Generous rebates and improved dealer inventories lured customers into GM showrooms after two parts plant strikes in July and August choked off the supply of the No. 1 automaker's North American-made cars and light trucks.
Figures released Monday show GM's sales were down 3 percent last month compared with September 1997. But that was a significant improvement over GM's double-digit declines the previous two months.
"They're determined to buy back market share," said analyst Maryann Keller of ING Baring Furman Selz LLC. "The incentives are very generous. GM was out there with some of the biggest and best deals, so I'm not surprised to see them recover from where they were."
Sales of GM's light trucks were down nearly 2 percent while car sales declined 3 percent. GM noted that the comparisons were to a strong performance in September 1997.
"I feel pretty good about our recovery," said Roy S. Roberts, vice president and general manager of sales, service and parts. "We're moving in the right direction."
Sales were strong industry-wide as buyers took advantage of deals on leftover '98 models and automakers continued to expand rebates and other discounts, even on some '99s.
Analyst David Healy of Burnham Securities Inc. said the stock market's gyrations and global economic worries don't seem to be affecting the demand for vehicles.
"These are surprisingly strong sales," Healy said. "The stock market isn't as important on Main Street as it is on Wall Street, as far as car sales are concerned."
Ford's sales increased 5 percent as it posted a fifth consecutive monthly record for light truck sales at 195,875 units, up 11 percent. Ford's car sales declined 3 percent.
Ford sales chief Robert Rewey was optimistic that domestic sales would remain strong.
"The fundamentals that drive auto demand income growth along with low interest and unemployment rates remain favorable and consumer confidence is still good," Rewey said.
GM also expects its sales to continue increasing in the fourth quarter, in part because its redesigned full-size pickups are just arriving at dealers as a national advertising campaign kicks into gear. The big Chevrolet and GMC pickup is GM's top-selling vehicle.
- European automakers once again posted the biggest improvement, up 14 percent. It was the 12th consecutive month that the Europeans have enjoyed doubled-digit gains on the popularity of a wide array of new models.
- German automakers Audi and Volkswagen had the best numbers. Audi's sales were up 79 percent while Volkswagen's new Beetle and Passat helped boost its sales 63 percent. It was the best September for both in more than a dcade.
- Asian automakers also had a strong September, up 12 percent, while the domestic Big Three were up 4 percent. Toyota led among the Asians, up 43 percent.
- Chrysler Corp. reported last week that its sales increased 18 percent in September, compared with its weak showing a year ago.
Written By BRIAN S. AKRE