March Sales Remain Gloomy For Automakers

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler posted major year-over-year sales declines in March, according to figures released by the automakers Wednesday.

GM slid the most with a 45 percent drop in U.S. sales compared to the same month last year. Ford Motor Co. reported a 41 percent drop. Chrysler dropped 39 percent.

By contrast, South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. saw sales rise 5 percent in the first two months of the year while overall U.S. sales fell 39 percent. In January, Hyundai launched a popular program that allows buyers to return cars they financed if they get laid off.

GM's director of market and industry analysis, Mike DiGiovanni, said the numbers actually surpassed internal expectations.

"We might be seeing the bottom of the industry — and seeing the industry get a little bit of traction and a little bit of positive momentum," DiGiovanni said.

U.S. auto sales have been on the decline for months as job worries and concerns about the economy kept more people from dealers' showrooms. Last month, President Obama said that carmakers sell 14 million vehicles in an average year, but that the number has dropped to 9 million.

On Monday, the president set out conditions that must be met before GM and Chrysler would be provided federal bailout funds beyond the next few weeks — and he raised the possibility of a structured bankruptcy for both automakers. Ford has not sought federal bailout funds.

U.S. automakers weren't the only ones feeling the pain of the economic downturn. Sales at Toyota Motor Corp. dropped 39 percent, while Honda Motor Co. reported a 36 percent decline, the companies announced Wednesday.

Detroit-based GM sold a total of 155,334 light vehicles, while Ford sold a total of 131,102. Ford's total came in slightly below that of Toyota, which reported U.S. sales of 132,802 units.

Despite the March declines, GM, Ford and Toyota all posted sales improvements from February, when U.S. sales overall hit their lowest point in more than 27 years.

Obama this week also announced a raft of incentives to help GM and Chrysler sell cars. They include government-backed warranties meant to ease buyers' concerns about buying a car from a company that's on the verge of bankruptcy; tax incentives to car buyers; the release of funds to buy cars for the government's fleet; and a possible "scrappage incentive" trade-in program for less reliable older cars.

In addition, some carmakers have begun incentive programs to ease potential buyers' worries about being responsible for a car payment if they should lose their jobs.

Ford announced Monday that it will pay customers' monthly payments — up to $700 — for a year if they lose their jobs.

GM has a similar incentive program. It would cover nine payments of up to $500 per month if a buyer is laid off.

The companies are also offering interest-free financing.

From NPR staff, member station WDET in Detroit, and wire service reports



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