Auto Makers Post 3.8% Sales Gain

Times Staff Writer

Americans continued to buy new cars at a brisk pace in February, with sales rising 3.8% above the strong results in the same month last year, auto manufacturers reported Tuesday.

Sales by the six domestic companies--General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp., American Motors Corp., Volkswagen of America and American Honda--rose 2.6% to 645,317 for February with the help of a very strong showing in the last 10 days of the month. Of the domestics, only AMC reported a sales decline in the Feb. 21-28 period.

Sales of imported makes rose 8.1% to an estimated 192,500 in February. Imports took 23% of all new-car sales last month.

"Sales figures continue to support the idea that the market is strong and should remain strong," said Ted Sullivan, an analyst with Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based economic forecasting firm. "There is no sign of weakening in the foreseeable future."

But industry analysts agreed that, while the market remains strong, sales last month probably were bolstered by incentives that some of the auto makers are offering in an attempt to promote slower-selling small cars.

Chrysler, AMC and Ford currently have consumer incentive programs in effect on their smaller models.

GM sales slipped 3.4% in February to 346,616 vehicles. The company offered no explanation for the year-to-year decline, but it added that its orders are at an all-time high.

The No. 1 auto maker held a 53.7% share of the domestic market, down from the 57.1% share recorded in February, 1984.

Ford sales rose 5.2% last month, while Chrysler's were up 32.3%. The sharp gain for Chrysler caused its share of the market to rise to 15.8% last month, compared to 12.3% in February, 1984.

The six U.S. manufacturers sold 26,888 cars a day last month, compared to 26,201 in February, 1984.

All percentage changes are calculated from a daily sales rate because there were 24 selling days in February this year, compared to 25 selling days in 1984.

On a seasonally adjusted annual rate basis, the February sales by domestic makes equaled a healthy 8.5 million cars, down slightly from January's 8.6 million.

The annual rate is a calculation of the number of cars that would be sold if February's pace were to continue for 12 months.

Imports sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.3 million.

"During the past six months, sales have fluctuated from period to period because of low dealer inventories. Now we are starting to see a steady annual rate of 8 (million) to 8.5 million, indicating that inventory problems, especially those left by the GM strike last fall, are over," Sullivan said. "Production has caught up with the market, and manufacturers are able to sustain a high sales rate. Maintaining an 8-million annual rate shows the true strength of the market."

Analysts said the effect of the removal of Japanese import quotas in April should not have a substantial effect on the U.S. market until the end of the year due to import distribution constraints and production limitations.

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