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Automakers Post Hefty Auto Sales in August

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DETROIT (AP) _ General Motors Corp. and several Asian rivals posted hefty sales in August, the strongest month so far this year and one in which foreign automakers continued to make gains on Detroit's Big Three.

August's seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 19 million vehicles was the highest since October 2001. Despite blistering sales rates in July and August, GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group have seen their total sales fall 5 percent so far this year, according to sales results released Wednesday.

Conversely, their Asian competitors are up 3 percent through August, and European brands are up 1 percent.

``The rebounding economy was evident in the overall strength of the auto market in August,'' said Jim Press, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

GM, the world's largest automaker, set an industry record in August for monthly truck sales, which rose 5 percent. On the car side, excluding the Saab nameplate, business was off 8.3 percent.

Overall, GM's August volume was down less than 1 percent, topping most Wall Street forecasts.

``August largely reinforces our belief that the economy is on the road to recovery,'' said Paul Ballew, GM's executive director for market and industry analysis.

Several analysts expected August to be the best sales month of the year so far because of Labor Day weekend business, generous incentives on model-year closeouts and the introduction of 2004 models.

That was the case and more for Toyota, American Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America, all of which established monthly sales records in the United States.

Toyota, in fact, sold some 10,000 more vehicles than the Chrysler Group. Toyota's sales were up 11.4 percent. So far this year, its U.S. market share is 11.2 percent, up from 10.5 percent a year ago. In contrast, Chrysler's share is 13 percent, down from 13.4 percent last year.

Shoppers also appear to be recognizing the industry's lucrative deals.

Jim Sourges, vice president of the global automotive practice at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, said virtually all automakers continue to offer some sort of consumer incentive, which began en masse nearly two years ago after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

``The challenge now is trying to figure out how to maintain your brand image as well as your profit margin,'' Sourges said.

Ballew said an emerging positive trend is a richer mix of vehicle sales, which is helping to boost the average transaction price and shore up the bottom line.

For example, Cadillac, GM's revamped luxury brand, had its best sales month since October 1990.

Honda sold 147,253 cars and light trucks last month, 10,000 more than last August, its previous best month. Hyundai's record-setting month came on strong sales of the Elantra compact, Santa Fe sport utility vehicle and midsize Sonata sedan.

Another Korean-based company, Kia, also set a sales record.

Nissan's total sales, which include its Infiniti division, rose 14 percent last month. Infiniti sales were up nearly 60 percent in August and are up 40 percent year-to-date.

Ford recorded its second-best sales month of the year but overall volume was down 13 percent from the year-ago period.

Sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brand cars were off 27.8 percent last month, while light truck sales _ which include pickups, vans and sport utility vehicles _ declined 4.8 percent.

Still, executives at the world's second-largest automaker said they were optimistic about prospects for the rest of the year as the economy improves and the all-new F-150 pickup, Ford's top-selling vehicle, reaches showrooms nationwide.

``There's no question that consumer demand for autos ... is increasing as we progress through the year,'' said Ford sales analyst George Pipas. ``We've been optimistic, although now it may even be that our optimism was muted.''

Ford's results were lower than several Wall Street forecasts.

At Chrysler, which includes the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands, car sales were off 28.7 percent, while truck sales were flat. The result was an overall sales decline of 6.3 percent _ in line with or slightly better than industry forecasts.

Dodge's Ram pickup was the volume leader for the automaker with 43,824 sales _ up 12 percent from last August. The company also sold 7,436 of its Chrysler Pacifica crossover vehicles, the best month since their introduction earlier this year.
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