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Auto Sales Slide 10 Percent in February
By Jim Suhr   Associated Press
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DETROIT — Major U.S. automakers continued to report slumping domestic sales as the nation's economic wobbliness contributing to their 10 percent slide in February. But analysts cautioned against unfair comparisons to February 2000 — one of the U.S. auto market's strongest months ever.

General Motors Corp. reported on Thursday a 9.5 percent dip in its sales for last month, Ford Motor Co. said its sales tumbled 11 percent, and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler arm weighed in with a 10.5 percent drop.

Foreign automakers fared better, with Asian players posting a 5 percent gain in U.S. sales in February, led by Mazda's 24 percent increase and Honda's 9 percent jump. European automakers slipped just 2 percent in U.S. sales last month, with BMW posting a 19 percent gain and Volkswagen a 7 percent drop.

Among the 23 automakers who reported their latest U.S. sales figures Thursday, overall February demand for cars fell off 5 percent, while truck sales dropped 7 percent.

"I think they're good numbers," Prudential Securities analyst Michael Bruynesteyn said of last months sales. "They're a little better than expected in light of the fact February of last year went so incredibly well."

Overall, the U.S. auto companies posted a 9 percent drop in cars and an 11 percent decline in trucks.

U.S. automakers still expect domestic sales this year to come in between 16 million and 16.5 million units, well off last year's record 17.4 million, but still considered acceptable given the softening market.

February's sales comparisons were adjusted to reflect 24 selling days in February compared with 25 in the same month last year. Sales at GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler do not include their foreign brands.

GM's latest results include a 9 percent slump in car sales, a 10 percent drop in demand for light trucks.

Given "clearly a degree of fragility in the mindset of consumers," "we're pretty pleased with our sales results here," said Paul Ballew, GM's director of market analysis.

"We believe the industry is on a path to achieve a soft landing consistent with the direction of the overall economy," he said, anticipating the approaching, telltale spring selling season for "a clearer picture" of the market's shape.

"All of us in the industry are looking to that," he said.

The 11 percent slide in sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles included an 8.5 percent drop in cars, a 12 percent dip in trucks.

Squeezing Ford's performance last month was a 29 percent skid in sales of its Explorer sport utility vehicle and a 33 percent slump in demand for Ranger pickup trucks. Ford has high hopes for its revamped 2002 Explorer, now headed to U.S. showrooms.

Ford's February slide was mitigated by 13.9 percent jump in demand for Taurus, a 30.5 percent rise in sales of Mercury Sables. Ford sales analyst George Pipas attributed those performances to increased fleet sales.

Chrysler's roughly 11 percent dive for February included a 13 percent downturn in its car sales and a 10 percent fall in truck demand as the company embarks on a three-year, $3.9 billion turnaround plan to stanch losses.

Jamie Jameson, Chrysler's vice president for sales and marketing operations, said last month's sales left Chrysler "encouraged" and perhaps showed the company was regaining momentum, improving from its 16 percent sales dive in January.

"There are a number of milestones in this restructuring, and we're gonna tick them off as we go," he said. "Right now, we're on track."

On Monday, Chrysler said it lost $1.3 billion in the fourth quarter, more than double that of the $512 million it lost in the three months before. Chrysler this year expects to post an operating loss between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.

The company hopes to be back in the black next year. As part of its return to profitability Chrysler is looking to cut 26,000 jobs — one-fifth of its work force — over the next three years, close six plants and see suppliers cut prices by 15 percent. The company also has moved to slash potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to dealers.

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