Feb. sales could be worst since '81

DETROIT — Major automakers' U.S. sales continued their deep slump in February, putting the industry on track for its worst sales month in more than 27 years as huge rebates and low-interest financing failed to spur fearful consumers to make a major purchase.

Industry analysts say when all the numbers are tallied, February sales could be worse than January's total of 656,976 light vehicles. That was the lowest monthly total since the industry sold 656,310 vehicles in December 1981, according to Autodata Corp. and Ward's AutoInfoBank.

"If it wasn't for the generous level of incentives now, we probably would be seeing even lower sales, if you can believe it," said Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for the auto Web site "It seems it can't get lower, but it could."

The biggest losers

General Motors' sales tumbled 53 percent from a year earlier, while Ford's U.S. sales fell 48 percent and Chrysler's fell 44 percent. Toyota's U.S. sales plunged 40 percent, while Honda's sales dropped 38 percent and Nissan's fell 37 percent.

Sales of the Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the United States, sank by 41 percent. Sales of Honda Accord sedans fell 42 percent.

Best of the worst

Hyundai's creative "Assurance" program helped it buck the trend of double-digit sales declines with a 2 percent drop in U.S. sales last month.

The program allows buyers to return a vehicle within a year if they can't make the payments because of a misfortune such as job loss or disability.

Demand remained strong for Honda's Fit subcompact, whose sales dropped just 2 percent. Subaru of America Inc.'s U.S. sales edged up 1 percent in February as sales of its top-selling Forester model doubled. Motor Trend magazine named the Forester its sport utility vehicle of the year in the fall. Kia sales were about flat from a year earlier.

What's next

Automakers and analysts have been predicting that sales will rebound during the second half of this year, but they are becoming less certain. Staggering layoffs, the stock market decline and sliding home values are prompting people to hold on to their cars longer, while those who are buying are more often opting for a used car or truck.

Emily Kolinski Morris, Ford Motor Co.'s top economist, said retail sales to individuals had been stable for four months but dropped in February, indicating that last month might not be the bottom for auto sales. Edmunds said its data show that 27 percent of people who intended to buy a new car switched to used at the dealership in February.

There is hope for a rebound, however. Rising used car prices are an indication that new car sales could be near the bottom, because more people will choose a new car when they see they won't save as much by buying used.