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U.S. Auto Sales Fell 18 Percent in 2008

You know U.S. auto sales are truly terrible, when auto industry spinmeisters start off by comparing the most recent month's awful numbers versus the previous month's even worse numbers, instead of against the customary year-ago month.

image Smiley faceThat sleight-of-hand has become a bad habit, with U.S. auto industry sales falling off a cliff in the fourth quarter, thanks to the credit crisis, record low consumer confidence and a U.S. recession. That particular spin control may be standard procedure within the auto industry, but it's the sort of thing that hurts the industry's credibility with outside observers -- like for instance, with U.S. senators and congressmen.

Total U.S. auto sales were around 13.2 million in 2008, down 18 percent from 16.1 million in 2007, according to AutoData Corp. That made 2008 the worst year for U.S. auto sales since 1992, according the Automotive News Data Center.

That's bad enough, but if sales for the full year had been as bad as the fourth quarter, 2008 sales would have been closer to 10 million, and the worst in 25 years, analysts said. It's not like industry's troubles are a secret. Chrysler and GM narrowly avoided bankruptcy last month, winning a taxpayer-funded auto industry bailout from President Bush, after the U.S. Senate refused to provide the money.

Nevertheless, most car companies instinctively tried to put the best possible face on a terrible year, in their sales reports. Automakers reported sales results on Jan. 5, for the month of December and for the 12 months just ended.

The December sales report from Chrysler LLC leads off with sales increases for all Jeep vehicles; the Chrysler Town and Country and the Dodge Grand Caravan; plus the Dodge Ram pickup. Chrysler said its total sales were up 5 percent. At first glance, it looks like Chrysler is in a different industry than everyone else.

However, that's against November 2008, when sales were even worse than December. Auto sales are highly seasonal, so it's more meaningful to compare sales versus the year-ago month, instead of consecutive months. It doesn't mean much to say, for instance, that December sales were better than November sales, because December sales are almost always better than November sales, due to year-end discounts.

It takes a second glance at Chrysler's sales report to find that that Chrysler's sales were down a whopping 53 percent in December, from the year-ago month. For all of 2008, Chrysler sales, including Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge, were down 30 percent to about 1.5 million. Chrysler wasn't the only car company to resort to December-versus-November spin control -- Toyota and others did it, too. But among the six biggest U.S. sellers, Chrysler had the worst year-ago December comparison.

GM sales fell 31.2 percent in December from the year-ago month. Its 2008 sales were down 22.7 percent, to just under 3 million. Ford sales dropped 32.3 percent in December; sales for the full year were down 20.5 percent, to just under 2 million.

U.S. sales also fell for the leading Japanese automakers. Toyota fell 36.7 percent in December; its 2008 sales fell 15.4 percent, to 2.2 million. That meant Toyota was No. 2 in U.S. sales behind GM, the same as last year. Honda's U.S. sales were down 34.7 percent in December; and down 7.9 percent for the year, to about 1.4 million. Nissan was off 30.7 percent in December; or down 10.9 percent for the year, to about 951,000.

"These are not the sort of numbers I'm going to be keeping for my scrapbook," said Mark LaNeve, vice president, GM North America vehicle sales, service and marketing.

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