Big Three carmakers' sales dive

DETROIT — Chrysler's U.S. vehicle sales plunged 55 percent in January, while General Motors' tumbled 49 percent and Ford's dropped 40 percent, starting 2009 at an abysmal pace for the whole auto industry as lower sales to fleet buyers such as rental car companies weighed down the results.

Toyota's sales dipped 32 percent for the month, Nissan's 30 percent and Honda's 28 percent, putting the overall industry on track for its fourth straight month in which U.S. sales plunged 30 percent or more.

But Subaru bucked the trend of declines for a second month in a row, posting an 8 percent sales increase, and Hyundai said its sales jumped 14 percent.

Hyundai credited its increase to its offer to cover a new vehicle's depreciation if customers return a car within 12 months because they are unable to make the payments.

"This program gets to the root cause of today's economic concerns — fear of job loss," Hyundai Regional General Manager Peter DiPersia said in a statement.

Analysts had expected high-volume fleet sales to be down sharply in January, as consumers and businesses cut back on travel in the economic downturn and rental car companies held on to their cars longer.

Chrysler said its January fleet sales dropped 81 percent from one year ago. GM said its fleet sales fell 80 percent.

Ford said January's drop in sales of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles included a 65 percent decline in fleet sales.

Not all of the major automakers posted big drops in fleet sales.

Bob Carter, Toyota division general manager, said his company's fleet sales fell roughly in line with its retail sales drop. Carter said Toyota aims to keep fleet sales at about 10 percent of total sales and said they came in at about 9 percent in January.

Toyota's sales of light trucks fell 35 percent on about equal declines in SUV and pickup demand, while its car sales dropped 29 percent. Sales of its Prius hybrid slid 29 percent.

Carter said he's optimistic that consumer confidence is beginning to turn and that the credit markets are loosening. But he cautioned that the first half of 2009 will continue to be difficult, predicting that sales will not rebound until the second half of the year.