Harsh morning after for U.S. automakers

October 5, 2009

Harsh morning after for U.S. automakers

September car sales were bound to look awful after August’s bonus round, a.k.a. cash for clunkers.

Nonetheless, the year-over-year sales descent for General Motors and Chrysler bordered on jaw-dropping — counterbalanced somewhat by Ford’s least-loss performance among the six major automakers.

Unfortunately for vehicle manufacturers, there’s no easy path these days in figuring out what consumers want, what if anything they can afford, and how gas prices and other economic factors could change their minds or their wallets in the days to come. The only certainty is that GM and Chrysler, post-bankruptcy, are smaller — both as companies and as market-place presences. The year-over-year sales comparisons are likely to remain jarring for a while longer.

Toyota is also chastened by its sales slump, loss of profitability and the problems caused by floor mats that have resulted in deaths and what is now the company’s biggest recall. President Akio Toyoda said Friday that the company is "grasping for salvation" — words that would still seem to apply to GM and Chrysler, too.

Ford’s 5.1% year-over-year loss made it the standout among the majors and boosted its market share about 2 percentage points from year-earlier levels. Part of that comes from sales of the new Taurus, which emphasizes that carmakers can’t delay product introductions even while they get their books and production lines in order.

Automakers are hoping that, as the economy stabilizes, buyers may start to return. Nonetheless, the annual sales rates of the recent past are likely to remain history for quite some time. For GM and Chrysler, especially, it may well be spring or summer before it’s clear what stability looks like and how the redesigned companies fit into the market. For Detroit as an auto town, there are still many months of breath-holding ahead.

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