Foreign Autos Set Record

Times Staff Writer

Foreign automakers, led by Japanese powerhouse Toyota Motor Corp., piled up record U.S. sales last year as American companies continued their long slide, according to figures released Wednesday.

Toyota, which is expected to overtake General Motors Corp. as the world's largest automaker by next year, saw its U.S. sales climb 9.7% in 2005, marking the automaker's 10th consecutive year of record U.S. sales.

Toyota's Camry was the best-selling car in the U.S., while its Lexus line was the most popular luxury brand for the sixth straight year.

"If I'm one of the guys running Ford or GM ... I'm deeply concerned about how quickly Toyota is accelerating," said Gordon Wangers, president of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. in Marina del Rey.

American automakers, which have relied heavily on pickup and sport utility vehicle sales in the last decade, launched a large discount campaign last summer. Still, they were hurt by an accelerated shift in demand for cars as gasoline prices rose.

GM's vehicle sales fell by 4.4% last year, while Ford Motor Co.'s dropped by 4.7%. GM's U.S. sales have been sliding since 1999, while Ford's have been declining since 2000.

The one bright spot was Chrysler, the U.S. arm of Germany's DaimlerChrysler, whose sales rose 4.5%.

Continued high fuel prices and an onslaught of new, smaller economy cars, including the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit, are expected to help import brands increase sales in 2006 at the expense of Ford, GM and Chrysler, analysts said.

Industrywide sales totaled 16.99 million cars and trucks in 2005, the third-best year on record.

And a host of foreign automakers set annual sales records, including Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. Suzuki Motor Corp. and South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co., and the European brands BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

"The trend has been going on for some time," said Koen Pauwels, a Dartmouth College business professor who specializes in automotive marketing and pricing strategies. "Once buyers switch to Japanese brands they tend to stick with them, and this has been hurting the domestics."

The Big Three U.S. carmakers' collective market share fell to a record low of 56.9% last year, while Asian brands captured 36.5% of the U.S. market, up from 34.5% in 2004.

Ford and GM have announced major reorganizations as they face growing expenses for underutilized factories, plus soaring healthcare and pension costs.

GM late last year said it would close eight factories as it eliminated 35,000 jobs in North America over the next few years. Ford will unveil details Jan. 23 on its plans to cut as many as 30,000 salaried and hourly jobs.

Toyota ended 2005 with a 13.3% share of the U.S. market, just 47,000 units behind Chrysler, the country's traditional No. 3 automaker.

Toyota sold 2.26 million cars and trucks last year while Chrysler sold 2.3 million.

"We benefited this year from a substantial increase in hybrid" sales, said Jim Press, president of Torrance-based Toyota Motors Sales U.S.A. Toyota sold about 150,000 gas-electric hybrids, including 108,000 of its popular Prius sedans. Other Toyota hybrids are the Highlander sport utility vehicle and the Lexus RX400 luxury SUV.

Press said Wednesday that Toyota's U.S. sales might rise as much as 5% this year.

The company is preparing to introduce a hybrid version of its Camry sedan this year. Toyota has said it could offer hybrid versions of all of its vehicles by the end of this decade if there was enough demand.

Toyota's growth also was boosted by the performance of its youth-oriented Scion brand, which accounted for 156,000 sales, and its large Avalon sedan, whose sales volume nearly tripled to 95,318 units. The company's full-size Tundra pickup also posted a healthy 12.6% gain to 126,529 units.

Most foreign brands have been faring well in the U.S. "because we consistently offer a good product and have a consistent focus," said Tom Purves, head of BMW of North America. The big American carmakers, he said, suffer from being "generalists that risk not doing anything really well and spreading themselves too thin."

GM's trucks and SUV sales fell by 2% last year, while Ford's trucks and SUVs fell 8%.

But the growing popularity of car-based crossover vehicles, such as the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs, helped sales. Ford said its passenger car sales rose 2% for the year, their first annual gain since 1999.

The strongest showing by an American automaker was from Chrysler Group, whose market share rose to 13.6% from 13% a year earlier.

In contrast, GM's market share fell to 26% from 27.3%, and Ford's dropped to 17.4% from 18.3%.

Chrysler has been profiting from a series of hot-selling, rear-wheel drive cars including the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Charger sporty sedan and the Dodge Magnum sports wagon.

"They also are holding their own in the minivan market they created ... and the Dodge Ram pickup is still doing pretty well despite the onslaught of [Toyota] Tundras and [Nissan] Titans" in the full-size pickup market, said Jim Hossack, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. automotive market research in Tustin.

But even with two years of increases, Chrysler is well below the 2.5 million annual sales pace with which it began the decade.

Bloomberg News was used in compiling this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bestsellers of '05

Most popular cars and trucks sold in U.S. (In thousands)

Ford F-Series pickup: 901

Chevrolet Silverado pickup: 706

Toyota Camry: 432

Dodge Ram pickup: 401

Honda Accord: 369

Toyota Corolla/Matrix: 341

Honda Civic: 308

Nissan Altima: 255

Chevrolet Impala: 246

Chevrolet TrailBlazer: 244

Source: Autodata

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Race is tightening

U.S. automakers failed to stop their top Asian rivals from gaining market share in 2005 U.S. sales of cars and trucks. Chrysler was the only one of the Big Three to show growth. Here is a sampling:

Company: General Motors

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 4,416

% change from 2004: --4.4%

Market share: 26.0%

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Company: Ford

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 2,953

% change from 2004: --4.7%

Market share: 17.4%

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Company: Chrysler Group

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 2,305

% change from 2004: +4.5%

Market share: 13.6%

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Company: Toyota

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 2,260

% change from 2004: +9.7%

Market share: 13.3%

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Company: Honda

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 1,463

% change from 2004: +4.9%

Market share: 8.6%

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Company: Nissan

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 1,077

% change from 2004: +9.2%

Market share: 6.3%

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Company: Hyundai

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 455

% change from 2004: +8.7%

Market share: 2.7%

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Company: Kia

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 276

% change from 2004: +2.1%

Market share: 1.6%

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Company: Mazda

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 258

% change from 2004: --2.1%

Market share: 1.5%

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Company: Subaru

2005 sales (in thousands of units): 196

% change from 2004: +4.6%

Market share: 1.2%

Source: Autodata

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