U.S. auto sales tumbled 28 percent in June, the narrowest decline in nine months, as Ford Motor Co stole market share from its rivals.
Automakers said the results pointed to more stability for the economy, but fell short of marking a turnaround for the U.S. auto market after a punishing four-year decline.
Ford, the only U.S. automaker not supported by emergency U.S. government funding, reported a 10.9 percent drop in U.S. sales in June and took back the No. 2 position in U.S. sales from Toyota Motor Corp through the first half of 2009.
The sales results came as General Motors Corp pleaded its case to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to permit a swift sale of its best assets to a new company funded by the Obama administration and avoid liquidation.
GM, the top-selling automaker in the U.S. market, posted a 33.6 percent decline in U.S. sales in June and sounded a more cautious tone about the economy than rivals in a conference call with analysts and reporters.
Our results are tenuous, said GM sales chief Mark LaNeve. Our customers are expecting a very quick exit from bankruptcy similar to what they saw for Chrysler.
Chrysler Group LLC, in its first sales report following its sale to a group led by Italy's Fiat SpA in June, said U.S. June sales fell 42 percent.
Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> posted a 31.9 percent sales decline in June. Honda Motor Co Ltd <7267.T> said sales fell 29.5 percent from June 2008, a month where a rise in gasoline prices drove demand for small cars.
Nissan Motor Co Ltd <7201.T> posted a 23.1 percent drop and said there were some signs demand had stabilized after industry sales plunged following the financial market collapse in September.
I wouldn't say that the industry has done a 180 (degree turn), but I would say that in the last 60 days the industry has stabilized, Al Castignetti, general manager for Nissan in the United States, told Reuters in an interview.
Nissan is the No. 6 automaker in U.S. sales, but would fall to No. 7 through the first half of the year if Hyundai Motor Co and Kia Motors sales are combined. Hyundai has made sharp gains over the past year in terms of sales and perception.
Some of the most bullish analysts and economists had expected industrywide U.S. sales to top the 10 million-unit annual rate in June for the strongest showing this year.
However, the rate came in at 9.69 million units, according to Autodata, a dip from 9.9 million in May which underscores the uncertainty. At 10 million units it still would have been among the weakest months since the early 1980s.
Auto executives said credit was flowing better and traffic in showrooms increasing, but worries over the economy had left consumers window-shopping instead of buying.
WEST COAST WEAK
Results were dismal in California, the single largest market, and the Western region in general where demand is not likely to recover until later in 2009, auto executives said.
Ford, which saw its market share jump to 18 percent in June from 14.6 percent a year ago, said markets in the middle of the country were much stronger than on either coast. That was a factor that played to Ford's strength in the central states.
GM, Chrysler and Toyota posted sharp market-share declines for the month from a year ago.
The auto industry downturn ... appears to be reaching a turning point, said Emily Kolinski Morris, a Ford senior economist, on a conference call.
U.S. auto sales figures have been roiled in recent months by the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. Chrysler cut ties to nearly 800 dealerships, winding down those relationships in early June.
Automakers have been plying record cash or special financing incentives to press customer traffic, further obscuring the long-term demand for vehicles.
Edmunds called the month the most expensive June on record, with the average U.S. incentive at $2,930 per vehicle sold, up 20 percent from a year earlier. Edmunds expects incentives to fall as production cuts in recent months pare inventories.
June incentives have never been higher, but we anticipate that the tide is about to turn, Edmunds executive director of industry analysis, Jesse Toprak, said in a statement.
Chrysler, which had the highest U.S. June incentive at $4,873 per vehicle according to Edmunds, halted production during its bankruptcy and GM has cut back substantially.
GM plans to drop its Saab, Hummer, Saturn and Pontiac brands and focus on Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac. The automaker has launched a sale from July 1 to July 6 that offers zero percent financing on most of its Pontiac brand.
The automaker also plans to terminate dealerships in its reorganization, but has favored a longer-term strategy of allowing the ties to expire gradually by October 2010.
Looking ahead, automakers expect a modest bump in U.S. auto sales from the cash for clunkers program signed into law last month, which begins to gear up later in July.
Results were not adjusted for an extra selling day in June from a year earlier.
(Reporting by David Bailey and Kevin Krolicki, editing by Matthew Lewis)