'Marketplace' Report: Car Sales In just-released March car sales figures, Toyota had its best month ever; but the Big Three aren't doing so well.

'Marketplace' Report: Car Sales

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

The month of March was mixed for car sales. The news was great for Toyota. It posted its best U.S. sales figure ever, but not so for the big three American carmakers.

MARKETPLACE's Amy Scott joins us. And Amy, first of all, explain what's behind Toyota's big month there in March.

AMY SCOTT: Well, a big part of it is record hybrid sales. Toyota sold close to 250,000 cars total last month, and about 28,000 of those were hybrids. You know, gas prices have really come up again in the last months, and consumers are more and more interested in fuel economy.

But Toyota has also really established its brand in the U.S. Its cars are known as reliable, affordable, and it's making major inroads in its quest to dominate U.S. auto sales. But, you know, it's not just Toyota that did well. Mazda also had a strong month, so did Nissan and Honda. So the Japanese automakers are really doing pretty well.

ADAMS: And can you explain what went wrong in Detroit with the Americans?

SCOTT: Well, each of the big three did see sales decline last month. But the numbers may not be as bad as they look. Jim Hall is an auto analyst with Auto Pacific. And he says all three of these companies are cutting way back on their sales to rental car companies. They've been caught in this sort of vicious cycle of selling cars to their Hertz's and Budgets of the world at a huge discount, and then having to buy them back a few years later and sell them again. So Hall says they basically took a loss twice.

Mr. JIM HALL (Auto Analyst, Auto Pacific): These things became very addictive for the rental companies. And more importantly, they became addictive for the manufacturers because it kept plants working. And finally, they looked at the effect on the bottom line and said enough of this. We're not going doing it anymore. And their sales are down, but you're going to find by doing this, your profits go up in the long term.

SCOTT: Now, of course, the downside for consumers is that if the rental companies aren't getting all those cheap cars, they're likely to charge us more.

ADAMS: You bet. Now, DaimlerChrysler had a big shareholder meeting in Germany today. Anything come out about about what's going on with Chrysler?

SCOTT: Basically, we learned that the rumors are true. Chrysler may be for sale. But officials were very tight-lipped about any further detail. Apparently, 9,000 shareholders showed up at the meeting in Berlin wanting more information about the future of Chrysler, and were basically disappointed.

ADAMS: Amy, the - we noticed the CEO of Ford is talking about real estate. He said the subprime-lending crisis is a concern to the company, to Ford. What's he worried about?

SCOTT: I think he's worried about his customers. Ford's CEO Allan Mulally was speaking at the auto show that just got underway here in New York, and he told reporters that the biggest thing his company is watching right now is the economy.

All those people affected by the housing market are potential Ford customers. And, you know, when times are tough, people are defaulting on their loans. People are obviously less likely to buy big ticket items like cars and trucks.

ADAMS: Thank you, Amy. Amy Scott of Public Radio's daily business show MARKETPLACE. It is produced by American Public Media.

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ADAMS: Next time on MARKETPLACE, tax day is approaching. Just a couple of more weeks to find those receipts and W-2s. But not everybody will be filing as they ought to. Life outside the tax code and the numbers from Wall Street, too. It's from American Public Media.

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