared with the same period a year ago. Toyota sold 196,695 vehicles in November, a 15.9% increase over November 2005, compared with Ford's 181,111.

General Motors' sales rose 6.1%, while DaimlerChrysler's were up 4.7%.

GM, the world's largest automaker, sold 293,558 vehicles in the U.S. last month. It sold 109,985 cars, a 7.9% decline from November 2005, but truck sales rose 16.6 percent to 183,573. The numbers include the European Saab brand.

Toyota's sales, including its Lexus luxury brand, were boosted by a 17.8% increase in light truck sales. Sales of the RAV4 compact sport utility vehicle had their best November ever, up 156.9% to 11,425. Toyota's car sales were up 14.5%, to 109,126.

Ford's light truck sales dropped 13% to 119,259, including a 16.1 % drop in sales of the dominant F-Series pickup, while car sales fell 2.6% to 61,852, reflecting lower deliveries to fleet customers.

Ford sales analyst George Pipas, in a conference call with industry analysts and journalists, blamed the company's monthly sales performance in part on getting a start later in the month on advertising highlighting improvements to its 2007 models and promoting its year-end sales event.

"It was disappointing," Pipas said. "We missed our own internal sales target for the month."

But the Dearborn-based company said car sales to individual retail customers were up for the Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ midsize sedans. Ford's figures include the Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover brands.

Ford's share of the domestic market has declined from around 26 % in the early 1990s to 17.6% at the end of October, when Toyota's share was 15.5%. GM's market share was 24.4% at end of October.

In July, Ford sold fewer vehicles in the U.S. than Toyota for the first time, but Ford's U.S. sales surpassed the Japanese company's in August through October.

Toyota spokesman Xavier Dominicis said the company isn't focused on market share.

"Our ranking within the industry is really driven by actions our competitors take or don't take," he said in a phone interview. "Our fundamental approach remains unabated. We supply consumers with the right product at the right time."

Although sales of large SUVs have softened due to high gas prices, the RAV4 fits a niche of utility combined with fuel economy, Dominicis said.

"It's still relatively fresh, and it's more attractive when you get into the more fuel-efficient SUVs, the crossovers vehicles."

Asked about how the company's sales results compared with those of other automakers, Pipas said Ford's focus remains on its North American turnaround effort. Part of Ford's "Way Forward" restructuring plan, updated in September, is to reduce manufacturing capacity to match lower demand for its products.

"It's not that important right now in the scheme of things," he said of sales rankings.

Ford on Friday lowered its North American production estimates 2.5 % for the current quarter and announced production goals for the first three months of 2007 that were in line with previous estimates.

Ford said it plans to build 620,000 vehicles in October-December period, including 240,000 cars and 380,000 trucks. That's 15,000 fewer than previously announced.

Ford said the change reflected the temporary suspension of Freestar minivan production at the Oakville Assembly Plant in Ontario, Canada.

And it said production in the first quarter of 2007 will total 750,000 vehicles, including 240,000 cars and 510,000 trucks. That's down about 14% from production in the first quarter of 2006.

Ford said the goal put it on pace with earlier estimates that production in the first six months of 2007 would be 8% to 12% lower than the first half of 2006.

GM said its fourth-quarter production forecast remains unchanged at 449,000 cars and 661,000 trucks. The company's forecast for the first quarter of 2007 is 1.28 million vehicles, down 9% from actual production in the first quarter of 2006.

Paul Ballew, GM's chief of global market and industry analysis, said in a conference call that after seeing sales hurt earlier in the year by soaring gasoline prices and rising interest rates, automakers remain leery of the possible effect that the cooling housing market could have on car buyers.

"The industry itself in some regards has gone through a mini-recession in 2006," Ballew told analysts and reporters. "We're not pleased by that, but those are events outside of our control. But positive for GM is the fact that we continue to execute a turnaround plan against that backdrop."

Sales of Chevrolet full-size pickups were up 22.9%, while sales of Tahoe and Suburban SUVs rose a combined 71.7% year-over-year.

Sales at DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group rose 2.9% from November 2005 to 164,556. Chrysler sold 33,760 cars, a decline of 14.3%, but truck sales were up 8.5% to 130,796.

The Wrangler was the best-selling vehicle for the Jeep brand last month, with sales nearly doubling to 8,735, and Chrysler's overall best-seller, the Dodge Ram pickup, rose 8.4% to 27,826.

Mercedes-Benz sold 22,079 vehicles, its third-highest performance and a 21% jump from a year ago. Overall, DaimlerChrysler said U.S. sales were 186,635 in the month.

Nissan Motor Co.'s sales were down 1.6% to 76,015. Car sales rose 11.5% to 42,361, including the best November on record for the Altima sedan. But truck sales fell 14.2% to 33,654 as sales of the Xterra SUV dropped 31.8%.

The auto industry as a whole may look a little better last month because November 2005 was relatively weak. Customers avoided car showrooms a year ago despite easing gas prices and deep discounts amid worries about high heating costs and other factors.

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