Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Toledo-made Jeeps post sales declines

Sales of Toledo-made Jeep Libertys and Wranglers fell again last month as all three Detroit automakers posted significant sales declines in the face of weak economic conditions in North America.

Sales of the Wrangler dropped 23 percent in February from the same period last year, from 9,240 units to 7,088. Sales of the Jeep Liberty declined just 3 percent from a year ago, from 7,588 to 7,350.

Chrysler LLC reported an overall sales decline of 14 percent in February from a year earlier. By comparison, sales at Ford Motor Co. fell 10 percent, and at General Motors Corp. dropped 16 percent last month. Other automakers also posted declines.

However, on a conference call with analysts, Chrysler executives found reason to be optimistic about the two Toledo-made Jeeps.

Steven Landry, Chrysler executive vice president for North American sales, argued that Wrangler sales were bound to decline given their astounding performance last year, when Jeep introduced the four-door Wrangler Unlimited.

"We're now into comparing ourselves month-to-month last year, and last year Wrangler hit it out of the park," Mr. Landry said.

Sales of the Toledo-made Dodge Nitro, which shares most major components with the Jeep Liberty and sells at a lower price, fell 29 percent last month from a year ago, from 5,974 units to 4,255. The Nitro has been cited as one of several models that may be eliminated as Chrysler modifies its product lineup under new owner Cerberus Capital Management LP.

Mr. Landry said sales of the Toledo-made Liberty have pleased Chrysler executives. Even though the midsized SUV posted an overall decline, "retail sales of the Liberty were up over 20 percent over last year," he said, explaining that the overall decline was caused by reduced fleet sales.

GM's sales slid on weaker demand for such large trucks as the Chevrolet Silverado pickup and Chevy Tahoe and Saturn Vue sport utility vehicles. It also said it would cut second-quarter production by 5 percent from year-ago levels.

Ford said it will cut second-quarter production by 10 percent because of weaker demand for its F-Series full-size pickups and SUVs like the Explorer and Expedition. The company said it will eliminate shifts at four U.S. plants and lay off 2,500 workers - or almost 5 percent of its remaining work force - as part of an effort to cut costs and return to profitability.

Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. reported February sales declines of 6.6 percent and 3 percent, respectively, and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. did the best among major automakers with an increase of nearly 1 percent.

Analysts expect industrywide 2008 U.S. auto sales to extend a downturn that began to accelerate in the second half of last year, reflecting the slumping housing market, higher gas prices and tighter credit. Some industry observers have even predicted a 15-year low for sales this year.


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