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US car sales plunge in March

But automakers are encouraged by a recent increase in showroom traffic.

By Staff writer / April 1, 2009

Mike Sieber looks at new cars at Pride Hyundai in Lynn, Mass. Hyundai, as well as GM and Ford, have launched incentive programs that help buyers with car payments if they lose their jobs.

Lisa Poole/AP

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Washington

Automakers insist they see signs of life in the marketplace. But March was another dismal month for US car sales, as consumers clung to their old vehicles in the face of America’s economic woes.

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General Motors sales were down 45 percent, compared with the same month a year ago. Ford slid 41 percent, while Chrysler was down 38 percent.

These results weren’t exactly a surprise, considering that the Big Three are mired in a historic slump. But still, the poor showing might:

• Increase pressure on GM bondholders, as well as the United Auto Workers, to make concessions to keep GM out of bankruptcy.

• Give Chrysler a further shove toward an alliance with Fiat.

• Get Congress to seriously consider a government-sponsored “cash for clunkers” incentive program meant to break the industry’s downward spiral.

“It seems like the conditions that have pulled down auto sales in the US are still with us in full force,” says Jesse Toprak, a senior auto analyst at Edmunds.com.

Detroit is not alone in its dark tunnel. March sales at Toyota fell 39 percent, while Honda saw a 36 percent decline.

Whatever mistakes the traditional US auto industry has made in the past, it is the terrible economy that has made its current crisis so acute.

In a presentation Wednesday of monthly sales figures, US auto executives said they had some hope that the industry had finally hit bottom and that an uptick in business may be in sight.

Showroom traffic picked up last weekend, they said. GM and Chrysler officials were particularly relieved about President Obama’s declaration that the US will back warranties for their firms.

“We had a strong close at the end of the month as customers responded to strong incentives,” said Mark LaNeve, GM vice president of North America vehicle sales, service, and marketing.