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Car Sales Skid 18.5% in Early March

Times Staff Writer

Sales of new domestic cars, apparently hurt by consumer worries about rising interest rates, plummeted 18.5% in early March, the auto industry reported Tuesday.

Domestic auto makers reported sales of 172,514 cars from March 1 to March 10, down from 211,772 in the same period last year.

“That’s a miserable sales number,” said Theodore Sullivan, an automotive analyst with Wharton Econometrics.

Sullivan blamed the “impact of higher interest rates on consumer buying attitudes.”

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Interest rates have risen in recent months, partly because of efforts by the Federal Reserve to slow economic activity and thus curb inflation. The prime lending rate--the bank lending rate used as a benchmark for many types of consumer loans--is 11.5%, up from 8.5% a year earlier.

Some analysts, however, said sales are slow because the car-buying cycle has finally matured after the country’s four-year car-buying binge.

“It’s certainly sluggish demand,” said Christopher Cedergren, an auto analyst with J. D. Power & Associates. “Demand for new cars has peaked. We’ve had four good years of new car buying. Demand has slowed to a more reasonable level.”

Maryann N. Keller, an automotive analyst with Furman Selz Mager Dietz & Birney, sounded a similar note. “So many cars have been sold, its time for a rest,” she said. “This is a buyer’s market. Since the fourth quarter of 1986, the car market has been inching slowly toward a buyer’s market. . . . We’re really in it now.”

Among the Big Three auto makers, sales at Chrysler were off 35.9% to 22,236; at Ford, down 21.4% to 54,112, and at GM, off 13.4% to 82,575.

Although they accounted for a tiny portion of the overall sales volume, sales of domestically produced Toyotas and Mazdas posted big percentage gains because of increased productivity at their U.S.-based manufacturing plants.

From the beginning of the year to March 10, overall domestic auto sales are off 9.7% to 1,235,121.

AUTO SALES

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March 1-10 % 10-Day 1989 change GM 82,575 -13.4 Ford 54,112 -21.4 Chrysler 22,236 -35.9 Honda U.S. 8,765 +3.2 Nissan U.S. 1,673 -13.4 Toyota U.S. 1,850 +66.7 Mazda U.S. 867 +54.8 Mitsubishi U.S. 436 -- TOTAL 172,514 -18.5

There were 9 selling days in the period this year and last year.


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