Japanese Make Big Gains in U.S. Auto Market – DETROIT — U.S Full report

DETROIT — U.S. car and light truck sales in January increased modestly over a weak month last year, automakers said, but Japanese firms made far bigger gains than General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp.
GM reported a 1 percent decline in overall vehicle sales for the month, while Chrysler’s total sales rose by 1.5 percent.

But Honda scored a 21.1 percent sales increase, fueled largely by attractive lease deals on passenger cars. Nissan said its sales increased 10.7 percent, with healthy gains in both domestic and imported cars.

Dean Witter Reynolds Inc analyst Ronald Glantz said Monday he expects Japanese automakers to show market share gains of nearly a full percentage point once reports from Ford, Toyota Motor Corp and others are in on Tuesday.

Ford expected to show an overall gain in the two percent range, with higher truck sales offsetting lower car sales.

Industry executives have said the weakness of the yen against the dollar has allowed Japanese automakers to price vehicles more aggressively than they have in years, putting new pressure on Detroit’s Big Three.

“I think it’s going to be a good year,” said Walter Boomershine, who owns a Honda dealership in Smyrna, Ga.

Honda’s January U.S. sales increased to 59,306 cars and trucks from 48,967 a year ago. Honda’s domestic car sales were up 19.2 percent, while imported cars were up 47.5 percent.

Chrysler’s sales domestic car sales, helped by higher sales to fleet customers, rose were up 7.7 percent in January, pushing the company’s overall sales to 168,157 vehicles from 165,594 a year ago. Chrysler truck sales were down 0.7 percent.

Steve Torok, Chrysler’s executive director of sales and marketing operations, said he believes the automaker can maintain its recent market share gains in the face of the Japanese onslaught, but added “It’s getting tougher.”

“The currency fluctuation has created a real opportunity for them and they’re exploiting it,” Torok said. “They’re going to be taking business from somebody.”

GM reported that its total U.S. vehicle sales in January, including results from Saab Automobile AB, fell to 332,000 cars and trucks from 334,958 a year ago. GM’s domestic car sales rose 4 percent, while domestic truck sales fell 6.7 percent — a drop the automaker blamed on model changeovers and a stronger.

GM marketing chief Ronald Zarrella said sales results for newly introduced GM models “is a clear indication that we’re on the right track and that we can expect to see market share improvements during the second half of the year.”

Analysts said they expected sales for the month to wind up at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 14.2 million units, up from about 14 million a year ago, when blizzards ravaged the East Coast and kept buyers away from showrooms.

But it would mark the fourth consecutive month in which the sales rate declined, Glantz said.

“January discouraging, but I’d want to see a few more months before I make a judgement about the rest of the year,” he added.

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