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Toyota US sales reel from crisis; GM, Ford surge

Ford Motor Co said its US sales rose 24% in January, a month when the industry was rocked by Toyota Motor Corp's massive recall of some of its top-selling vehicles.

Ford, the first of the major automakers to report US sales, said its sales of cars and light trucks to fleet customers including rental car companies had more than doubled from a year earlier.

Retail sales through Ford showrooms were down 5% from a year earlier, in line with what analysts and executives have said was a slow month for an industry still facing an unsteady recovery.

Along with General Motors Co and Hyundai Motor Co, Ford took aim at Toyota customers with new incentive offers at the end of January when the Japanese automaker's sales went into a steep decline.

Toyota is expected to post a sharp drop in its own sales for January after it shut down sales of its most popular vehicles, including North American-built Camrys and Corollas, amid a recall of 2.3 million vehicles tied to faulty accelerator pedals.

Analysts expect Toyota's woes to result in sales and market share increases by its largest competitors in the US market as the focus shifts to how deeply the recall and related problems will cut into February sales.

Ford, now No. 3 in the US market behind Toyota, said it estimated that its US market share had ticked up to 16% in January.

Toyota had 17% share in 2009. Including all of its brands, GM remained No. 1 in the US market with 20% share.

Toyota said on Monday it had begun shipping parts to fix potentially sticky accelerator pedals in recalled vehicles, but dealers cautioned it would take months to complete all of the repairs.

“Frankly, I think this is going to impact their entire quarter,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman. “It means opportunity for the rest of the industry. Toyota is wounded and rivals are going to go after it as much as they can.”

Autoconomy analyst Erich Merkle believes Honda Motor Co Ltd may benefit the most from Toyota's crisis as American consumers most frequently cross-shop the two Japanese automakers. Ford and Hyundai also could be big beneficiaries, he said.

“This is particularly a bad time for Toyota because the industry will be picking up and now a lot of that benefit is going to go to the other competitors,” said David Sargeant, vice president of automotive research at J.D.Power & Associates.

Analysts and industry executives expect sales of 10.5 million to 11 million units in January on an annualized basis across the industry, up from the 9.6 million rate a year earlier. Sales fell below the 10 million unit annualized rate in January 2009 for the first time since 1982 amid a deep economic downturn.

But the results are expected to be down from 11.2 million units in December, when automakers posted a 15% sales increase from the prior year, supported by year-end incentives that helped drive retail sales.

“This is probably not going to be the kind of recovery that is nice and linear,” Ford sales analyst George Pipas said. “We're going to see fits and starts for the consumer.”

January auto sales are traditionally a slow period for the industry. Analysts say retail sales across the industry fell back in the month from December when a number of year-end clearance sales were available and consumers were able to book a tax benefit by writing off sales tax.

The decline in retail sales in January was offset by a strong rebound in fleet sales, which were pummeled last year after financing dried up and businesses pulled back on spending in the wake of the US banking bailout, automakers and analysts have said. (Reuters)