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Kicking the Fleet Fix

Today, January auto sales will come in and they won't be pretty. In fact, for the big 3, they will be downright ugly. This is what happens when the auto companies kick the fleet sales habit.

Wednesday Ford gave us a preview of what to expect saying january sales plunged 20%, with fleet sales crashing 40%, and daily rental sales falling 60% compared to January of last year. Don't cry for Ford. Getting off the Fleet fix is what the company wants, and frankly what it needs to do.

Fleet sales have long been crutch to prop up market share numbers with sales of low margin cars and trucks. Sure, if Ford could get back to 20% market share, that would be good news. But if a healthy chunk of the market share comes from cranking out Explorers to fleet customers at little profit, who wins?

So Ford and GM are finally getting religion and pledging to give up this habit-even at the expense of losing market share. They've made similar pledges in the past, only to fall back in to the same habit when market share took a big hit. I think this time will be different. Alan Mulally and Rick Wagoner realize fleet sales hide the fact that both companies need to be more profitable per vehicle.

All of this means we will start to see a more accurate portrayal of how popular Toyota and Honda are with retail (dealership) shoppers. Look for Toyota to pass Ford to become #2 in the U.S. Sales. The Japanese automaker did this twice on a monthly basis during 2006. But with Ford kicking the fleet sales habit, this begins the start of Toyota moving ahead of Ford regularly each month.

Like I said coming off the fleet fix will be ugly and have some undesirable side effects.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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