Big Automakers Post Dismal '09 Numbers

Automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all reported lower sales numbers for 2009. GM said its sales were off 33 percent for 2009, Ford reported a 15 percent decline and Chrysler its worst sales year since 1962. Both GM and Chrysler received federal bailout money last year and are in the midst of restructuring.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We can now sum up one of the worst years ever in auto sales. Numbers are out today for December, and they show sales ended on a generally positive note. At Ford, sales rose more than 30 percent from December. A year ago, sales at Toyota were up almost 23 percent. But General Motors and Chrysler still face big challenges.

Frank Langfitt covers the auto industry for NPR, and he's here with us in the studio. Frank, what do today's numbers tell us about the state of the overall car business?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, Michele, what we're seeing is more stability in the industry. You know, sales are slowly rebounding from these historic lows. Last year were among the worst sales in more than a quarter century. Of course, some companies now are doing better than others. In Detroit, really, Ford has been the stand out. The company didn't take a government bailout, didn't go bankrupt like GM and Chrysler and has been gaining share of the market, kind of on the strength of some quality, you know, products like the sedan - the Fusion is doing pretty well. So, a lot of analysts see Ford kind of turning the chaos of last year into a bit of an opportunity.

NORRIS: Now, you mention GM and Chrysler, two companies that did take the government buyout. How were their sales in December?

LANGFITT: Both were down. GM was down about six percent, Chrysler down four percent. And, you know, for GM it was a really turbulent year. I mean, not only did the company go bankrupt, but took about $50 billion in taxpayer money. Two CEOs were fired in just eight months.

But there are some promising products on the way for the company. Next week, at the auto show in Detroit, where I'm going to be headed, GM is going to push the Chevy Cruze. It's a small car, going to compete with the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla and could get in the neighborhood of about 40 miles to the gallon. GM has to do well with this car. And finally, towards the end of this year, GM is going to roll out its long-awaited electric car, the Volt.

NORRIS: Now, before the recession the auto show was a big, flashy affair, not so flashy this year.

LANGFITT: You're right. Traditionally, this is like the prom in Detroit, huge social event. This year, it's going to be much more sober. I'll be there for the press preview on Monday, but they've cut that back to just a day-and-a-half. The GM exhibit is going to be a lot smaller. You're not going to see Hummers or Saturns, Pontiacs or Saabs and that's because the company's selling or shutting down those divisions.

NORRIS: Frank, I want to ask you about Chrysler. A couple of years ago, the company brought in a herd of steers to promote the new Dodge Ram truck, big doings there. Any steers this year?

LANGFITT: None at all. In fact, they're not going to be doing hardly anything. Chrysler has almost no new product coming out right now. And so, not only are you not going to see any steers, there's not even going to be a press conference. And that's pretty amazing in one of the industry's really key events of the year. Chrysler's now waiting on new small cars, based on technology from Fiat, the Italian carmaker. Chrysler says it's going to start building the Fiat 500, which has been a hit in Europe at the end of this year.

NORRIS: Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Frank Langfitt.

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