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Light-Truck Demand Still Aiding Chrysler; Sales Up 9%

From Associated Press

Chrysler Corp. reported Tuesday that its U.S. sales rose 9% in August as the No. 3 auto maker continued to benefit from strong demand for its pickups, minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

It was Chrysler’s best August ever and the 10th consecutive month in which its sales exceeded the same month of the previous year. The gain came despite a 4% drop in car sales compared with August 1995.

Chrysler was the first of the major auto makers to report its August sales. General Motors Corp., Honda, Toyota and Nissan are scheduled to release their numbers today, followed by Ford Motor Co. on Thursday.

Shares of Chrysler stock were down 50 cents at $28.75 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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Analysts expect Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler to again show the strongest sales among the Big Three auto makers as the model year draws to a close.

“Floor traffic kind of softened a bit” in August, said Art Spinella of CNW Marketing-Research in Bandon, Ore.

Manufacturers continued to offer generous rebates and low financing and lease rates to draw customers to slower-moving models.

Incentives had been heading down since May but went back up in August as dealers sought to clear out remaining 1996 models. Spinella said the average incentive per vehicle was $2,617 last month, up from $2,586 a year ago and about $2,400 in July.

Light trucks--the category that includes minivans, sport-utility vehicles and pickups--remained Chrysler’s calling card in August. Its truck sales were up 17% over a year ago.

Sales of the Jeep Grand Cherokee were up 42%; Cherokee sales were up 52%; and the redesigned ’97 Wrangler--introduced at midyear--was up 59%. Chrysler’s minivans passed the 500,000-annual sales mark in August, the earliest date of any model year.

Dealer Alan Helfman of River Oaks Chrysler-Plymouth Jeep-Eagle in Houston said he can barely keep enough Cherokees and Grand Cherokees in stock. The same can’t be said about demand for cars.

“Car sales are a little slow,” he said. “They’re dragging, other than the niche cars like the [Chrysler] Sebring convertible. People are just not as excited about cars as they are about the sport-utilities and minivans.”

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Overall, Helfman said he saw “a definite downturn” in sales last month--about 10% to 15% slower--after a robust June and July.

“It’s not a radical downturn but it’s enough to notice,” he said. “June and July were so incredible, I’m just a little scared.”

Gary Stutz, sales manager of McCune Motors Chrysler-Plymouth Jeep- Eagle in National City, Calif., said his dealership’s sales were average in August, with only minivans selling at above- normal rates.


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